Adopting Disruptive Technologies in Traditional Universities: Continuing Education as an Incubator for Innovation

  • Walter Archer University of Alberta
  • Randy Garrison University of Alberta
  • Terry Anderson University of Alberta


A recent book by Clayton M. Christensen, Associate Professor of Business at Harvard University, discusses the sometimes devastating impact in the corporate environment of what he refers to as "disruptive technologies." Successful, well-managed firms that dominate their markets have sometimes gone into a sharp decline or even collapsed when a new technology disrupts the pattern of their market segment. Other firms, however, have handled such transitions smoothly, maintaining their position of dominance in the market by employing specific techniques to integrate the new and disruptive technology into their operations.Traditional research universities enjoy a dominant position in the higher education "market," but they are beginning to feel the impact of disruptive technologies such as distance education. They may benefit not only from an examination of the insights that Christensen has derived from his study of the impact of disruptive technologies in the corporate environment but also from a selective application of the techniques for coping with disruptive technologies that Christensen has found to be effective in the business world. Some of these techniques imply an important role for continuing education units as semi-autonomous incubators of disruptive innovation.