"Disruption is the language of the disrupted. Creation is the language of the creators. And as an industry, we have to decide which we are going to be.”
That was a comment from Diane Hames, vice president of marketing for Navistar, during a conversation at the American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference and Exhibition in Nashville last month, and it stuck with me.
As a journalist, I find the evolution of language fascinating. Disrupt comes from the Latin disrumpere, formed by combining dis- (“apart”) and rumpere (“to break”). Disrupt literally means, “to break apart.” Until the late 20th century, it had a negative connotation.
Today, the word has become a business-jargon cliché. You can thank an academic by the name of Clayton Christensen, who in the late 1990s used the word in writing about startups. Newcomers use “disruptive innovation,” he wrote, to successfully challenge established businesses and eventually change the nature of the market. Think about how PCs changed the computer market or how Uber changed the taxi market.
Or, if you want to go back long before Christensen coined his term, think about the introduction of the motor truck and how it caused an entire rethinking of freight movement.
“It was radical,” Hames said. But today we’re seeing disruption on the same level. “We’ll see more changes in next decade than we have in the last 30 to 40 years,” she said. “With order backlogs and supply-chain challenges, the saying that necessity is the mother of invention is very true right now….There will be things that come on line in the next years that we’re not even seeing today, that come of the very specific market conditions we’re in right now.”
For instance, she said, with the microchip shortage, there are efforts to design systems that don’t use traditional chips. “We took cheap chips for granted, and we can’t do that anymore,” she added.
Cheap chips are hardly the only example of things we’ve taken for granted that need to be disrupted — taken apart, re-examined, and re-invented, from our reliance on fossil fuels to the job of the truck driver itself.
Right now, the trucking and logistics industry is in the midst of a time that fits both definitions of the word disruption. Even before the pandemic, newcomers were pushing an acceleration of the pace of change in areas such as electrification, autonomous technology, and how shippers and carriers connect. Then COVID-19 came along, accelerating the adoption of paperless technologies and the growth of e-commerce. Now we’re facing a supply-chain crisis so bad it’s threatening economic growth, exacerbated by a severe driver shortage.
“It’s essential that we create adaptation to improve the over-the-road experience,” said Cari Baylor, president of Indiana-based Baylor Trucking, in a panel discussion, such as more dedicated routes, hub-and-spoke operations, weekly pay minimums, and paid time off.
The pandemic caused job-seekers to prioritize quality-of-life concerns. There are so many people switching jobs, industries, or careers that it’s been dubbed “the great resignation.” Against this backdrop, I have to think that a job that doesn’t even offer paid vacation time is going to have a hard time competing.
Perhaps nowhere was the move to re-invent the industry as apparent as in a panel discussion called “Next Gen Perspective: Trucking’s Future is Now.” Lina Dejongh, a branch manager for Trimac Transportation Services, challenged the audience to do more.
“I think we’re talking about things but not fixing it,” she said. As companies and as an industry, we need to figure out “how to truck differently,” she said. “Let’s shake it up. We’ve got to do something different.”
Let’s go back to that original meaning of disruption: breaking apart. It could be a good thing, if our industry can take those pieces, get rid of the ones that aren’t working, add new pieces that do, and rearrange them to create something new and better: the trucking industry of the future.
This editorial commentary first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.