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3 min read

Disruptive Technology vs Sustaining Technology


Innovation and technology are the drivers behind so much of modern business and the working world. The modern economy revolves around developments in tech and innovation, and they have changed the way people live, work, and interact.

In the modern workplace, technology is constantly evolving and changing the way we do business. Organizations have to be constantly on the lookout for new developments and adaptive to changes, innovations, and improvements. When implementing change, companies tend to have the choice to focus on one of two approaches to tech - disruptive technology vs. sustaining technology.

We’re going to take a look at both disruptive technology and sustaining technology, have a walk-through of what they both mean and how to make the best choice for your business. Both approaches are important and can have huge benefits for an organization when integrated well.

Disruptive Technology

Disruptive technology or innovation is all about change, novelty, and difference. Disruptive innovation creates new products and new markets and demonstrates a new value for something consumers didn’t know they needed, wanted, or were missing.

Disruptive technology is not created within an existing framework but rather identifies new opportunities and changes the conversation around tech and innovation. Disruption allows smaller organizations without huge resources to compete with and challenge bigger, more established companies. Disruptive technology is all about identifying areas that haven’t been properly explored previously or niches that aren’t covered.

A great example of disruptive innovation is Apple in the early 2000s. Apple combined excellent and ground-breaking new technology in the form of the iPod, with innovation in the form of iTunes massively simplifying the ability to download digital music. This changed the way people interacted with digital and portable music and, obviously, helped make Apple one of the great tech companies of the 21st century.

Sustaining Technology

Sustaining technology and innovation is about development and improvement, working within established markets and with pre-existing products and ideas, but enhancing, improving performance, and making things better.

Sustaining technology is essentially companies improving their products and competing with other organizations providing similar services in a race about who has the best tech. Some sustaining innovation can be a slow, year-on-year improvement, whilst some can be huge, giant leaps forward. Sustaining innovation all takes place within pre-existing markets that customers, consumers, and users have demonstrated they value already.

A great example of sustaining innovation is the current smartphone market. Every year big companies bring out new, improved products and identify extra features, new ways of doing things, and incremental (or huge) improvements in performance that give their product the edge.

Disruptive vs. Sustaining Technology

So sustaining technology largely comes about as a result of listening to the needs of your current audience, whereas disruptive technology is all about shooting for a new audience or persuading existing users that they want something different.

Both are incredibly important for business, and both can have huge benefits.

In general, bigger, more established companies tend to be more successful when it comes to sustaining innovation. They have the resources, the time, and the existing audience to be able to rely on more incremental change and to be more risk-averse.

Smaller, more agile companies and start-ups, however, tend to have the advantage when dealing with disruptive technology. They might struggle to compete with big names in established markets or when competing on a pre-existing playing field, but can successfully challenge them in a new marketplace.

Disruptive technology finds niches that might initially be too small to be of interest to larger companies or too risky to justify the investment. This gives start-ups the edge in the first instance.

Making a choice between the two is not simple, as there are huge upsides to both approaches and negatives to neglecting either. Sustaining innovation is a more long-term, incremental approach, whereas disruptive technology (although it can take time) can make a huge splash.

Achieving revolutionary innovation within a company, and developing long-term growth, will likely mean combining both approaches and paying attention to the opportunities available both in sustaining innovation and disruptive technology.

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