The sociological theory of diffusion of innovation analyzes the development, adoption, and success of inventions, new ideas, processes, and technologies. With globalization and worldwide interconnectedness of business, cultures, and communications steadily increasing, the spread of innovation is more often accelerated as diffusion patterns change. As the adoption or rejection of new abstract ideas depends significantly on the attitudes of individuals, groups, organizations, or nation-states, the communication and persuasion means employed to influence potential adopters are of the highest significance for the diffusion of innovation. Ultimately the adoption or rejection of innovations may initiate or accelerate structural change.
Diffusion refers to “the process in which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.” Innovations are new ideas, the new application of innovations, or an idea perceived as new. When it comes to the adoption of innovations and ideas, one of the central questions surrounding diffusion research is the identification of differences between early and late adopters.
Innovativeness refers to the willingness and ability to adopt new ideas earlier than other people or groups. Are some actors more open to innovation than others? The literature identifies six factors that characterize adopters: (1) societal entity of innovators, (2) familiarity with the innovation, (3) status characteristics, (4) socioeconomic characteristics, (5) relative position in social networks, and (6) personal characteristics. Apart from these actor-specific characteristics, the nature of the environment is also important in terms of adoption and diffusion.
Although the focus of many diffusion studies is more upon the individual and group attitudes toward innovation or the environmental context, the adoption of innovation also has consequences for the actor(s): these consequences can be differentiated into private and public consequences. The adoption of innovation that results in private consequences includes innovation that directly shapes the well-being and structures of individuals, small organizations, and communities. Public consequences tend more to involve and influence macro-structures, and societal and historical issues. In more recent years, the role of the media in the diffusion of innovation and the persuasion of actors has been recognized.
A further area of interest is the role of the perceived attribute of an innovation in the rate of adoption. Individuals may understand innovation based on (1) the relative advantage of the innovation in comparison to existing solutions and practices, (2) its compatibility with existing and potential needs and experiences, (3) its complexity in terms of the degree of understanding, (4) the trial ability, that is, to experience the innovation to a certain degree and time period, and (5) the observability or degree to which an innovation or its results are observable. The thesis is that if individuals see the success of an innovation they are more likely to adopt it.
Time is a critical element in the diffusion of new ideas as it involves (a) the innovation-decision process, (b) innovativeness, and (c) the innovation’s rate of adoption. The innovation-decision process is a process of learning about the innovation, the building of an attitude toward the innovation that results in the decision to either adopt or reject the innovation, the modes and extents of the implications of the innovation, and confirmation of the decision. An S-shaped diffusion curve distinguishes earlier adopters from late adopters. The curve starts slowly in line with the few early adopters, followed by an overproportional growth, followed by a stagnation phase. The five adopter categories include innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
In 1903 French sociologist Gabriel Tarde identified the “laws of imitation,” that is, the diffusion of the innovation process that explains the rate of adoption or the diffusion rate. Tarde recognized that the rate of adoption follows the S-shaped diffusion curve. Years later, a number of European anthropologists in England and Germany-Austria used diffusion research to explain the consequences of innovation as they pertain social change in a society. One of the early explicit diffusion studies was conducted by Ryan and Cross in their examination of the spread of hybrid-corn use in 1943. In his seminal 1962 book Diffusion of Innovation, Everett Rogers identified major diffusion research traditions ranging from anthropology, sociology, education, communication, marketing and management, and geography. From then on, various disciplines used diffusion research to analyze the sequence and consequences of innovations.
Everett Rogers identified eight main types of diffusion research: Earliness of knowing about innovation, rate of adoption of different forms of innovation in a social system, innovativeness, opinion leadership, diffusion networks, rate of adoption in different social systems, communication channel usage, and consequences of innovation. The study of the diffusion of innovation is relevant for areas such as information system research, knowledge management, marketing, change management research, and social change research.
- Susan A. Brown, Norman L. Chervany, and Bryan A. Reinicke, “What Matters When Introducing New Information Technology,” Communications of the ACM (v.50/9, 2007);
- Kenneth H. Keller, “From Here to There in Information Technology,” American Behavioral Scientist (v.52/1, 2008);
- Constantinos Markides, “Rethinking Innovation,” Leader to Leader (v.34, 2004);
- Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed. (Free Press,  2003);
- Everett M. Rogers, “New Product Adoption and Diffusion,” Journal of Consumer Research (v.2, 1976);
- Barbara Wejnert, “Integrating Models of Diffusion of Innovations: A Conceptual Framework,” Annual Review of Sociology (v.28/1, 2002);
- Wa Wulf, “Changes in Innovation Ecology,” Science (v.316/5829, 2007).
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