By April Wilkerson
April is a reporter in Oklahoma City. Contact her at 278-2849 / https://twitter.com/JRAprilWilkerson
Posted: 06:49 PM Friday, October 7, 2011
From left, University of Oklahoma engineering professor Jim Sluss shows students David Vreeland and Jeffrey Griffin a project on thermo-electric power. (April Wilkerson)
NORMAN – Most companies focus on what their customers want, and rightfully so, but that often makes it difficult to commit time and money to investigating ideas that one day may boost their bottom line.
The next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs is being trained to think about disruptive technologies and project into the future what it would mean if their company got on board – or missed the boat – with an emerging technology.
Engineering students at the University of Oklahoma have immersed themselves in a disruptive technology curriculum, and over the summer, 18 of them spent a month in Arezzo, Italy, for a historical perspective on the subject.
Jim Sluss, OU electrical and computer engineering professor, said disruptive technology is something different than sustaining technology, which builds upon what is already in place, such as a better feature set or better performance. Disruptive technologies may be attractive initially only to emerging markets, but that can change.
“If these disruptive technologies are successfully developed and accepted by emerging markets, they start to move up the performance curve to the point where they become competitive with the sustaining technologies and ultimately knock those sustaining technologies out of the competitive marketplace,” Sluss said. “The big issue is that most companies that pay attention to their customers really well – which managers are taught to do – focus on the sustaining technologies because that’s what their customers think they want. By the time these disruptive technologies come up from the bottom of the market and erode their market share, it’s too late for them internally to catch up.”
An example of a disruptive technology was the personal computer, Sluss said. IBM, which was a mainframe computer company, set aside a separate organization to develop the PC. The PC then became disruptive in the marketplace. By the time companies like Digital Electronics Corp., which was the principal player in the mini-computer market, realized what was happening, it was too late for it to become competitive, he said.
Training students to think differently about disruptive technologies stands to make a difference. The trip to Italy helped students see how innovations from the likes of Galileo and da Vinci were met with social, cultural and religious resistance.
Jeffrey Griffin, a junior electrical engineering major, said the course is helping him add a new way of thinking to his work.
“It is no longer just looking at how do we make this technology or that technology, but rather, ‘What role is this going to play in markets that are already established?’ ‘How will it affect a business?’ It was different from other courses; I had to stretch how I was thinking,” Griffin said.
As part of their trip, students had to identify an emerging technology or come up with one of their own. Griffin chose unmanned aerial vehicles, which are now primarily being used in the defense sector, but one day may well have a commercial use, such as moving freight in airspace, he said.
David Vreeland, a sophomore electrical engineering major, looked at “computer vision” – how a camera hooked to a computer can be used to analyze what is in front of it.
Vreeland said the course is already helping him with leadership skills in college life, but he’s also using it to look toward his own future and where he’d like to work.
“We learned about leaders of companies … and how sometimes the best leaders could fail because they didn’t see a disruptive technology coming along,” he said. “I enjoyed that because it’s a look into the future about what may be going on.”
Sluss said the disruptive technology curriculum was developed by a friend who teaches engineering at West Point. The government approached him about training young military officers how to spot technologies that might be disruptive on battlefields of today and the future. Sluss said he saw potential in the course for his students.
“I thought it would be nice to look at it in engineering school, not tied to defense applications but more for commercial applications,” he said. “Most of our students will go to work in the industrial marketplace, so awareness of disruptive technology is important.”