Is “disruption” a dirty word?

July 17, 2012, 10:13 PM UTC

From left: Intuit CEO Brad Smith, Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, YouSendIt CEO Brad Garlinghouse, and Box CEO Aaron Levie. Photo: JP Mangalindan/Fortune

FORTUNE — Is the word “disruption” overhyped?

At a Brainstorm Tech panel Tuesday called “Disruptive Innovation: Dogfight in the Cloud,” panelists debated whether the term — oftentimes referring to innovative technology poised to upend the current way of thinking — was abused.

“It’s like a kissing cousin’s word,” said Brad Garlinghouse, the ex-AOL exec who recently joined the startup YouSendIt. Though his company actually launched nine years ago, it remains part of a group of cloud-based services that are rapidly changing the way users transfer information. When Garlinghouse joined in mid-May, the company reported 30 million-plus registered users — nearly 600,000 of which pay for the service — and was picking up customers at a rate of 30,000 new users a day.

For Aaron Levie, CEO of the enterprise-focused file-sharing service Box, something “disruptive” shouldn’t have a negative connotation, particularly if the technology in question improves cost and availability. Levie argues services like Box gives even small businesses in remote African areas the tools necessary to operate as efficiently as some of the largest Fortune 500 companies.

But in a crowded space — popular file-syncing Dropbox was referenced several times — is having disruptive tech enough? “If you stay laser-focused, you’re going to be fine,” said Brad Smith, Intuit (INTU) President and CEO, who offered an interesting bit of management advice: Don’t listen to your customers. Observe them.

“When you listen to them, they can tell you what’s wrong with their product, but they can’t exactly tell you what will make that better.” Instead, observing a user’s past behavior may be the key to keeping a product one step ahead.

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