What Is a Paradigm Shift?

The term paradigm shift refers to a major change in the concepts and practices of how something works or is accomplished. A paradigm shift can happen within a wide variety of contexts. Paradigm shifts often happen when new technology is introduced that radically alters the production process or manufacturing of a good or service. These shifts are key drivers in many of the processes that a society undergoes such as the American Industrial Revolution.

Key Takeaways

  • A paradigm shift is a major change in the concepts and practices of how something works or is accomplished.
  • A paradigm shift very often happens when new technology is introduced that radically alters the production process of a good or service.
  • Although the idea of paradigms has been around for quite some time, the concept was explored by physicist and philosopher Thomas Kahn Kuhn.

Understanding Paradigm Shifts

Although the idea of paradigms has been around for quite some time, the concept of paradigm shifts was explored by American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kahn Kuhn in his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Kuhn contested that paradigm shifts characterize a revolution to a prevailing scientific framework. They arise when the dominant paradigm, under which normally accepted science operates, is rendered incompatible or insufficient, facilitating the adoption of a revised or completely new theory or paradigm.

Paradigms are important because they define how we perceive reality. As such, everyone is subject to the limitations and distortions produced by their socially conditioned nature. These shifts have become much more frequent in the past hundred years, as the industrial revolution transformed many social and industrial processes. These processes are likely to become even more commonplace in the future as our rate of technological advancement increases.

In the business world, a paradigm shift is often a change in the perception of how things should be thought about, done, or made. A paradigm shift can require entire departments to be eliminated or created. In some cases, millions or even billions of dollars of new equipment need to be purchased while the old equipment is sold or recycled. Reacting well to key paradigm shifts have a lot to do with the long-term success of a business. Such is the case of the assembly line, which created a substantial paradigm shift in the auto industry and all other areas of manufacturing as well.

Special Considerations

Paradigm shifts happen in a wide range of other contexts to describe a profound change in model, modality, or perception. Those found in the scientific world often result from scientists working on the fringe. Their controversial research is perceived as misguided or a dead end. While skepticism and inquiry are integral parts of the scientific process, sometimes a scientist does have a revelation, which leads to a paradigm shift. The weight of scientific and public resistance to the new paradigm can sometimes provoke ridicule. While not instantly accepted, if a fringe science is proven to rest on sound footing, momentum slowly builds against the established paradigm.

If a fringe idea is proven to rest on sound footing, the idea can gain momentum toward a paradigm shift.

Example of a Paradigm Shift

The internet created a paradigm shift in the way business is conducted. Email and scan replaced the fax machine and courier services. Orders for securities can now be placed online directly by the client and are sometimes executed in seconds.

Before the internet, a client would have to call their broker who would write out an order ticket for the broker's record, then call the firm's floor broker to execute the trade. Stock quotes are now widely available through multiple sources thanks to modern technology, whereas people needed ticker machines installed in their offices 100 years ago. All of the old-time equipment such as order tickets, fax machines, and ticker machines are now obsolete, thanks to the paradigm shift brought on by modern technology.