A worker collaborates with a Locus Robotics co-bot to pick inventory in a warehouse
By James Poulton | August 05, 2019

Let’s Dispel the Myth That “Disruptive Technologies” Will Actually Be Disruptive to Supply Chain Organizations

It’s Going to Be Hard to Define, Much Less Execute, a Sustainable Technology Strategy Without AI, IoT, Blockchain and More…

When the term “disruptive technology” was first coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen over 20 years ago, it was used to refer to “any enhanced or completely new technology that replaces and disrupts an existing technology, rendering it obsolete.” In an industry enamored with buzzwords, “disruptive technology” quickly became the term used to describe any breakthrough technology in the early 2000’s. It would also be used to illuminate the significant advancement of digital, mobile or computing architectures and networks. Despite the typically negative undertone of the word “disruptive”, this particular term was generally meant to elicit hope and excitement. Disruptive technologies were destined to solve a growing list of enterprise business challenges in the digital era, visionaries promised.

The unpredictable eruption of e-commerce was already compelling greater levels of investment in labor, inventory and infrastructure than had likely been allocated for the decade. Resources were already strained. The last thing that supply chain organizations needed was to risk disrupting the legacy systems that were still working (at least in the interim) by embracing technologies that quite frankly were still somewhat conceptual.

Perhaps that’s why Christensen later abandoned the term “disruptive technology” in favor of “disruptive innovation.”

Flipping the Script (and Strategy): Aim for Technology That is Game-Changing, Yet Sustainable

Growing by 18% in 2018, the global e-commerce market topped $2.8 trillion and is expected to nearly double and reach an estimated $4.9 trillion by 2021. At this point, the increasing number of customer orders being processed each day, and the growing number of facilities being built to produce and process those orders, has become a predictable byproduct. However, this consistent uptick in business does not make it any easier to forecast demand. There is still a great deal of fluidity in e-commerce and brick-and-mortar business models in both the consumer and commercial sectors.

This inability to know for sure “what’s next” has led many supply chain organizations to launch widespread change campaigns to increase agility, most of which center on business process re-engineering and increased utilization of mobile, barcoding, RFID and “disruptive” technologies. But does anyone truly want to be disrupted or be the source of disruption?

(It makes you wonder: why did we ever think “disruptive” is the right word to describe technology?)

As technology leaders and industry influencers, I propose we change the way we talk about “disruptive technology” moving forward. Is there a better term we can use?

As Gartner experts James Lisica and Amber Salley noted during their keynote address* at the 2019 Gartner Supply Chain Summit in May:

“What was once considered disruption is now considered strategy.”

I would even take that a step further to say that what was once considered disruptive is now considered enabling.

We are at an industry turning point. Supply chain modernization is now mandatory and technology utilization now needs to enhance the use of handheld mobile computers, rugged tablets, barcode scanners and printers with automation. Workforce mobilization and business process digitalization was just the first step to creating a more efficient workflow and sustainable business model – with the migration from legacy platforms, such as Microsoft Windows Embedded devices, to Android devices a necessary next step.

Now, supply chain organizations must consider ways in which they can empower humans and technology-powered systems to interact in more connected and intelligent ways. They must also embrace technologies such as connected sensors, 5G, blockchain and digital twins at the edge of the enterprise. Workers need to be able to collect and visualize the right data from endpoints in real time to make the right decisions and take swift action. Those who don’t move fast enough toward this type of technology will be forced out of the market. On the other hand, enterprises committed to embracing IoT will be the first movers in becoming fast growing, intelligent businesses.

Those are just two of the many reasons why supply chain organizations need game-changing technologies – and a sustainable technology strategy that enables them to reap those game-changing benefits. (My colleagues will talk about the other reasons in the coming weeks here on Your Edge.)

Now, I realize that change doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re going to have to work hard to convince our customers, bosses and others that AR, AI, IoT and other buzz-worthy technologies are worth serious investment consideration right now. Together, we need to find ways to:

1.       Demonstrate that “disruptive technology” can be game-changing without actually being disruptive.

2.       Eliminate any perceived risk that embracing “disruptive technology” will slow modernization efforts or create new operational deficiencies.

3.       Show how supply chain organizations can integrate these types of technologies without having to change too much for their workers at once.

We can start by embracing a more collaborative approach to innovation and just having more honest conversations about what has worked, what hasn’t and why from the factory to the fulfillment center and beyond. Let’s offer each other solid proof that so-called “disruptive” technologies, if strategically integrated, can facilitate significant and sustainable business improvements without being disruptive whatsoever.

Feel free to share your thoughts below in our Comment section. I’m curious to hear if you agree or not with the recommendation to let the word “disruptive” go the way of legacy technologies.


Editor’s Note: Playing Our Part

Zebra is constantly working with customers and partners to share success stories – and lessons learned – to help mitigate the risks of advanced technology adoption. We also collaborate with other technology innovators, governments, academia and thought leaders in nearly every industry around the world to explore ways in which technology can be integrated holistically to improve outcomes and maximize the return on each of our customer’s investments.

At the same time, we’re making our own strategic investments to stay one step ahead of the remarkable technology acceleration that is occurring so that we can continuously deliver solutions that empower our partners and customers to capture their performance edge. Just as important, we utilize an R&D model that relies on end-user input and testing to prove that the technologies we are advocating can actually produce the results you need in complex, real-world applications.

Learn more about how Zebra can help your supply chain organization develop and execute a sustainable technology strategy that will empower you to capture your edge. Visit www.zebra.com. 


*Gartner Event Presentation, Supply Chain Keynote: A New Era: Converging Physical and Digital Supply Chains, James Lisica and Amber Salley, Gartner Supply Chain Summit, 13 May 2019, Phoenix, Arizona

Innovative Ideas, Manufacturing, Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Public Sector,
James Poulton
James Poulton

James Poulton leads the Intelligent Edge Solutions (IES) division at Zebra Technologies, which is responsible for identifying and developing industry-leading Internet of Things (IoT) solutions used for mission-critical, multi-market environments and use cases. 

With more than 20 years of product management and marketing experience, Mr. Poulton brings the dynamic leadership and innovative product design experience needed to drive the Zebra Enterprise Asset Intelligence (EAI) strategy forward.

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