Disruptive digital technology has fundamentally
changed the way millions of people travel in cities, where they stay on holiday
and how they shop. While household names like Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Spotify and
Netflix have barely been around for a decade, their impact on consumers, and
established industries, has been felt across the globe.
“The pace and effects of disruption have been
tremendous, and it is happening faster than ever before,” CEO of Academic
Partnerships, Carl Sparks, told a recent GIBS forum gathering.
While disruptive technologies aren’t new, their scope,
breadth and potential application for transforming new areas of our lives is
Sparks, who was previously President
and CEO of Travelocity and Chief Marketing Officer of Expedia, which brought
the travel industry into the online era, explained that disruption
itself has fundamentally changed.
Lower capital investment requirements and improved
software development mean disruptive technologies can be created for less. Dramatically
lower prices have allowed for an acceleration of technology startups with
greater distribution and the opening up new markets.
“All of these factors expand access and give choice
and control to consumers.”
Sparks said he was optimistic the technology gap in
developing countries could be bridged as lower cost and increased access are
intrinsically linked to disruption: “The four mega trends of disruption -
price, distribution, ideas and globalisation can be forces for good,” he said.
Expanded applications of disruptive technology
Sparks said he was particularly excited about the
potential application of disruptive principles to a traditional industry such
as higher education, where price and access remain prohibitive.
Academic Partnerships’ model is to partner with public
universities and help them make the transition into the digital world, Sparks
While the application of disruptive technologies to
higher education is still in its early phases, there is a clear need for a solution
to rising debt and cost levels of education; as well as a need for improved
distribution as the number of university applicants outstrips the number of
available seats. In South Africa, there are three times the number of
applicants to available seats at tertiary institutions.
As the market for education expands and life long
learning becomes the norm, many working people are looking to advance their
careers and increase their earning potential through advanced qualifications.
“Higher education institutions have to transition to meet this need,” Sparks
said. He cited the example of MOOCs, or massive online open courses, offered by
reputable higher learning intuitions, as having dramatically opened up new
markets, with 75% of students coming from outside the United States.
The labour displacement threat of technology and
automation meant “people must focus on constantly refreshing their technical
skills,” Sparks said.
“There is an explosive growth of suppliers in the
education space, as higher education becomes unbundled,” Sparks said, with
content, assessments and credentials provided by different suppliers. This
unbundling, combined by digitization would lead to a proliferation of education
Sparks said he envisaged further opportunities for
disruption in fintech, specifically mortgage origination, and in marketing
applications for big data:
“Machine learning and algorithmic processes allow for
more sophisticated application of data, which at present is still very much
isolated in silos. Companies are creating disruptive technologies to create
intuitive user interfaces that allow for audience management and the ability to
seamlessly link channels.”
Organisational response to disruption
models of coping, which allowed organisations time to adapt to challenges are
now obsolete, Sparks said. “Traditional management doesn’t see disruption
coming. The denial is deep and very real,” he said.
Sparks’ advice for organisations that want to defend
themselves from disruption is to consider all potential forces of internal and
external disruption. He suggested going so far as to appoint people to the
organisation whose sole task it is to think of ways to disrupt or kill
“When done right, the internal change should be
tremendous,” he added.
Leadership should make the effort to keep
organisations flat and informal so that merit trumps seniority: “There is a
real relinquishing of power when leadership is not all-knowing and all-controlling,”
Sparks explained that talent is the most important element in the new way of
operating, as ideas and their rapid execution are now an organisation’s main
competitive advantage. “Give people autonomy, growth and purpose,” he
Top five points
Lower capital investment requirements and
improved software development mean disruptive technologies can be created
for less. “The pace and effects of disruption have been tremendous, and it
is happening faster than ever before,” CEO of Academic Partnerships, Carl
The opportunity for disruptive technologies to be
applied to higher education, where price and access remain prohibitive,
are particularly relevant.
There is a clear need for a solution to
rising debt and cost levels of education; as well as a need for improved
distribution as the number of university applicants outstrips the number
of available seats.
The labour displacement threat of technology and
automation meant “people must focus on constantly refreshing their
Sparks’ advice for organisations that want to
respond appropriately to disruptive threats is to consider all potential
forces of internal and external disruption.