Diffusion of Innovations


diffusion of ideas by Anthony Russo

Diffusion of Innovations is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. Everett Rogers, a professor of rural sociology, popularized the theory in his 1962 book ‘Diffusion of Innovations.’ He said diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.

The origins of the diffusion of innovations theory are varied and span multiple disciplines. Rogers espoused four main elements that influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation, communication channels, time, and a social system. This process relies heavily on human capital. The innovation must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain. Within the rate of adoption, there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass.The categories of adopters are: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Diffusion of Innovations manifests itself in different ways in various cultures and fields and is highly subjective to the type of adopters and innovation-decision process.

The concept of diffusion was first studied by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde (1890) and by German and Austrian anthropologists such as Friedrich Ratzel and Leo Frobenius. Its basic epidemiological or internal-influence form was formulated by H. Earl Pemberton, who provided examples of institutional diffusion such as postage stamps and standardized school ethic codes. Individuals experience five stages of accepting a new innovation: knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation. If the innovation is adopted, it spreads via various communication channels. During communication, the idea is rarely evaluated from a scientific standpoint; rather, subjective perceptions of the innovation influence diffusion. The process occurs over time. Finally, social systems determine diffusion, norms on diffusion, roles of opinion leaders and change agents, types of innovation decisions, and innovation consequences. To use Rogers’ model assumes that the innovation in classical diffusion theory is equivalent to scientific research findings in the context of practice, an assumption that has not been rigorously tested.

In most cultures, two factors determine what type a particular decision is: Whether the decision is made freely and implemented voluntarily; and Who makes the decision. Based on these considerations, three types of innovation-decisions have been identified within diffusion of innovations: Optional Innovation-Decision (made by an individual who is in some way distinguished from others in a social system); Collective Innovation-Decision (made collectively by all individuals of a social system); and Authority Innovation-Decision (made for the entire social system by few individuals in positions of influence or power). Diffusion of an innovation occurs through a five–step process. This process is a type of decision-making. It occurs through a series of communication channels over a period of time among the members of a similar social system. The five stages (steps) are: awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. An individual might reject an innovation at any time during or after the adoption process. Scholars such as Abrahamson (1991) examine this process critically by posing questions such as: How do technically inefficient innovations diffuse and what impedes technically efficient innovations from catching on? Abrahamson makes suggestions for how organizational scientists can more comprehensively evaluate the spread of innovations.

In later editions of the ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ Rogers changes the terminology of the five stages to: knowledge (the individual is first exposed to an innovation but lacks information about it and has not been inspired to investigate further), persuasion (the individual is interested in the innovation and actively seeks details), decision (the individual takes the concept of the change and weighs the advantages/disadvantages of using the innovation and decides whether to adopt or reject it), implementation (the individual employs the innovation to a varying degree depending on the situation), and confirmation (the individual finalizes his/her decision to continue using the innovation). The last stage is both intrapersonal (may cause cognitive dissonance) and interpersonal, confirmation the group has made the right decision.

The rate of adoption is defined as the relative speed in which members of a social system adopt an innovation. Rate is usually measured by the length of time required for a certain percentage of the members of a social system to adopt an innovation. The rates of adoption for innovations are determined by an individual’s adopter category. In general, individuals who first adopt an innovation require a shorter adoption period (adoption process) when compared to late adopters. Within the rate of adoption, there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass. This is a point in time within the adoption curve that the amount of individuals adopters ensure that continued adoption of the innovation is self-sustaining. Illustrating how an innovation reaches critical mass, Rogers outlines several strategies in order to help an innovation reach this stage. Strategies to propel diffusion include: when an innovation is adopted by a highly respected individual within a social network, creating an instinctive desire for a specific innovation. Also, injecting an innovation into a group of individuals who would readily use said technology, and providing positive reactions and benefits for early adopters of an innovation. Adoption is an individual process detailing the series of stages one undergoes from first hearing about a product to finally adopting it. The diffusion process, however, signifies a group of phenomena, which suggests how an innovation spreads among consumers. Overall, the diffusion process essentially encompasses the adoption process of several individuals over time.

In addition to the gatekeepers (such as journalists) and opinion leaders who exist within a given community, there are change agents from outside the community. Change agents essentially bring innovations to new communities– first through the gatekeepers, then through the opinion leaders, and so on through the community. Innovators are the first individuals to adopt an innovation. They are willing to take risks, are youngest in age, have the highest social class, have great financial liquidity, are very social and have contact with scientific sources and interaction with other innovators. Risk tolerance has them adopting technologies which may ultimately fail. Financial resources help absorb these failures. Early adopters comprise the second fastest category of individuals who adopt an innovation. These individuals have the highest degree of opinion leadership among the other adopter categories. Early adopters are more socially forward than late adopters, and more discrete in adoption choices than innovators. They realize judicious choice of adoption will help them maintain central communication position.

The Early Majority refers to individuals that adopt an innovation after a varying degree of time. This time of adoption is significantly longer than the innovators and early adopters. Those of the Early Majority seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in a system. Late Majority refers to individuals that adopt an innovation after the average member of the society. They approach an innovation with a high degree of skepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation. Late Majority individuals typically have below average social status, very little financial lucidity, are in contact with others in late majority and early majority, and form very little opinion leadership. Laggards are the last to adopt an innovation. Unlike some of the previous categories, individuals in this category show little to no opinion leadership. These individuals typically have an aversion to change-agents and tend to be advanced in age. Laggards typically tend to be focused on ‘traditions,’ have lowest social status, lowest financial fluidity, be oldest of all other adopters, and in contact with only family and close friends.

Rogers defines several intrinsic characteristics of innovations that influence an individual’s decision to adopt or reject an innovation: Relative Advantage (how improved an innovation is over the previous generation); Compatibility (the level of agreement that an innovation has to be assimilated into an individual’s life); Complexity or Simplicity (if the innovation is perceived as complicated or difficult to use, an individual is unlikely to adopt it); Trialability (how easily an innovation may be experimented — if a user is able to test an innovation, the individual will be more likely to adopt it; and Observability (the extent that an innovation is visible to others — an innovation that is more visible will drive communication among the individual’s peers and personal networks and will in turn create more positive or negative reactions).

Rogers also discussed so-called ‘failed diffusion,’ such as a situation in Peru involving the implementation of water boiling to obtain higher health and wellness levels of the individuals living within the village of Los Molinas. The residents of the village had no knowledge of the link between proper sanitation and reduced levels of illness. The campaign was working with the villagers to try and teach them how to boil their water to make it healthier for consumption, as well as to burn their garbage, install working latrines, and report cases of illness to proper agencies. In Los Molinas, a stigma is linked to boiled water as being something that only the ‘unwell’ consume, and thus, the idea of healthy residents boiling their water prior to consumption was frowned upon, and those who did so were rejected by their society. Thus, the two-year campaign to help bring more sanitary ways of living to this village was considered to be largely unsuccessful. Much of the reason for the lack of success is because the social norms and standards of acceptance into society greatly outweighed the idea of taking on this innovation, even at the sake of the health, well-being, and greater levels of education to the villagers. This failure better exemplified the importance of the roles of the interpersonal communication channels that are involved in such a health-related campaign for social change.

Lazarsfeld and Merton first called attention to the principles of homophily (‘love of the same’) and its opposite, heterophily (‘love of the different’). Using their definition, Rogers defines homophily as ‘the degree to which pairs of individuals who interact are similar in certain attributes, such as beliefs, education, social status, and the like.’ When given the choice, individuals usually choose to interact with someone similar to him or herself. Furthermore, homophilous individuals engage in more effective communication because their similarities lead to greater knowledge gain as well as attitude or behavior change. However, most participants in the diffusion of innovations are heterophilous, meaning they speak different languages, so to speak. The problem is that diffusion requires a certain degree of heterophily; if two individuals are identical, no diffusion occurs because no new information can be exchanged. Therefore, an ideal situation would involve two individuals who are homophilous in every way, except in knowledge of the innovation.

Throughout the diffusion process there is evidence that not all individuals exert an equal amount of influence over other individuals. In this sense there are Opinion Leaders, leaders who are influential in spreading either positive or negative information about an innovation. Rogers relies on the ideas of Katz & Lazarsfeld and the two-step flow theory in developing his ideas on the influence of Opinion Leaders in the diffusion process. Opinion Leaders have the most influence during the evaluation stage of the innovation-decision process. They have a set of characteristics that set them apart from their followers and other individuals; they typically have greater exposure to the mass media, are more cosmopolitan, have greater contact with change agents, more social experience and exposure, higher socioeconomic status, and are more innovative.

Research was done in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago attempting to assess the cost-effectiveness of broadcast advertising on the diffusion of new products and services. The findings were that opinion leadership tended to be organized into a hierarchy within a society, with each level in the hierarchy having most influence over other members in the same level, and on those in the next level below it. The lowest levels were generally larger in numbers, and tended to coincide with various demographic attributes that might be targeted by mass advertising. However, it found that direct word of mouth and example were far more influential than broadcast messages, which were only effective if they reinforced the direct influences. This led to the conclusion that advertising was best targeted, if possible, on those next in line to adopt, and not on those not yet reached by the chain of influence. It can be a waste of money to market to those not yet ready to buy. Other research relating the concept to public choice theory finds that the hierarchy of influence for innovations need not, and likely does not, coincide with hierarchies of official, political, or economic status. Elites are often not innovators, and innovations may have to be introduced by outsiders and propagated up a hierarchy to the top decision makers.

Prior to the introduction of the Internet, it was argued that social networks had a crucial role in the diffusion of innovation particularly Tacit knowledge. In the book ‘The IRG Solution – hierarchical incompetence and how to overcome it’ the authors argued that the widespread adoption of computer networks of individuals would lead to the much better diffusion of innovations, and with greater understanding of their possible shortcomings, and the identification of needed innovations that would not have otherwise occurred – the Relevance paradox. The social model proposed by Ryan and Gross (1943) is expanded by Valente (1996) who uses social networks as a basis for adopter categorization instead of solely relying on the system-level analysis used by Ryan and Gross. Valente also looks at an individual’s personal network, which is a different application than the organizational perspective espoused by many other scholars.

Innovations are often adopted by organizations through two types of innovation-decisions: collective innovation decisions and authority innovation decisions. The collective innovation decision occurs when the adoption of an innovation has been made by a consensus among the members of an organization. The authority-innovation decision occurs when the adoption of an innovation has been made by very few individuals with high positions of power within an organization. Unlike the optional innovation decision process, these innovation-decision processes only occur within an organization or hierarchical group. Within the innovation decision process in an organization there are certain individuals termed ‘champions’ who stand behind an innovation and break through any opposition that the innovation may have caused. The champion within the diffusion of innovation theory plays a very similar role as to the champion used within the efficiency business model Six Sigma. The innovation process within an organization contains five stages that are slightly similar to the innovation-decision process that individuals undertake. These stages are: agenda-setting, matching, redefining/restructuring, clarifying, routinizing.

The theories of diffusion have spread beyond the original applied fields. In the case of political science and administration, policy diffusion focuses on how institutional innovations are adopted by other institutions, at the local, state or country level. An alternative term is ‘policy transfer’ where the focus is more on the agents of diffusion such as in the work of Diane Stone. The first interests with regards to policy diffusion were focused in the variation over time (e.g. state lottery adoption) but more recently the interest has shifted towards mechanisms (emulation, learning, coercion), or in channels of diffusion (where the authors find that the creation of regulatory agencies is transmitted by country and sector channels). Eveland (1986) evaluated diffusion of innovations from a strictly phenomenological view, which is very different than the other perspectives. He asserts that, ‘Technology is information, and exists only to the degree that people can put it into practice and use it to achieve values.’ Diffusion of existing technologies has been measured. These technologies include radio, television, VCR, cable, flush toilet, clothes washer, refrigerator, home ownership, air conditioning, dishwasher, electrified households, telephone, cordless phone, cellular phone, per capita airline miles, personal computer, and the Internet. This data can be assessed as a valuable predictor for future innovations.

There are both positive and negative outcomes when an individual or organization chooses to adopt a particular innovation. Rogers states that this is an area that needs further research because of the biased positive attitude that is associated with the adoption of an innovation. Rogers lists three categories for consequences: desirable vs. undesirable, direct vs. indirect, and anticipated vs. unanticipated. In her article, ‘Integrating Models of Diffusion of Innovations,’ Barbara Wejnert details two categories for consequences: public vs. private and benefits vs. costs. Public consequences refer to the impact of an innovation on those other than the actor, while private consequences refer to the impact on the actor itself. Public consequences usually involve collective actors, such as countries, states, organizations, or social movements. The results are usually concerned with issues of societal well-being. Private consequences usually involve individuals or small collective entities, such as a community. The innovations are usually concerned with the improvement of quality of life or the reform of organizational or social structures. Costs may be monetary or nonmonetary, direct or indirect. Direct costs are usually related to financial uncertainty and the economic state of the actor. Indirect costs are more difficult to identify. An example would be the need to buy a new kind of fertilizer to use innovative seeds. Indirect costs may also be social, such as social conflict caused by innovation. Marketers are particularly interested in the diffusion process as it determines the success or failure of a new product. It is quite important for a marketer to understand the diffusion process so as to ensure proper management of the spread of a new product or service.

Much of the evidence for the diffusion of innovations gathered by Rogers comes from agricultural methods and medical practice. Various computer models have been developed in order to simulate the diffusion of innovations. Veneris developed a systems dynamics computer model which takes into account various diffusion patterns modeled via differential equations. There are a number of criticisms of the model which make it less than useful for managers. First, technologies are not static. There is continual innovation in order to attract new adopters all along the S-curve. The S-curve does not just ‘happen.’ Instead, the s-curve can be seen as being made up of a series of ‘bell curves’ of different sections of a population adopting different versions of a generic innovation. Rogers has placed the contributions and criticisms of diffusion research into four categories: pro-innovation bias, individual-blame bias, recall problem, and issues of equality. Another, criticism of the Diffusion of Innovation approach is that the communication process involved is a one-way flow of information. The sender of the message has a goal to persuade the receiver, and there is little to no dialogue. The person implementing the change controls the direction and outcome of the campaign. In some cases, this is the best approach, but other cases require a more participatory approach.

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