The Innovator’s Dilemma & Sakai

As I’ve started talking to people in the Sakai community (only a couple of dozen so far, but picking up speed) I’ve been interested to hear how often the Sakai CLE is being used, sometime exclusively, for purposes other than teaching and learning. Several schools are primarily making use of the collaboration features for research and other work groups and others are mainly interested, for now, in the portfolio features. (Yes, I know, that portfolios have a lot to do with teaching and learning….perhaps I should have said “purposes other than support of formal class activities” or something…but I hope you take my point.)

This won’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed Sakai closely since, from the beginning, it was called a Collaboration and Learning Environment. But it did make me think about a business book I read some years back that I thought was actually pretty good: The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (ugh…can’t say I like his website though). I normally dislike business books because they are full of reasonable sounding observations culled from a few hand-picked anecdotes. This book, though, is very empirical and touches on multiple industries.

The basic idea is that companies can go out of business by listening too well to their best customers. These organizations end up incrementally improving their product along the dimension their best customers care about most. Christensen’s main example is the disk drive industry and the dimension is capacity. So, if I’m the industry leader selling 5.25 inch disk drives to desktop computer manufacturers, then I’m not interested in the more rugged but lower capacity 3.5 inch drives that some small upstarts are producing. My big customers don’t want them (not enough capacity and too expensive) and the nascent laptop market isn’t attractive (too small relative to my overall sales to justify the risk). I make a prototype, show it to my biggest customers who shrug their collective shoulders, and we all move on.

Before I know it, though, the market for laptops has exploded and the 3.5 inch technology now has sufficient capacity for desktop computers. So my biggest customers start buying everything from the upstart and I’m in big trouble. And there wasn’t any big technological breakthrough that allowed this to happen–I could have done it myself.

This phenomenon happened repeatedly between 1976 and 1994 which is why storage firms are the fruit flies of the technology industry (rapid life cycle makes them a good object of study). Quoting Christensen, “Of the seventeen firms populating the industry in 1976–all of which were relatively large, diversified corporations such as Diablo, Ampex, Memorex, EMM, and Control Data–all except IBM’s disk drive operation had failed or had been acquired by 1995. During this period an additional 129 firms entered the industry, and 109 of those also failed. Aside from IBM, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and NEC, all of the producers remaining by 1996 had entered the industry as start-ups after 1976.”

I don’t want to draw too many analogies to the current course management world–it was simply the fact that Sakai is running in parallel alongside commercial systems at several institutions that made me think of this. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is an opportunity or cautionary tale for Sakai (my take: both). I also wonder how open source communities, with motivations and incentives that are often very different from for-profit companies, might react more flexibly to these kinds of potentially disruptive innovations.

And I haven’t read the follow-on book, “The Innovator’s Solution.” I’d be interested in comments from anyone who has.


5 Responses

  1. Sometimes when I am analyzing what a LMS or a CLE is, then my result is, that is perfect for organisation the workflow of a campus. You can easily send messages, emails, news etc. You can control the content, look for copyright, DRM and this only possible of controlling the accounts. Authorisation and authentification is the main arguments for a modern LMS. (This e.g. is one of the biggest lacks of Moodle.)

    If you want to discuss what environment is the best for learning, then my answer will be a virtual desktop. There is what I everytime need, RSS feeds, bookmarks, social web, my files, awareness etc.

    So Sakai has to think about, what are the demands of a modern LMS. Is the focus only on learning? Sakai has this nearly perfect SOA, so you can easily connect to the interfaces you want, e.g. PeopleSoft or in Germany HIS (


  2. I think the mistake here is to assume that the early commercial companies have defined the product space correctly. Sakai _is_ different and it was our perception that the ‘standard product’ would not meet our needs, that led us to look at open/community source in the first place. From the Cambridge perspective, we are not trying to create a ‘cheap’ or ‘free’ Blackboard, but a tool that does what we need, while sharing the cost and risk with others.

    We cannot be specific about the need because (in common with other emerging products) the users ‘ideal’ specification changes as (s)he becomes familiar with the current offering and other related offerings (e.g. Google Docs).

    If our goal were merely to follow Bb, we would have bought Bb (the software, not the company :-)).

  3. Yes, that’s pretty much the point of the book. The commercial leaders defined the space one way (I’m going to avoid “correct” or “incorrect”) and the upstarts defined is slightly differently. As it turned out, the upstart products ended up, after a generation or two, being good on both dimensions hence completely supplanting the leaders.

    Again, I’m not intending an analogy to our “space.” For one thing, Sakai doesn’t have the same kinds of market share goals as a commercial enterprise.

  4. There’s an important additional piece of Christensen’s thesis. In all cases, the challenger came in with a product that was underpowered to meet the needs of the mature market space but could flourish in a smaller niche until it could mature, e.g., small hard drive technologies work in notebooks until they grow high enough capacity to move into the desktop (and, eventually, server) space.

    What’s the niche for Sakai? At first glance, it doesn’t fit the pattern. I’ve heard Robbie Robertson make the convincing case that *Moodle* is a good fit because it *is* meeting needs in a lot of (often third-world) small institutions where the big commercials don’t have financial incentive to localize. His argument is that, true to Christensen’s pattern, Moodle will mature in this niche and achieve the kind of characteristics it needs to compete in the mainstream niche (e.g., scalability). And this is, in fact, what we’re beginning to see.

    That’s not to say anything about Sakai’s prospects for success; it’s only to say that the fit with the particular disruption/success pattern that Christensen identified is less obvious. Ian Dolphin has suggested that there may be a fertile field for Sakai in the VRE niche and I strongly suspect that he’s right.

  5. I think the question is more of who will drive adoption of LMS’s. In the large US institutions, I don’t think it’s clear that Faculty preferences will really win out over central IT decisions. In smaller institutions I think that will typically be the case.

    So I guess the question is — is it 2 separate market spaces with different audiences, or is it a continuum of different sized institutions?

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