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Robert Burgelman conference at Vlerick: cross-boundary disrupters

Robert Burgelman was at Vlerick Management School on February 5th for a conference on cross boundary disrupters, ie existing firms entering industry by disrupting its prevailing rules. He started by summarizing his work on intrapreneurship and more generally his methodology. Initially, his PhD was about communication between the R&D and marketing departments. He realized, however, that there were research projects that did not fit the company’s strategy. Put otherwise, whereas Chandler was predicting that structure would follow strategy, here was a case where structure preceded strategy. When the project was eventually approved by top management, strategy was modified as a result, which meant that strategy had followed structure.

Hence Burgelman’s model of intrapreneurship identified two types of projects: those resulting from the official strategy, and those resulting from the autonomous action of middle management sometimes in opposition to the official strategy. The model was further developed when combined with the work of Hannan and Freeman on the ecology of organizations in the 1970-1980s. According to this view, industries evolve through a mechanism of variation (creation of diversity), selection, and retention (reduction of diversity through mortality). Applying this model from the industry to the inside of an organization, Burgelman showed how a firm could manage this ecology of projects, the basis for maintaining an innovation edge. Thanks to this, the firm is not dependent on the official strategy and preserve the ability to create real options on different strategies.

Then Burgelman moved on to the main topic of the conference. Often, disruptions in an industry are described as being originated by entrepreneurial firms. However, cases show that startups are not often successful in their efforts and are successfully fended off by incumbents. However, their efforts do not go unnoticed and open the way for existing firm in other, adjacent industries, which “recognize” the opportunity and attempt a disruption, but from a much stronger base. The typical case in point is Apple with the iPod. Apple’s growth was constrained in the PC segment, but the firm could leverage its expertise in software and design to succeed where Napster had failed after the music industry’s lawsuits. Burgelman tried to formalize the conditions under which a cross-boundary disruption can be successful: an initial attack by a relatively weak startup fails, but still manages to undermine the incumbents; a stagnant existing industry stuck in business models undermined by a disruptive technology; and a potential new entrant limited in its growth but having relevant assets that can be exploited to cross the boundary.

Still in the case of Apple,the theory does not apply so well to the iPhone: it cannot be said that mobile telephony was stagnant with irrelevant business models and slow moving industry participants. Indeed, if the iPhone has been very successful, it can hardly be said that Apple changed the rules as it did in the music indusry where it essentially set the price for digitized music. Proof that this is an area where predictions are difficult, Burgelman, in his Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal article on the topic was skeptical about the chances of success for Apple, observing that Microsoft was better positioned and, with 10% of the smartphone market, already ahead. Since then, Apple has been able to gain a significant market share and Microsoft presence in mobile phones has all but evaporated even though a come back is in preparation at the time of writing. Another example of potential disruption in a completely different industry was given by Burgelman with Wal-Mart possibly moving in the low-end health-care provision. This is a question that Christensen has explored in the innovator’s prescription, his latest book on disruptions in the US healthcare system.

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