The phrase “paradigm shift” is overused and dramatic and a longtime favourite on the conference circuit. But unlike other business clichés, “paradigm shift” comes with a philosophical background rooted deep in the history of science.

In his 1962 classic “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn asserted that scientific progress did not just occur through accumulated knowledge but that this process was interrupted by revolutionary shifts in thinking to the extent that established ideas and laws shifted towards new paradigms of thinking.

It is perhaps not too dissimilar to the Hegelian dialectic for resolving problems – the sequence of thesis, antithesis, and then synthesis. For Kuhn, arriving at a conclusion through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity did not prove Newton physics wrong but it changed the way the laws of physics were understood and applied. The theory of Relativity was one of the greatest paradigm shifts in science.

I personally think that the gradual accumulation of knowledge and the paradigm shifts like relativity are not disconnected but interlinked like water accumulating in a cup drop by drop till it fills to the brim, shifts, and spills over. The radical repositioning of knowledge may come from a flash of genius but the undercurrent builds over a period of many years if not centuries.

Kuhn was clearly talking about laws of science but his argument could be extended, with some scientific license but without entering the realm of the absurd, to the modern and complex industry of consumer electronics and in particular: personal communications.

The smartphone was not an invention but a paradigm shift – a new way of looking at personal communications that came together not through a single discovery or invention but through multiple discoveries and inventions from multiple industries. Some of the most prominent are:

  • Telecommunications – voice and later text based communications – the cellular communication industry outflanked the fixed line telephony technology and provides the core technology in a smartphone
  • Computing – smartphones of today are little handheld computers and tablets or phablets are mutations of the smartphone that compete with the laptop
  • Photography – most smartphones come with built-in mega-pixel cameras – one at the back for normal photos – one in the front for selfies (initially designed for video conferencing)
  • Entertainment – iphone; itunes – no need to explain further
  • Navigation and Global Positioning Systems – Hardly anyone carries roadmaps on paper anymore

These industries were partially dis-intermediated by the smartphone which means they continue to exist and thrive but have lost their baseline mass market appeal (and therefore profits) to the smartphone and now depend for their survival on ideas and technology innovations for the advanced user.

Advanced gadgets in each of these industries are superior to the constituent components of the smartphone (for example, advanced digital cameras are far superior to smartphone cameras) but these components are available as part of the smartphone package that is sufficient for most ordinary consumers.

The smartphone has changed the way these industries work and make (less) money. These industries must innovate hard to differentiate themselves or face the prospect of being sucked into irrelevance.

Eric Jackson, a contributor to Forbes on technology, has collected a list of 89 business clichés that will “get any MBA promoted and make them totally useless.” He places “paradigm shift” at the very top of the list and above such well known successes as “win-win”, “data-driven”, and “bandwidth” but explains its meaning from the perspective of one on the losing end of the shift: “Paradigm Shift = I don’t know what’s going on in our business. But we’re not making as much money as we used to.”