After years of preaching “disruptive innovation” for higher education, one of the most visible proponents of the theory is going to try a little disrupting of his own. Michael B. Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, stepped down on Friday as director of its education program to begin working more directly with companies in the education market.
Mr. Horn will also become principal consultant with Entangled Solutions, an arm of a San Francisco-based company that advises colleges on innovation strategies. “I want to make a deeper impact from the ground,” he said in an interview on Friday.
In the new positions, he also hopes to continue to promote Mr. Christensen’s notions of disruption — which have come under increasing criticism — in a more hands-on way. He calls disruption a “theory of competition” that can help leaders better understand what’s happening around them.
The term has been “bastardized” by Silicon Valley and venture capitalists — and overused in higher education as well, says Mr. Horn, who was a student of Mr. Christensen’s at Harvard Business School in 2005. (Later the two were co-authors.) “Every newfangled thing that comes out is framed under that guise,” he says.
But Mr. Horn insists that overuse hasn’t discredited the theory, which argues that established companies or organizations with high-priced offerings can lose out to competitors who take advantage of new technology, even if their products are of lower-quality. Mr. Horn sees it as a useful way for colleges to understand the significance of developments like low-cost, competency-based degree programs offered by Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America. “That’s classic disruption,” he says. “It looks unattractive to the mainstream.”
The theory also helps explain how for-profit colleges attracted millions of nontraditional students through the convenience of distance education, he argues. Even though the for-profit offerings weren’t necessarily cheaper, says Mr. Horn, “they were clearly just good enough.” (Of course, it could also be argued that it wasn’t for-profit colleges or other early adopters that disrupted the status quo and made distance education more acceptable to the mainstream of higher education; it was elite institutions that embraced MOOCs.)
In higher education, he argues, disruptive innovation hasn’t yet resulted in cost savings for students because many colleges “have used the disruption to subsidize their costs” rather than lowering their prices. And because of the role played by government, he adds, higher education is not as “pure” a market as some other industries are.
Critics “think of it as an event as opposed to a process,” says Mr. Horn. “A good theory is one that actually evolves over time,” he says. “It’s a testament to Clay that the theory looks very different today that it did 20 years ago.”
Mr. Horn hasn’t just studied disruptive innovation; he’s also written about it. He was a co-author, with Mr. Christensen and Curtis W. Johnson, of the 2008 book Disrupting Class. He also collaborated with Mr. Christensen and other authors on “Disrupting College,” a paper, published in 2011 by the Center for American Progress, that urged colleges to become open to distance education and other new teaching approaches. And he’s been a stalwart on the “future of higher education” speaking circuit.
In higher education, at least, Mr. Horn is probably better known than his organization, which he helped found in 2007. His reputation “transcends the brand of the institute,” says Ben Wallerstein, an education-company investor and chief executive of Whiteboard Advisors, an education-focused consulting and public-relations firm in Washington, D.C.
That history could leave Mr. Horn vulnerable to criticism that he’s leaving the institute to cash in on the climate of change that he, along with many others, helped to create.
Mr. Wallerstein says he expects Mr. Horn will be “a very thoughtful steward of his reputation.” To act otherwise, he says, “would be shortsighted and dumb — and he’s neither.”
Mr. Horn has been involved with a few companies before — he’s on the board of Fidelis Education, for example — but he says he’s grown eager to do more. He announced his departure in a blog post last week but had not said where he was going next.
At Entangled, Mr. Horn will join the founder Paul Freedman and others, advising colleges on matters such as commercializing educational innovations developed by their faculty members and incorporating competency-based education — a favorite topic of Mr. Horn’s — into their program mix.
Mr. Freedman says many of the young educational entrepreneurs he meets tell him they were influenced and “energized by the problems” described in Disrupting Class. Mr. Freedman himself believes a lot of what gets labeled as disruptive innovation in higher education is actually “sustaining innovation” — that is, efforts by existing institutions. But he’s a fan of disruption too, and eager to make use of Mr. Horn’s understanding of innovation and his ability to “frame complicated issues in a way that allows for a path forward.”
At the Christensen Institute, Mr. Horn will be replaced by Julia Freeland Fisher.