Imagine an entrepreneur or scientist after years of hard work come up with an innovative idea or introduce new technology in market which is practical and scientifically proven better. Is it going to replace an old ideas or products in no time? Or is it hard to replace old practices regardless how much new one is superior?

Diffusion of Innovations is a popular model which explain how an innovative idea or technology is spread and adopted and what are factors which influence this adaptation. The scope of this model is as wide as it explains how any idea or practice is adopted by individuals in a specific society and on the other hand it also helps to understand adoption of change at organizational level.

Everett M. Rogers was professor of Communication studies who synthesized various researches on diffusion and published his book in 1962 titled “Diffusion of Innovations”. It is still considered the most authentic work on the subject. Due to his work, this model has been applied to many other disciplines such as marketing, management, communication, development studies, public health and organizational studies.

What is Diffusion?

Rogers defined the diffusion as the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. 

From this definition, we identify four main elements in diffusion of new ideas:

  • Innovation
  • Communication Channel
  • Time
  • Social System

Let’s unpack all of these elements.

Innovation

According to the author, innovation is a new idea, practice or object perceived by an individual or any other unit of adoption i.e organization. Usually, innovation is considered as technological innovations. The hardware and software of technology are designed in a way to reduce uncertainty about achieving the desired outcome. But there is always uncertainty because of its newness to the individual. Therefore, individual seeks information so that he/she evaluate to reduce uncertainty about an innovation.

There are five characteristics of an innovation which determine its rate of adoption:

  • Relative Advantage: It is about how an individual perceive an innovation that is is better than others. What are advantages of using a new idea or innovation.
  • Compatibility: An innovation must be compatible with existing values, norms, and needs of individual and social system. Incompatible innovations are difficult to be adopted.
  • Complexity: If an innovation or idea are complex and difficult to understand and use than its adoption by individual will be slow.
  • Trialability:  If an individual can try an innovation or do experiment on limited basis then there are more chance of its adoption.
  • Observability: If it is easier for an individual to see the results of an innovation then there are more chances of success of innovation. So innovation should be visible to individuals.

Communication Channels

Communication is the process by which individuals create and share information in order to reach a mutual understanding. According to the author, diffusion is a particular type of communication in which the message content that is exchanged is concerned with a new idea. And communication channel is the means by which messages get from on individual to another.

Mass media channels are the efficient sources to get the message across to large number of potential adopters.  Mass media channels create awareness and knowledge about an innovation to target adopters. These channels include: radio, TV, newspapers. And in present times social media is the most powerful mass media channel.

Since diffusion is more of a social process so interpersonal channels are also among the most effective means of communication. Interpersonal channels involve a face to face or one to one exchange of knowledge between two or more individuals.

Many studies have proven this that individuals do not evaluate an innovation on the basis of scientific studies of its consequences but most people rely on information or experience sharing of other individuals who have adopted an innovation.

With regard to interpersonal channels, it is also worth noting that more effective communication happens between individuals who have similar attributes i.e beliefs, norms, education, social status. When such individuals share information through same language, the communication of new ideas is more effective in terms of knowledge gain, attitude formation and behaviour change.

According to the author, the ideal communication for diffusion happens when a change agent (who is selling innovation or advocating new idea) is more technically competent about innovation or idea than to his target audience. But on other variables like education, social status etc change agent and target audience are same.

Time

Time is considered as important variable in diffusion process. The author explains time variable by three ways:

Innovation Decision Process through which an individual goes from first knowledge of an innovation to forming an attitude towards the innovation to a decision to adopt or reject to implementation of the new idea and to confirmation of this decision. In this process, an individual seeks information at various stages in order to reduce uncertainty about an innovation. The decision stage leads to either adoption when individual is convinced and decides to full use of an innovation or rejection when individual decides not to use it.

Innovativeness tells us which an individual or organization is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than others. The author categorizes five adopters on the basis of their innovativeness:

  • Innovators: They are active information seekers about new ideas and they have high exposure to mass media and they interact with individual networks from other cities and countries. They are able to cope with uncertainty about innovation and they do not depend on subjective opinions of others.
  • Early adopters: They do not want to give the first try but very interested in trying new things. They do have good exposure which make them to adopt innovations early.
  • Early Majority: They adopt new ideas just before the average member of a social system. They have frequent interaction with peers but they are not leaders. They make an adoption visible in a social system.
  • Late Majority: They are reluctant at the start and later adopt an innovation after average members has done so. They adopt due to peer pressure.
  • Laggards: They live in the past and are averse to adopting any new good idea and practice. They are socially isolated and have limited resource and exposure to communication channels. They are the last to adopt an innovation.

Rate of Adoption is speed with which an innovation is adopted by members of a social system. The rate of adoption is explained by S-shaped curve. Most of innovations have S-shaped rate of adoption. This curve shows that only a few individuals adopt innovation in each time period (months and years). But soon the curve begins to climb as more and more individuals adopt and eventually curve begins to slow down as few individuals adopt innovation.

Rogers also established that innovators are only 2.5% of the adopters, early adopters are 13.5 %, early majority and late majority are 34% and laggard are 16% of total adopters. The figure below shows both the type of adopters and S-curve.

Adopter and S-Curve

Social System

Diffusion happens in a social system. According to the author, a social system is a set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem solving to accomplish a common goal. The members or units of social system may be individuals, informal groups or organizations.

A system has a structure which is a specific arrangement of members and units. It gives stability and regularity to individual behaviour in a system. The social and communication structure of a system facilitates or impedes the diffusion of innovations in the system.

A social system has norms which are established behaviour patterns for the members of the social system. It informs what is expected behaviour of individual in a social system. There are opinion leadership in a system who are able to influence informally other individuals’ attitudes or overt behaviours in a desired way.

Innovations can be adopted or rejected by a social system. The author distinguishes innovation decisions into following types.

Optional Innovation Decisions are choices made by an individuals independent of the decisions of other members of the system to adopt or reject an innovation.

Collective Innovation Decisions are choices made by consensus among the members of a system

Authority Innovation Decisions are choices made by relatively few individuals in a system who possess power, status or technical expertise. This is type is more common in organizations. And rate of adoption is also faster when decisions are made by authority.

Contingent Innovation Decisions are choices to adopt or reject that are made only after a prior innovation-decision.

Case Example of Diffusion of Innovation

The innovation of hybrid corn was new agricultural technologies in 1930s which revolutionized agricultural productivity. The diffusion of hybrid seed was promoted by Iowa Agriculture Extension Services and by salesmen of seed corn companies. Hybrid corn yielded about 20% more per acre than the open-pollinated varieties. The new seed was drought resistant and also better suited to harvesting with mechanical corn pickers. Its advantages were obvious and were proved by agriculturist but it took more than ten years to be adopted by farmers. And the real challenge was to change old farming practices and behaviors of farmers.

Two rural sociologists Ryan and Gross did their extensive research to understand diffusion of this innovation in rural community of Iowa. They studied and interviewed 259 farmers who adopted hybrid corn from 1928 to 1941 and found that only two adopted hybrid corn early and after first five years by 1933 only 10 percent of the farmer had adopted. Then the S-shaped curve took off as 40% adopted in the next three years in 1936.  And then adoption turned slow and only a few farmers adopted till 1941. The study also showed that innovators had large farms, higher incomes and education, and cosmopolite. But there were also typical farmers who were moved slowly from knowledge of innovation to adoption. Communication channels also influenced the innovation decision process. The typical farmers heard about the hybrid seed from the salesman but their neighbors were the most citied channel for late adopters. But rate of adoption took off due to interpersonal communication channels as farmer to farmer exchange of experience was made.

Disadvantage of Diffusion of Innovation

  • This model does not explain and predict the future of an innovative idea or product.
  • This model explains better adoption of behaviour and does not reflect on prevention of behaviour.  
  • The focus of this model is on an innovation and it ignores other complex factors such as culture, economic conditions.
  • In the present times, disruptive technologies might have a drastic impact on diffusion pattern and have altogether a different S-shaped curve. The explanation of such a pattern is not available in this model. 
  • It is also debated that since human living in a specific social system are complex phenomenon so it is difficult to quantify diffusion. Therefor, it is also hard to measure what are cause of adoption of an innovation.

Take Home Points

  • Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. 
  • So, it has four elements: innovation, communication channels, time and social system.
  • Innovation is a new idea and its diffusion depends on its higher relative advantage, higher compatibility, lower complexity, higher trialability and observability.
  • Communication channels help to get the information and knowledge about innovation across the target audience. For this, mass media channels are useful but most important are interpersonal exchange of experience and knowledge about innovation.
  • Time variable informs how individual decides about adopting innovation or rejecting innovation. It also categorizes who will adopt early and who will adopt late. This also tells about rate of adoption.
  • Social system explains what structure individuals or organization are operating in, what are their norms and beliefs living in a specific social system and how it affects adoption or rejection of innovation.

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