Managing global disruption and disintegration

May 1, 2019

Professor Tyrone Pitsis, professor of strategy and technology at Durham University Business School, shares his thoughts on the challenges of being a successful global business leader in an age of disruption and disintegration

Right now, there are two forces at play contributing to some of the most uncertain and ambiguous conditions at any time in our modern history: disruption and disintegration.

I do not wish to imply there have not been uncertain times during many other periods of history, however, I do believe the size and growth of the global population, the breadth and reach of globalisation of business and political interests and ideas, as well as the impact of technology on societies and economics, is unparalleled. Together these things are creating challenges of a scale, severity and nature that we need to rethink all aspects of how we do things. However, where there is risk, there are also opportunities.

A focus on disruption and disintegration

In its simplest form, disruption implies an idea or innovation that alters or transforms how things are done. This can be by creating entirely new ways of doing things to changing how we do old things.

Innovation is talked about as being either disruptive (an autonomous car), or incremental (keyless starter on a car). Of course, this is open to debate on what should or should not be labelled as ‘disruptive’. Even a self-driving car is simply just another car on the road that will choke up traffic, require energy and so on.

In many respects, terms such as ‘disruptive’, ‘innovative’ and ‘game-changing’ are more marketing concepts and important signals to both consumers and competitors in the market. If you’re a competitor of a business doing well as a disruptor and innovator, it is highly likely ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ will be buzzwords both internally and externally for your business.

I believe ‘disruption’ only speaks to one part of the innovation process. I prefer the word ‘transformation’. During transformation, important skills, capabilities and competencies are needed to ensure creative and successful outcomes.

So many organisations and university courses focus on how we make the disruption; however, what is critical is how we manage the transformations that come out of the disruption. What should our strategy be, what should
it look like? How do we lead and enable the transformation to ensure our organisation thrives? What do we need to change? How do we design and use our technology to ensure we capture the benefits of what we learn during the process of disruption and the subsequent transformation? How do we then use that learning to build resources and capabilities to enable us to ensure a sustainable advantage?

The transformation that occurs out of disruption, however, is only part of the puzzle. Earlier I mentioned the word disintegration. The Oxford Dictionary defines disintegration as ‘the process of losing cohesion and strength’ or ‘the process of coming to pieces’.

So many events and situations are both disruptive and disintegrative and will have a profound impact on a global scale.

For many people, technology and how it’s applied is disrupting, transforming and disintegrating many of the institutions we take for granted in simultaneously positive and negative ways.

Most of these ways come through technology, such as the increasing rate of automation and robotics, the impact of artificial intelligence, and the seemingly unstoppable growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT has widespread implications and ramifications as it’s about the interconnectivity of people and organisations and the sharing of all forms of data, producing what is often called ‘big data’.

Almost all of this data is driven by two forces – business, and defence and security. Big data is big business, and we have seen how data has been used for commercial gain in various ways. Big data and the IoT has significant positives, but there are also some severe negatives that need to be dealt with – security and privacy being the most important.

Globalisation is a driver and enabler of this technology, which has also been shaped by this technology and innovation. Globalisation is also simultaneously both disruption and disintegration as global firms deal with different cultural practices, norms and traditions, environmental and geographic contexts, while also dealing with various governmental systems, laws, rules and regulations. There are those doing the globalising and those being globalised, and there are proponents for and against it. So, globalisation is also a geopolitical process.

The global context is changing, and there is significant uncertainty. China has active and ambitious expansionist aspirations, but at the same time, we see anti-globalisation rhetoric within governments in various parts of the world. For example, the current president of the US has well- known, if not mixed, views against globalisation.

But as globalisation continues, and at the same time access to entrepreneurial ideas and initiatives provide threats and opportunities which will also create greater tensions, leaders and staff of global firms must deal with and become adept at managing the uncertainty. Add to this the fact that soon we will also be dealing with larger-scale international competition in the conquering of space for resources, things are set to get a lot more complex.

When we add to all this the frightening prospect of ecological threats and challenges facing the world, then it’s clear to see leading and working in global organisations today is fraught with immense challenges at a scale and of a complexity requiring advanced knowledge, skills and capabilities. The disruptions are here and will continue to come. How ready you are to deal with these challenges and possibilities is up to you.

Durham University Business School
Become a successful global business leader in an age of disruption and disintegration. Find out more about our DBA programmes at:

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