Diffusion Of Innovations Research Paper

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This research paper discusses the model of the diffusion of innovations and describe this model’s key variables. First, however, a brief history of diffusion research is presented. The paradigm for diffusion research can be traced to the rural sociology research tradition, which began in the l940s. Rural sociology is a subfield of sociology that focuses on the social problems of rural life. One rural sociology study in particular influenced the methodology, theoretical framework, and interpretations of later students in the rural sociology tradition, and in other diffusion research traditions. Ryan and Gross (1943) investigated the diffusion of hybrid seed corn among Iowa farmers. Hybrid seed, the result of agricultural research, was made available to Iowa farmers in 1928. The hybrid vigor of the new seed increased corn yields on Iowa farms, hybrid corn varieties withstood drought more effectively than the open-pollinated seed they replaced, and hybrid corn was better suited to harvesting by mechanical corn pickers. By 1941, about 13 years after its first release, the innovation was adopted by almost 100 percent of Iowa farmers. Ryan and Gross studied the relatively rapid diffusion of hybrid corn in order to obtain lessons learned that might be applied to the diffusion of other farm innovations. However, the intellectual influence of the hybrid corn study reached far beyond the study of agricultural innovations, and outside of the rural sociology tradition of diffusion research. Since the 1960s, the diffusion model has been applied in a wide variety of disciplines such as education, public health, communication, marketing, geography, sociology, and economics (Pelto 1973, Rosen 2000, Van den Ven et al. 1989, Zaltman et al. 1973). Diffusion studies in these various disciplines have ranged from the rapid diffusion of the Internet to the nondiffusion of the Dvorak keyboard (in typewriters and computers). The innovations that have been studied in diffusion research have mainly been technological innovations.

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Diffusion is the process by which (a) an innovation (b) is communicated through certain channels (c) over time (d) among the members of a social system (Rogers 1995). Diffusion is a special type of communication concerned with the spread of messages that are perceived as new ideas, and necessarily represents a high degree of uncertainty to the individual. The four main elements in the diffusion of new ideas are (a) the innovation, (b) communication channels, (c) time, and (d) the social system.

1. The Innovation

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. Some innovations diffuse relatively slower, and other innovations diffuse faster. Why do certain innovations spread more quickly than others? The characteristics which determine an innovation’s rate of adoption are: (a) relative advantage, (b) compatibility, (c) complexity, (d) trialability, and (e) observability.

1.1 Relative Advantage

This is 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.

1.2 Compatibility

This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being 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.

1.3 Complexity

This 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 understandings.

1.4 Trialability

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

1.5 Observability

This is the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. The easier it is for individuals to see the results of an innovation, the more likely they are to adopt it. Such visibility stimulates peer discussion of a new idea, as friends and neighbors of an adopter often request innovation-evaluation information about it.

2. Communication Channels

The second main element in the diffusion of new ideas is the communication channel. Communication is the process by which participants create and share information with one another in order to reach a mutual understanding. A communication channel is the means by which messages get from one individual to another. Mass media channels are more effective in creating knowledge of 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. So the process is essentially social in nature, being driven by individuals talking to others about the new idea, as they give meaning to the innovation.

3. Time

The third main element in the diffusion of new ideas is time. The time dimension is involved in diffusion in three ways.

3.1 Innovation-Decision Process

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 first knowledge of an innovation to forming an attitude toward the innovation, to a decision to adopt or reject, to implementation of the new idea, and to confirmation of this decision. An individual seeks information at various stages in the innovation-decision process in order to decrease uncertainty about an innovation’s expected consequences.

3.2 Innovativeness

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 on the basis on their innovativeness: (a) innovators, (b) early adopters, (c) early majority, (d) late majority, and (e) laggards.

3.2.1 Innovators. These are the first 2.5 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. Venturesomeness 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 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: that of launching the new idea in the system by 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.

3.2.2 Early Adopters. These are the next 13.5 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. Early adopters are a more integrated part of the local system than are innovators. Whereas innovators are cosmopolites, early adopters are localites. 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 a local missionary for speeding the diffusion process. Because early adopters are not too far ahead of the average individual in innovativeness, they serve as a role-model for many other members of a social system. The early adopter is respected by his or her peers, and is the embodiment of successful, discrete use of new ideas. The early adopter knows that to continue to earn this esteem of colleagues and to maintain a central position in the communication networks of the system, they must make judicious innovation-decisions. The early adopter decreases uncertainty about a new idea by adopting it, and then conveying a subjective evaluation of the innovation to near-peers through interpersonal networks.

3.2.3 Early Majority. This is the next 34 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. The early majority adopt new ideas just before the average member of a system. The early majority interact frequently with their peers, but 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 them an important link in the diffusion process. They provide interconnectedness in the system’s interpersonal networks. The early majority are 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. They follow with deliberate willingness in innovations, but seldom lead.

3.2.4 Late Majority. This is the next 34 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. The late majority adopt new ideas just after the average member of a system. Like the early majority, the late majority make up one-third of the members of a system. Adoption may be the result of increasing network pressures from peers. Innovations are approached with a skeptical and cautious air, and the late majority 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 are convinced. The pressure of peers is necessary to motivate adoption. Their relatively scarce resources mean that most of the uncertainty about a new idea must be removed before the late majority feel that it is safe to adopt.

3.2.5 Laggards. These 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 localite 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 laggard’s viewpoint, as their resources are limited and they must be certain that a new idea will not fail before they can adopt.

3.3 Rate Of Adoption

The third dimension 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 usually is measured as the number of members of the system that adopt the innovation in a given time period. As shown previously, an innovation’s rate of adoption is influenced by the five perceived attributes of an innovation.

4. The Social System

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

A fourth type of research involves the types of innovation-decisions (whether individual adoption decisions or organizational decisions, and whether they are made by an authority or by consensus). Another type of research, conducted mainly by anthropologists, analyzed the consequences of innovation.

A crucial concept in understanding the nature of the diffusion process is the critical mass, which occurs at the point at which enough individuals have adopted an innovation 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 getting 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 instrumental in getting an innovation to the point of critical mass, and hence, in the successful diffusion of an innovation.

5. Opinion Leaders

The two-step flow model of mass communication suggests that communication messages flow from a source, via mass media channels, to opinion leaders, who in turn pass them on to followers (Rogers 1995). This two-step flow model of mass communication can be utilized to diffuse an innovation. The model focuses attention on the inter-media interface between mass media channels and interpersonal communication channels. Mass media channels are primarily creators of awareness-knowledge of innovations, while interpersonal networks are more important in persuading individuals to adopt or reject innovations.

The two-step flow model highlights the importance of opinion leaders in diffusing innovations, and especially in reaching the critical mass. Opinion leaders informally influence other individuals’ attitudes or overt behavior in a desired way with relative frequency, so they are critical to the successful diffusion of innovations.

6. New Communication Technologies

We live in the age of a communication revolution. New and developing communication technologies, and, ultimately, equipment and systems, are influencing the communication industry and American society greatly. Take the Internet, for example. The Internet is a network of interconnected computer systems. By using the Internet as a data highway, an individual can communicate with colleagues and friends at great distance very cheaply, and gain direct access to information in other computer systems. Therefore, diffusion of the Internet has been exceedingly rapid. From 1990 to 2001, the number of individuals adopting the Internet in North America rose from approximately 5 million to 200 million. A huge percentage of the population is interconnected via the Internet. The critical mass in the diffusion of the Internet occurred in about 1989 or 1990, after 20 years of very slow increase in the rate of adoption of computer networks.

Most schools and local libraries are connected to the Internet, and can provide Internet access to individuals who otherwise might not own, or have access to, a computer. The potential for using computer-mediated communication for outreach activities is enormous, and the nature of the diffusion process may be speeding up and becoming less spatially restricted.


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  2. Rogers M 1995 Diffusion of Innovations 4th edn. Free Press, New York
  3. Rosen E 2000 The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing. Doubleday Currency, New York
  4. Ryan B, Gross C 1943 The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities. Rural Sociology 8: 15–24
  5. Van de Ven H, Angle H L, Poole M (eds.) 1989 Research on the Management of Innovation: The Minnesota Studies. Ballinger Harper & Row, New York
  6. Zaltman G, Duncan R, Holbeck J 1973 Innovations in Organizations. Wiley, New York
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