Emerging Technology and Disruptive Technology: What’s the Difference?

Some people question my use of the word “emerging” to categorize technologies such as social, mobile, cloud, analytics, sensors and others. They argue that these technologies are already here and aren’t emerging anymore. Some suggest using “disruptive” to describe them instead. Now is a good time to distinguish between these two labels and make sure that we are using each to help us better understand technology’s impact on our businesses.

Emerging means to come into view. New technologies, like those represented in the latest SMAC craze, crash into a painfully cramped marketplace virtually every day. Reaching for a shiny object in the distance isn’t necessarily wise. Pouncing on an emerging technology that fizzles out is costly and can distract CIOs from focusing on maintaining reliable systems based on stable technologies that drive business goals.

In contrast, the word disruption can have two meanings: 1) to throw into turmoil or disorder; 2) to break or split apart. Business leaders who don’t respond to the first fast enough can end up facing the second. Think about the behemoths that have been brought to their knees after they didn’t get ahead of consumers shifting their buying behavior as a result of advances in technology.

The important difference in these terms is the context to which they apply when thinking about a new technology. For example, smartphone apps might have already emerged but could still have untapped disruptive potential in impacting business models in the personal healthcare domain. Sensors may already be pervasive in our phones, cars, appliances, and sports wearables but still be untapped in the disruptions they could offer in the insurance industry.

Emerging technologies might lead to disrupting certain aspects of an industry, business model, or customer segment while not impacting others. Disruptions associated with an emerging (or emerged) technology might be years away or weeks. Not every company needs to adopt the latest suite of technologies with the same sense of urgency.

We surveyed more than 1,100 business and technology executives and found that just under 50 percent are investing in mobile, social, cloud, and big data. Are these companies falling behind or being smart and not chasing after technologies that don’t support their business goals? How do CIOs manage this delicate dance along the emerging/disruption spectrum? Not investing too early and not too late? How did Goldilocks know which porridge, chair, and bed was best? She was dedicated to the process of exploration.

In the same Digital IQ Survey, we asked companies how they explore and act on information technology innovations. Do they maintain dedicated innovation teams or throw a team together on the fly? Do they hire a third party or partner with a university? Why does it matter?

We parsed the answers of top performers, 50 percent of whom maintain a dedicated innovation team compared to 38 percent of the pack. Others assemble ad-hoc teams on the fly or hire third-party vendors.

Enlisting a dedicated team to evaluate emerging technology is becoming a must-have, given the velocity, volume, and intensity of emerging technology. You need to consistently evaluate the parade of options and keep your discerning skills sharp. A commitment to organized innovation will increase the odds that you don’t chase after an emerging technology that never reaches disruption or fail to take calculated risks that generate revenue.

Effectively traversing the emerging/disruptive spectrum is a matter of survival for today’s businesses. We need to develop instincts, skills, and teams that enable us to get ahead of disruption without losing our breath and sight of what is important to building the business.

About Chris Curran 1 Article
Chris Curran is a PwC principal and chief technologist for the US firm’s Advisory Practice, where he is responsible for technology strategy, enterprise architecture and innovation, and the development of thought leadership reflective of PwC’s point of view on trends and innovations in technology. He leads the development and analysis of PwC’s annual Digital IQ Survey, which measures how well companies understand and capitalize on the value of technology and leverage it to meet their business and customer needs.