ManagementSpeak: That only happens once in a blue moon.
Translation: We’ll worry about it when one of our big name accounts brings it up.
– IS Survivalist Thomas Campbell put this unit of time into perspective

Isaac Asimov once told the tale of the world’s greatest surfer, a legend in his own mind, if nowhere else. Tired of hearing him brag, his audience challenged him to demonstrate his skills. So, taking surfboard in hand, he ran to the water’s edge where he stood still, gazing over the waves.

“Why don’t you go in?” taunted the crowd.

His response: “We also surf who only stand and wait.”

Identifying the next big wave is a big challenge in our own industry, too, as is knowing when to start swimming. I alluded to this problem in my Jan. 12 column, talking about the need for CIOs to identify new and promising technologies and to actively search for their potential business impact. (See “If you wait for business needs to drive technology buys, you will fall behind.”) This, I think, is at least as important as responding to requests from business leaders.

This is an important idea. It isn’t, however, as original as I’d thought. I found this out by reading Clayton Christensen’s new book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, which told it first and better.

I find books like this annoying. Christensen came up with my idea years before I did, and had the nerve to research it extensively and develop it into a well-thought-out program for developing and implementing corporate strategy.

How’s a poor columnist supposed to maintain his reputation for original thinking, anyway?

Christensen divides innovation into two categories, sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining innovation improves service delivery to existing markets. Disruptive innovation, in contrast, is initially irrelevant to existing markets but improves faster than market requirements until it can invade a market from below. For example:

Mainframe computers experienced sustaining innovation for years, steadily improving their price-performance characteristics. Minicomputers, less capable, were a disruptive innovation. Completely incapable of handling mainframe chores at first they found entirely new markets — in scientific computing, shop floor automation, and departmental applications. Companies like Digital and Data General got their start not by competing with IBM (IBM asked, and its customers had no interest in minicomputers at the time) but by finding new markets for their products too small for IBM to care about.

Minicomputers never did overtake mainframes in capacity. They did, however, overtake the requirements of much of the mainframe marketplace, invading from below and draining away a significant share of the market.

Companies miss the opportunities presented by disruptive technologies because they listen to their customers and deliver what those customers want. Disruptive technologies appeal to entirely different (and much smaller) marketplaces at first, so listening to customers is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Now think about how IS organizations deal with disruptive technologies. That’s right, this isn’t just an academic question. This is your problem we’re talking about.

Remember when PCs started floating into the organization? The average CIO sees business executives as IS’s “customer” and delivers what they ask for. PCs held no appeal for the CIO’s “customers.” PCs were useful to analysts, clerks, and secretaries — an entirely different market too clout-free to be visible to the CIO — until it was too late.

Eventually, networks of PCs did start solving more traditional information processing tasks, and IS knew less about them than the end-user community.

Right now you’re faced with quite a few potentially disruptive technologies — personal digital assistants, intranets, and computer-telephone integration, to name just three. How do you plan to deal with them?

Here’s one plan, based on ideas from The Innovator’s Dilemma: Charter one or two small, independent groups of innovators. Detach them from IS so they aren’t sidetracked into mega-projects.

Tell them to start small and find ways to make these new technologies beneficial to the company.

And then, most importantly … leave them alone.