Theory Of Innovation Research Paper

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This research paper draws on the model of the diffusion of innovations in order to understand how social change occurs at the microlevel. Since the early 1940s, a large set of social scientists have investigated how new ideas, often technological in nature, spread among various types of audiences. Diffusion research provides improved understanding of technological determinism, defined as a belief that technology causes social changes in a system. The diffusion process also illuminates the social process of social determinism, defined as a belief that social forces like government regulations, social values, and human interaction shape technologies through a process of social construction. Research on the diffusion process shows the essentially social nature of the adoption of new ideas. Innovations spread in a population through a process of people talking to others. Such interpersonal communication facilitates a wide sharing of the meanings of a new idea, often leading to its adoption and use by the members of a system, but sometimes resulting in rejection of the innovation.

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Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system (Rogers 1995). Diffusion is a special type of communication process concerned with the spread of new ideas, messages that necessarily represent a high degree of uncertainty to the individuals involved. The diffusion of innovations has been studied by sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, social psychologists, economists, and communication scholars, and by researchers in public health, education, business management, marketing, and other fields.

For instance, anthropologists might study the consequences of a technological innovation on the culture of its users (Pelto 1973). Political scientists investigate the process through which new government programs and policies spread among nations, states, or cities (Walker 1966). Marketing scholars explore how a new product or service is sold to customers by business companies (Moore 1991). Communication scholars study the diffusion of a major news event like the Challenger disaster or a presidential assassination (Deutschmann and Danielson 1960). These varied fields share a common conceptual model of the diffusion of innovations. Few other research topics have received such multidisciplinary attention as has the diffusion of innovations (Rogers 1995).

1. Perceptions Of Innovations

An innovation is defined as an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. This definition is very broad, in that almost any kind of new idea, ranging from a new medical drug, to a new food, to the Internet, can be perceived by the members of a social system as an innovation. Most innovations that have been investigated in the some 5,000 diffusion studies to date are technological in nature.

The definition of an innovation as an idea perceived as new is consistent with the theoretical perspectives of W. I. Thomas and George Herbert Mead of the Chicago School, which flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century. Thomas’s dictum, that a situation is real to an individual if it is so perceived, suggested that perceptions count in understanding human behavior change. How an innovation is perceived on five dimensions determines its rate of adoption (as discussed later). The symbolic interactionist perspective based on Mead’s theory is also involved in the diffusion of innovations model. Initially, individuals perceive an innovation with a high degree of uncertainty; they want to know how it works, whether it is safe or risky to use, where to obtain it, and its advantages and disadvantages. These uncertainties are gradually overcome as an individual obtains technical information, subjective impressions, and social support concerning the new idea.

One or more individuals in a system must venture first in adopting a new idea. These innovators are open to taking risks, are oriented outside of their local system, and have sufficient resources so that the uncertainty of the innovation is not an important barrier to its adoption. When the innovators in a system adopt a new idea, they create widespread awareness–knowledge of it, although most members of the system continue to doubt its validity until the early adopters (who adopt following the innovators), including many opinion leaders in the system, begin using the new idea. At this point, the norms of the system change, so as to support adoption of the innovation. Gradually, once a critical mass is reached in the rate of adoption of an innovation, more and more individuals adopt the new idea. This diffusion process occurs over time as those who have already adopted talk about the innovation with other individuals who adopt, and who then tell yet others about the new idea. Subjective opinions of the innovation are passed via word-of-mouth channels, as individuals who have adopted tell potential adopters about the new idea.

2. Where Innovations Come From

A distinction should be made between innovation and invention, defined as the process in which a new idea is discovered or created. In contrast, innovation occurs when a new idea is adopted or rejected. So invention and innovation are two different processes, although both deal with a new idea (Rogers 1995, p. 135).

An innovation, especially a technological innovation, results from a process in which a need or problem is identified, research is conducted to invent a solution, and this invention is then developed and commercialized into a product or service that is sold in the marketplace. Development of an innovation is the process of putting a new idea in a form that is expected to meet the needs of an audience of potential adopters. So the research and development process represents a transformation of an invention into a form that will be more acceptable to potential adopters.

A technology is information that is put into use in order to carry out some task (Eveland 1986). Technology transfer is the exchange of technical information between the R&D workers who create a technological innovation and the users of the new idea. Investigations and experience to date suggest that technology transfer is very difficult; many attempts at such transfer fail. A well-known case of failed technology transfer is the attempted conversion of technological innovations like the mouse, bitmapped display, icons, and the personal computer (that is, a computer designed to be used by an individual) from the Xerox Corporation’s R&D center in California into a marketable product. Instead, Apple Computer marketed these technologies as the Apple Macintosh in 1984. Appropriately, the book reporting this case is entitled Fumbling the Future (Smith and Alexander 1988).

Why is technology transfer so difficult? One reason is because the R&D workers who invent or develop the technological innovation perceive that it is so advantageous that it will diffuse with little effort. Such overconfidence is seldom justified. The creators of the technology are usually technical experts who fail to perceive how their customers will regard the innovation (Moore 1991). Seldom do technological innovations diffuse themselves; usually an organized effort is needed to secure the adoption of the new idea. After the critical mass is reached in the diffusion process for the new idea, however, further diffusion may be self-sustaining.

3. Perceived Attributes Of Innovations

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

3.1 Relative Advantage

Relative advantage is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes. Relative advantage may be perceived in economic terms, or as social prestige, convenience, and satisfaction. Whether an innovation has a great deal of objective advantage is not so important in determining its rate of adoption as whether an individual perceives the innovation as advantageous. The greater the perceived relative advantage of an innovation, the more rapid its rate of adoption.

3.2 Compatibility

Compatibility is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters. If an idea is perceived as being incompatible with the values and norms of a social system, it will not be adopted rapidly.

3.3 Complexity

Complexity is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and put into use. Certain innovations are easily understood by the members of a social system. Others are more complicated and will be adopted more slowly.

3.4 Trialability

Trialability is the degree to which an innovation can be experimented with on a limited basis. Innovations that are divisible for trial represent less uncertainty to the individual, who can learn by trying out the new idea. Such trial often encourages full-scale adoption of the innovation. An early and important study of the diffusion of hybrid seed corn among Iowa farmers found that almost everyone adopted the seed corn after trying out the innovation on a few acres; several years of trial were required for most individuals before they adopted the hybrid seed on 100 percent of their corn acreage (Ryan and Gross 1943).

3.5 Observability

Observability is the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. The visibility of an innovation stimulates peer discussion of the new idea, and thus more rapid adoption.

Of these five perceived attributes of innovations, relative advantage and compatibility have been found to be most important in determining the rate of adoption of an innovation. However, for certain innovations, like consumer electronics products, perceived complexity may be very important.

The diffusion of the Internet has been exceedingly rapid. From 1990 to 2000, the number of individuals adopting the Internet in North America rose from approximately five million to 200 million (some 70 percent of all US households). During the late 1990s, the rate of adoption of the Internet also reached critical mass in Asia, where the diffusion of the Internet reached about 200 million users by 2000. Perhaps the Internet has diffused more rapidly than any other innovation in the history of humankind.

Why has the Internet diffused so rapidly? The idea of computer networking began in 1969, and required 20 years (until 1989) before reaching critical mass. During this period, many unconnected computer networks arose: ARPANET, BITNET, NSFNET, HPNET, and others. The Internet provides a network of interconnected computer networks which allows an individual to communicate with many others at great distances at rapid speed for a very low cost. This ‘faster, better, quicker’ quality of the Internet leads to a high degree of perceived relative advantage. This innovation is also compatible with the previous idea of writing letters and using computers, so Internet use did not demand learning many new skills. Where the Internet has been incompatible with a system’s values, such as in France, where the English language dominance of the Internet and the World Wide Web is incompatible with French values concerning their language and culture, the rate of adoption of the Internet is relatively slow.

4. Preventive Innovations

Certain types of innovations, even though they might be beneficial for society, diffuse relatively slowly. For instance, preventive innovations are new ideas that are adopted in order to avoid some unwanted future consequences. Because the advantages of preventive innovations are uncertain and delayed in time, their rate of adoption is particularly slow. Consider a preventive innovation like HIV/AIDS prevention. Adoption of a preventive innovation like ‘safe sex’ may help avoid becoming infected with HIV at some future time. But the individual might not have contracted the virus even without adopting safe sex. The rewards of adoption are delayed in time and uncertain as to whether adoption of the innovation was really needed. The unwanted event to be avoided is a nonevent, the absence of an unwelcome situation that otherwise might have happened. Such nonevents are difficult to count. Examples are noninfection with HIV, births averted by adopting family planning methods, and so forth. These behavior changes are low in visibility and difficult for individuals to perceive.

Taboo innovations, defined as new ideas that are perceived as extremely private and personal in nature (Rogers 1995, p. 237), are also difficult to diffuse. For example, national governments in many countries have launched health campaigns to diffuse condom use for the prevention of unwanted births and for HIV/AIDS prevention. In many cultures, peer discussion of condoms is taboo, and so the rate of adoption of this innovation is relatively slow. The taboo nature of certain innovations may be overcome by the use of humor, or by other strategies.

5. 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. A social system may be composed of units that are individuals, informal groups, organizations, and/or other subsystems. The social system’s norms, the established behavior patterns for the members of a social system, have been found to affect the rate of diffusion of an innovation. When the new idea is introduced in the system, the norms may initially be unfavorable. But after opinion leaders, individuals able to influence informally other individuals’ attitudes or overt behavior in a desired way with relative frequency, adopt, a ‘tipping point’ occurs, and the system’s norms then encourage further diffusion.

A critical mass is the point at which enough individuals have adopted an innovation so that the innovation’s further rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining. The critical mass is one reason why, after a relatively slow start (20 years in the case of the Internet), the rate of adoption of an innovation in a system takes off to form the familiar S-shaped curve. Eventually the rate of adoption of a new idea grows more slowly, and levels off, as fewer and fewer individuals remain to adopt.

Some social systems are characterized by a rapid rate of adoption of technological innovations. An example is a technopolis (technology city) like Silicon Valley in Northern California; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Tsukuba, Japan; Cambridge, UK; and Bangalore and Hyderabad in India. These technology cities are centers for the R&D to produce technological innovations, and flourish economically because of the vast wealth produced by high-tech spin-off companies. A spin-off is a new company that is formed by individuals who were former employees of a parent organization, and a core technology that is transferred from a parent organization. Spin-offs are a means of technology transfer, particularly in such high-technology industries as computers, biotechnology, and Internet-related companies. Each spin-off company uses a technological innovation as its entry ticket into a high-technology industry. If this technology can be commercialized into an innovative product that diffuses rapidly in the marketplace, the new company may expand rapidly, making its founders very wealthy.

An analysis of the economic growth by metropolitan regions in the USA during the 1990s showed that 70 percent of such growth was explained by the rise of high-tech spin-off companies, which in turn was related to the presence of research universities or other R&D facilities (Devol 1999). Thus technological innovation is the key factor in economic development.


  1. Deutschmann P J, Danielson W A 1960 Diffusion of knowledge of the major news story. Journalism Quarterly 37: 345–55
  2. Devol R C 1999 America’s High-Tech Economy: Growth, Development, and Risk for Metropolitan Areas. Report, Miliken Institute, Santa Monica, CA
  3. Eveland J D 1986 Diffusion, technology transfer, and implementation. Knowledge 8(2): 303–22
  4. Moore G K 1991 Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers. HarperBusiness, New York
  5. Pelto P J 1973 The Snowmobile Revolution: Technology and Social Change in the Artic. Cummings, Menlo Park, NJ
  6. Rogers E M 1995 Diffusion of Innovations, 4th edn. Free Press, New York
  7. Ryan B, Gross N C 1943 Diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities. Rural Sociology 8: 15–24
  8. Smith D K, Alexander R C 1988 Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored the First Personal Computer. William Morrow, New York
  9. Walker J L 1966 The diffusion of innovations among the American states. American Political Science Review 63: 880–99
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