The only consistent thing we seem to be able to count on is change – in our personal lives and at work, and especially with the technologies that not only inform but direct both those realms. Disruptive technology – a term coined by Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen – refers to any technology that changes or disrupts an existing technology or creates a whole new industry. We can’t pick up a newspaper, magazine or journal in any format without reading about the newest best thing in technology. We’ve come a long way since sliced bread.


Disruptive technologies have existed since there have been inventions. It’s the nature of the beast. I believe primitive humans had their minds blown by humankind’s earliest technologies - flint, fire and a finger dipped in ash to create drawings. Some more current examples of disruptive technologies we may be familiar with include the telephone (the dial version), light bulb, typewriter, personal computer, email, cell phones, laptop computers and PDAs, and the phenomenon known as social media. Never mind generations to come, many young people today don’t know how to speak to one another in full, descriptive sentences, or write and mail a letter, because they no longer have to. They have new, newer, newest technologies to do it all for them. That’s a prime example of a disruptive technology creating a paradigm shift that pushes the most resistant of us forward into a new world. But don’t get too comfortable – there’s a newer world coming soon to a computer lab near you.

Each of these innovations turned our workplaces on their collective ear. The challenge for organizations is to know which technologies will become disruptive to the status quo, often even before they’ve been identified and tested. In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Professor Christensen explains how short-sighted companies are left choking on the dust of their competitors when they don’t properly monitor, assess, value, or act on a new, potentially disruptive technology. It might be prudent for such organizations to hire the services of an MBA-toting fortune teller if such a thing exists.

There are few HR departments that don’t depend on technology to identify, source, locate, reach or communicate with potential candidates at some or all points through the hiring cycle. It’s also used to perform, quantify and track performance metrics, goal setting, gather feedback, and engagement surveys.  That dependence makes them prime for disruption when new technologies emerge to replace their current ones.

That disruptive impact on HR is significant. One of the more recent HR technology trends – disruptive technology at work - is predictive analytics tools. As identified in a report by Josh Bersin for Bersin by Deloitte, these tools provide HR departments with almost real-time analytics and knowledge transfer, improve speed and fulfillment accuracy, and increasingly important, position them to function strategically in their current hiring initiatives and in boardrooms where strategies and long-term company goals and objectives are determined. Gone are the days when HR specialists posted newspaper ads, vetted hundreds of paper resumes, phoned potential candidates for interviews…. You get the picture. Recruitment speed and efficiency translate almost directly into profitability.

The need for effective and timely analytics has increased as organizations have been inundated with big data. Now, among other things, HR teams use analytics to scour online information and social media to identify potential candidates, both passive and actively looking for work,
predict their future hiring needs so their organizations can be more proactive, and be better able to hire, engage and retain employees for long-term employment.
While it’s safe to say that for HR departments, disruptive technologies have been an asset to how they operate effectively, it’s naïve to think they don’t come with their own challenges. Employees have 24/7 instant access to social media and email, which may prove distracting in the workplace and affect productivity. How do you capture the attention of and engage a workforce that is otherwise, and by other means, engaged?

Mobile technology means that work – and talent management – can be done from anywhere. That’s generally a good thing, especially for working families, except that it means that off-site employees require a different management style and means of qualifying, quantifying and evaluating production. Along with technology, it takes effort to keep a disparate workforce connected and focused on a common goal.

Everyone, including the competition, has access to the same big data so it’s critical not to be left behind. Forward-thinking HR departments perform a balancing act between wanting to stay ahead of the pack and valuing the existing processes and technologies that have worked for them. At stake is success itself through access to and management of top talent and the opportunity to fully and profitably engage them. Is it possible to embrace change with one arm while holding fast to what’s tried and true with the other? It’s a real challenge for those HR professionals whose job it is to keep the home fires burning.

Perhaps the problem my fellow dinosaurs and I are having with the concept of disruptive terminology is semantics. After all, we use and (secretly) enjoy technologies that enhance and improve our lives, once we get over their rude arrival. Maybe we need to re-examine how we talk about them. Every definition of the word ‘disruptive’ has a negative connotation to it. Words like confusion, disorder, break apart, upset – none of these make me want to throw my arms wide open and welcome the new with eager anticipation. Instead, I feel a sense of dread and foreboding.

Maybe that’s a little overly dramatic but it does bear some consideration. Professor Christensen’s use of the term is right on the money but it falls a little short by not addressing all the issues that come with advancing technology. I’m referring to those messy, emotional, logic-resistant elements we call human, at home and in the workplace. Whatever we call it, it’s change.

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