Most of us know what a luddite is – someone for whom technology is anathema and for whom a paper diary, textbook, or a transistor radio are preferable to iphones, ebooks and podcasts.
In fact, the term, which dates back to the early 1800’s, refers to a group of textile workers who so feared the emergence of weaving machinery as a threat to their craft that they went about smashing machines.
It was a short-term solution, needless to say. Eventually the factory owners took matters into their own hands, and the Luddites ended in jail, or dead. Useful trivia fact: One of the Luddites leaders was none other than Ned Ludd. Hence the name.
The story of the Luddites is instructive when we think about the concept of disruption. Disruption is a simple word that carries profound consequences for businesses today. And yet it gets tossed around in board rooms as if it were just another laser pointer – useful for making a point, then easily discarded when the conversation moves to another topic.
But the reaction of the Luddites is worth remembering. Because change today in many industries is, indeed, existential. That is, it is threatening the existence of entire classes of workers, and companies, for whom ‘business as usual’ is under imminent threat.
Technology-driven disruption is one of the scariest places businesses can find themselves in – and that applies to both the disruptors and those being disrupted. If your business exists to bring transformational change to a sector under imminent threat, then the sales process you may view as inevitably obvious could make your prospective clients feel terminally anxious.
Our organisation has faced this challenge for the last several years as we have sought to assist our higher education clients to migrate some of their traditional, academic support services online. This may sound like a no-brainer from the outside, particularly given university students today are spending less and less time on campus and are expecting more services to be available via their mobile phones and laptops.
However, for those university staff who perceive this change as a threat to their roles as providers of campus-based academic support, it can be terrifying. For us to succeed, we need to present ourselves as partners in the change process, working together to find new ways to meet the expectations of today’s students.
And what about the perspective of the ‘disruptee’? Depending on what type of organisation is under consideration – public, private, not-for-profit, – and its age – the type of change you represent may be next to impossible to sell internally.
When that’s the case, it’s your job to find a way to make the transition less terrifying than the alternative. If you can do that in a way that puts your clients’ mind at ease as you walk with them through the change, you’re on a pathway to success. But if you can’t find a way to do that, you may quickly find that being a ‘disruptor’ can be more of an albatross than a badge of honour.