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CHIPS Articles: The Diffusion of Innovation

The Diffusion of Innovation
By Lt. Daniel W. Berger - April-June 2011
Have you ever wondered why some inventions take the world by storm, such as the iPhone and smart phone technology, while others seem to fail, lie dormant for decades, but when their time has come, their use grows quickly, even explosively, like the fax machine did.

Most inventions achieve slow infiltration at first, and then their adoption grows more quickly, but later slows down again. This process of adoption is called the "Diffusion of Innovation." It is a broad social theory that assesses the psychological and sociological patterns of adoption, explains the mechanism of adoption, and assists in predicting whether and how a new invention will be successful within a population.

The first diffusion theory was developed in the early 1950s, and the theory continues to be widely used. In 1962 Everett M. Rogers proposed four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation, communication channels, time and a social system. This article summarizes Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations theory. My purpose is to help us improve how we design, implement, operate and maintain future technology.

Diffusion Theory

Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through channels over time among the members of a social system. Diffusion is a special type of communication concerned with the spread of messages that are perceived as new ideas. An innovation is an idea, practice or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. The characteristics of an innovation, as perceived by the members of a social system, determine its rate of adoption. The four main elements in the diffusion of new ideas are: (1) the innovation; (2) communication channels; (3) time; and (4) the social system or context.

Why do certain innovations spread more quickly than others? For the innovation to spread and be adopted it should contain the following five perceived attributes. These attributes play key roles in determining the rate of adoption: (1) relative advantage; (2) compatibility; (3) complexity; (4) trialability; and (5) the ability of people within the social system to observe the innovation.

Communication is the process by which participants create and share information with one another to reach a mutual understanding. A communication channel is the means by which messages pass from one individual to another. Mass media channels are more effective in creating knowledge about innovations, whereas interpersonal channels are more effective in forming and changing attitudes toward a new idea, and thus in influencing the decision to adopt or reject a new idea. Most individuals evaluate an innovation, not on the basis of scientific research by experts, but through the subjective evaluations of near peers who have adopted the innovation.

The time dimension is involved in diffusion in three ways. First, time is involved in the innovation decision process. The innovation decision process is the mental process through which an individual (or other decision making unit) passes from initial knowledge of an innovation to forming an opinion about the innovation, to a decision to adopt or reject, to implementation of the new idea, and then to confirmation of the decision.

An individual seeks information at various stages in the innovation decision process to decrease uncertainty about an innovation’s expected consequences. The five-step process includes:

  • Knowledge – person becomes aware of an innovation and has some idea of how it functions;
  • Persuasion – person forms a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the innovation;
  • Decision – person engages in activities that lead to a choice to adopt or reject the innovation;
  • Implementation – person puts an innovation into use; and
  • Confirmation – person evaluates the results of an innovation decision already made.

The second way in which time is involved in diffusion is in the innovativeness of an individual or other unit of adoption. Innovativeness is the degree to which an individual or other unit of adoption is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than other members of a social system. There are five adopter categories or classifications of the members of a social system based on their rate of innovativeness.

The third way in which time is involved in diffusion is in rate of adoption. The rate of adoption is the relative speed with which an innovation is adopted by members of a social system. The rate of adoption is usually measured as the number of members of the system that adopt the innovation in a given time period. (See Figure 1.) Members and their composition in the social system consist of:

  • Innovators – 2.5 percent;
  • Early adopters – 13.5 percent;
  • Early majority – 34 percent;
  • Late majority – 34 percent; and
  • Laggards – 16 percent.

The fourth main element in the diffusion of new ideas is the social system. A social system is defined as a set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem solving to accomplish a common goal. The members or units of a social system may be individuals, informal groups, organizations, and/or subsystems. The social system constitutes a boundary within which an innovation diffuses.

A second area of research involves how norms affect diffusion. Norms are the established behavior patterns for the members of a social system. A third area of research has to do with opinion leadership, the degree to which an individual is able to informally influence other individuals’ attitudes or overt behavior in a desired way with relative frequency. Another component of the social system is the change agent who attempts to influence the other members’ innovation decisions in a direction that is deemed desirable by a change agency.

A final crucial concept in understanding the nature of the diffusion process is the critical mass that occurs at the point at which enough individuals have adopted an innovation so that the innovation’s further rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining.

The concept of the critical mass implies that outreach activities should be concentrated on pushing the use of the innovation to the point of critical mass. These efforts should be focused on the early adopters; the 13.5 percent of the individuals in the system to adopt an innovation after the innovators have introduced the new idea into the system. Early adopters are often opinion leaders and serve as role models for many other members of the social system. Early adopters are also instrumental in getting an innovation to the point of critical mass, and hence, in the successful diffusion of an innovation.

Characteristics of an Innovation

Relative advantage describes the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes. The degree of relative advantage may be measured in economic terms, but social prestige, convenience and satisfaction are also important factors.

It does not matter so much if an innovation has a great deal of objective advantage. What does matter is whether an individual perceives the innovation as advantageous. The greater the perceived relative advantage of an innovation, the more rapid its rate of adoption will be.

Compatibility is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with the existing values, past experiences and needs of potential adopters. An idea that is incompatible with the values and norms of a social system will not be adopted as rapidly as an innovation that is compatible. The adoption of an incompatible innovation often requires the prior adoption of a new value system, which is a relatively slow process.

Complexity is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use. Some innovations are readily understood by most members of a social system; others are more complicated and will be adopted more slowly. New ideas that are simpler to understand are adopted more rapidly than innovations that require the adopter to develop new skills and understanding.

Trialability explains the degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis. New ideas that can be tried on the “installment plan” will generally be adopted more quickly than innovations that are not divisible. An innovation that is able to be given a trial period represents less uncertainty to the individual who is considering it for adoption, and who can learn by doing.

Observability represents the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. The easier it is for individuals to see the positive results of an innovation, the more likely they are to adopt it. Such visibility stimulates peer discussion of a new idea because friends, neighbors or coworkers of the adopters often seek information.

The Adoption of an Innovation

Innovators are the first 2.5 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. Innovators can be compared to “techies” who must have the latest and greatest IT device — no matter whether they need it or not. Embracing new tech¬nology or a new idea is almost an obsession with innovators. This interest in new ideas leads them out of a local circle of peer networks and into more cosmopolite social relationships. Communication patterns and friendships among a clique of innovators are common, even though the geographical distance between the innovators may be considerable.

Being an innovator has several prerequisites. Control of substantial financial resources is helpful to absorb the possible loss from an unprofitable innovation. The ability to understand and apply complex technical knowledge is also needed. The innovator must also be able to cope with a high degree of uncertainty about an innovation at the time of adoption.

While an innovator may not be respected by the other members of a social system, the innovator plays an important role in the diffusion process by launching the new idea into the system, importing the innovation from outside of the system’s boundaries. Thus, the innovator plays a gatekeeping role in the flow of new ideas into a system.

Early adopters are the next 13.5 percent of individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. Early adopters are a more integrated part of the local system than innovators. Whereas innovators are cosmopolites, early adopters represent localities. This adopter category, more than any other, has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most systems.

Potential adopters look to early adopters for advice and information about the innovation. This adopter category is generally sought by change agents as local messengers for speeding the diffusion process. Because early adopters are not too far ahead of the average individual in accepting innovativeness, they serve as role models for many other members of the social system.

Early adopters are respected by peers and are the embodiment of successful, discrete use of new ideas. Early adopters know that to continue to earn the esteem of colleagues, and to maintain a central position in the communication networks of the system, they must make judicious innovation decisions. Early adopters decrease uncertainty about a new idea by adopting it, and then conveying a subjective evaluation of the innovation to near peers through interpersonal networks.

The early majority is the next 34 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. The early majority adopts new ideas just before the average members of a system. The early majority interacts frequently with peers, but members of the early majority seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in a system.

The early majority’s unique position between the very early and the relatively late to adopt makes this category of adopters an important link in the diffusion process. Early majority members provide interconnectedness in the system’s interpersonal networks. Early majority members include one of the two most numerous adopter categories, making up one-third of the members of a system. The early majority may deliberate for some time before completely adopting a new idea. “Be not the first by which the new is tried, nor the last to lay the old aside,” fits the thinking of the early majority. This group follows with deliberate willingness in adopting innovations, but seldom leads.

The late majority is the next 34 percent of individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. The late majority adopts new ideas just after the average members of a system. Like the early majority, the late majority makes up one-third of the members of a system. Late majority adoption may be the result of increasing network pressure from peers.

For the late majority, innovations are approached with a skeptical and cautious approach. They do not adopt until most others in their system have done so. The weight of system norms must definitely favor an innovation before the late majority is convinced, and the pressure from peers is necessary to motivate adoption. The relatively scarce resources of the late majority mean that most of the uncertainty about a new idea must be removed before the late majority will think that it is safe to adopt.

Laggards are the last 16 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. They possess almost no opinion leadership. Laggards are the most localized in their outlook of all adopter categories; many are near isolates in the social networks of their system.

The point of reference for the laggard is the past. Decisions are often made in terms of what has been done previously. Laggards tend to be suspicious of innovations and change agents. Resistance to innovations on the part of laggards may be entirely rational from the laggards’ viewpoint because their resources are limited, and they must be certain that a new idea will not fail before they will adopt.

Exploring Organizational Theories

Successful innovation is a key contributor to organizational success. Understanding how new ideas are adopted in an organization can help leaders implement change. However, what it means to innovate successfully, and how to build organizational processes that facilitate more effective innovation, are complex issues.

An organization can adopt too few innovations — fewer than its needs and capabilities would suggest — or adopt too many at one time. Organizations can adopt the wrong innovations, ones that do not provide significant advantages given an organization’s particular situation.

An organization can adopt the right innovations but at the wrong time; so soon that the costs and risks of adoption exceed the likely payoff, or so late that the competition has already gained a competitive advantage.

Organizations can adopt the right innovations at the right time but fail to implement them in a way that nets benefits. Fortunately, our understanding of the processes of innovation diffusion has grown considerably since information technology researchers first became interested in this area.

As researchers have considered the many distinctive characteristics of IT innovations and their adoption, there has been a corresponding effort to develop more sophisticated models that go beyond traditional approaches to incorporate the effects of institutions, knowledge barriers, increasing returns, adaptive structuration and social bandwagons.

A rich opportunity exists to explore and validate these promising streams and synthesize them into more complex and realistic models of IT innovation diffusion.

Lt. Daniel W. Berger is an Information Professional officer and Project Management Professional (PMP) who works in the consolidated maintenance department of Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Pacific, Wahiawa, Hawaii. The basis of Berger’s article is from the Diffusion of Innovations, 4th edition, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1995.

The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers (1962). With successive groups of consumers adopting new technology, or other innovative changes (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level.
The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers (1962). With successive groups of consumers adopting new technology, or other innovative changes (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level.
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