Purpose: To provide insights into how and why people adopt new ideas, practices, tools or other innovations.
Description: Everett Rogers’ theory of the diffusion of innovations among individuals and organisations, first published in 1962 (5th edition published 2003), is relevant in a wide range of areas, from farming to education, and medical practice to popular culture.
Rogers aimed to explain how and why individuals and organisations adopt new ideas, practices, tools or other innovations. Key aspects of his theory are described, focussing on:
- Five categories of adopters
- Five attributes of innovations that influence adoption
- How decisions to adopt or reject innovations are made at individual and organisational levels.
Five categories of adopters
Probably the most influential aspect of Everett Rogers’ theory is his characterisation of 5 categories of adopters: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. These are useful abstractions from a more complicated reality.
- Innovators are a small group of risk takers who actively seek out new ideas, practices, tools and so on, and who are keen to try something new. They become aware of innovations through their wide relationships with other innovators. They import new ideas, practices or tools into their local peer networks, although they may not be particularly respected in those networks. Their risk tolerance and financial resources mean that they are willing to fail.
- Early adopters are more careful (than innovators) about the innovations they take up. Their judicious choices about which innovations to adopt maintains their position as respected members of local peer networks; members who are turned to for advice and information. Once they have picked up an innovation, therefore, they serve as role models for others in their social system, by communicating their evaluation of the innovation to their peers. This allows others to have more certainty in picking up the innovation.
- Early majority are those who adopt the innovation just before the “average network member” does. They are an important source of momentum for the spread of the innovation.
- Late majority tend to be sceptical about innovations and want to be sure their investment will be worthwhile.
- Laggards are even more cautious and want to be sure the innovation will not fail.
Rogers provides more socioeconomic, personality and communication behaviour characteristics for each category and suggests that their distribution in the population is reasonably consistent (see figure below). Mass communication is important for spreading awareness about an innovation, but individual networks are critical for actual adoption, as potential adopters turn to peers for opinions and evaluations.
Five attributes of innovations that influence adoption
Rogers argued that whether and how fast an innovation is adopted depends on five attributes:
- Relative advantage – the degree it is perceived to improve on a previous innovation
- Compatibility – the degree it is perceived to be a) congruent with existing systems and b) consistent with the potential adopter’s values, needs and experiences, which determines the extent of behaviour change (and potentially change in values) required for uptake
- Complexity – how difficult it is to understand, learn and use
- Trialability – whether it can be tried before committing to adoption
- Observability – whether the results can be seen when others use the innovation; observing others can be a proxy for trialling the innovation oneself.
It is the perception of these attributes, rather than the actual attributes that is important. Similarly in terms of the innovation itself, it is the perception of newness, rather than actional novelty, that is important. Returning to the attributes, is the combination of attributes that determines adoption. In essence, ability and motivation have a large impact on a potential adopter’s likelihood of taking up an innovation. Those motivated to adopt something new are also likely to make the necessary adjustments and may even re-invent the innovation for their particular circumstances.
How decisions to adopt or reject innovations are made at individual and organisational levels
Rogers also put forward separate five step processes for individuals and organisations to explain how decisions about whether to adopt or reject innovations are made. The goal of the process is to reduce uncertainty and the steps do not need to be consecutive.
For individuals, the key steps are:
- Knowledge: becoming aware of the innovation’s existence and starting to understand how it works.
- Persuasion: developing a view about the innovation or an attitude towards it
- Decision: resolving to trial or adopt the innovation
- Implementation: starting to use the innovation and therefore learning about it and overcoming problems (further reducing uncertainty). At this stage reinvention can also occur.
- Confirmation: continuing to collect information that either reinforces the decision to use the innovation or that reverses it.
Awareness, how-to knowledge, opinions of peers and personal trials are all important. There is also the potential to reject the innovation at each stage in this process. Because there is always a cost to changing behaviour, it is common for people to know about an innovation and have a favourable attitude, without acting on it to change their practice.
At the organisational level, the innovation process is different as shown in the figure below.
- Agenda setting: The organisation identifies and prioritises needs and problems that could be addressed by changing how things are done.
- Matching: Specific needs or problems are matched with innovations that could solve them.
At this point a decision about proceeding is made, which could lead to implementation, involving:
- Redefining / restructuring: The organisation customises the innovation to suit its structure and culture, as well as the specifics of the need or problem.
- Clarifying: As the innovation starts to diffuse through the organisation, its members get a clearer and common understanding of it.
- Routinising: The innovation is embedded in the organisation and no longer distinctive.
Individual change is also embedded in organisational change.
- Rogers, E., M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations. 5th edn. Free Press (Division of Simon and Schuster): New York, United States of America.
- Singer, L. (no date). On the diffusion of innovations: How new ideas spread. (Online): https://leif.me/on-the-diffusion-of-innovations-how-new-ideas-spread/
- For an updated and more sophisticated model, specifically applied to health service delivery and organisation see:
- Greenhalgh, T., Robert, G., Macfarlane, F., Bate, P. and Kyriakidou, O. (2004). Diffusion of innovations in service organizations: Systematic review and recommendations. Milbank Quarterly, 82: 581-629. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0887-378X.2004.00325.x
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Posted: March 2021
Last modified: March 2021