Despite the greatness, technologies or ideas are born in embryonic form. Any amount of communication and social process fails to let it diffuse in society. However, adopters start deploying them as they grow due to the ability to offer profitable economic benefits in Getting jobs done better. Hence, Rogers’ theory, suffering from limitations in articulating it, has created the need of redefining Innovation diffusion theory.
Redefining innovation diffusion refers to addressing the limitations of Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory. Innovation diffusion refers to how ideas and technology spread in society. In his book Diffusions of Innovations, Everett Rogers argued that innovation diffuses through different segments of society due to a communication process. The time delay in diffusion through different adopter segments, such as (i) innovators, (ii) early adopters, (iii) early majority, (iv) late majority, and (v) laggards, have been due to varying receptiveness and communication barriers. Despite its usefulness in explaining the diffusion of hybrid seeds, vaccines, and a few others, Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory fails to explain the diffusion of technological ideas. Unfortunately, it’s still used and promoted to explain how technology ideas diffuse.
The underlying cause has been the lack of consideration of varying economic benefits that different user groups could derive and the changing economics of innovation in the technology life cycle. Hence, redefining innovation diffusion focuses on considering user segment-specific varying urgency and technology life cycle affecting the cost-benefit ratio. Moreover, although the social communication process plays a role in innovation diffusion, its role has substantially fallen due to the ease of communication in the Internet Age. Besides, the dynamic economic benefits of innovation due to the technology life cycle are quite different from the static innovation diffusion issue Rogers faced. As a result, Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory leads to misinterpretation and prediction, creating confusion in management decisions.
Key takeaways of redefining innovation diffusion
- Rigers’ innovation diffusion theory is based on interpreting how the idea of hybrid seeds or vaccines spreads as a communication and social process.
- Unlike seeds or vaccines, different categories of customers do not adopt technological innovations to serve exactly the same purpose to produce the same economic benefits.
- Instead of communication and social processes, economic benefits derived through the adoption of innovation affect the decisions of different customers.
- As technology keeps growing, economic benefits from the adoption of innovation in getting customer segment-specific Jobs to be done keep crossing the threshold level in favor of adoption, resulting in a temporally sequential adoption pattern.
- Without considering the technology life cycle unfolding fitness to purposes and economic benefits in a sequential manner, innovation diffusion through different segments as a sequential process cannot be explained.
- Hence, there has been a need for redefining innovation diffusion theory.
- As technology progression faces unpredictable barriers, chasms or pauses in innovation diffusion may occur anytime and multiple times.
Rogers’ theory and its limitations
While agricultural technology was advancing rapidly in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, investigating how independent farmers adopted hybrid seeds, equipment, and techniques led to Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory. Everett Rogers, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, synthesized research from over 508 diffusion studies across the fields. He applied detected patterns to the healthcare setting to address hygiene, cancer prevention, family planning, and drunk driving issues. Rogers proceeded to produce a theory of adopting innovations among individuals and organizations. In 1962, he presented his theory in a book: Diffusion of Innovations.
Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory has five main elements influencing the spread of a new idea: (i) innovation itself, (ii) adopters, (iii) communication channels, (iv) time, and (v) a social system. He argued that the time delay in the diffusion of innovation among five adopter groups has been due to adopters’ personal traits, social systems, and communication channels. All adopter groups seem to have homogenous requirements to be served by the innovation. Hence, he did not consider adopter group-specific varying economic benefits as an essential element or factor affecting innovation diffusion. However, unlike agricultural technologies like hybrid seeds or healthcare technologies like vaccines, technological innovation serves varying purposes for different customer or adopter groups. Hence, instead of social and communication issues, economic benefits derived by different customer groups in getting their jobs done by innovation appear to be the most influential factor affecting technology or idea diffusion.
For example, due to high economic benefits, the digital camera idea, in its crude form in the early stage of its life cycle, was first adopted for satellite imaging and missile tracking customers. Digital cameras diffused through other segments due to the progression of technology in improving the quality and reducing the cost.
Significant limitation of Rogers’ theory
There appear to be seven reasons why Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory is ineffective in interpreting the diffusion of technology innovations.
- Variations in jobs to be done with innovations by adopters—unlike hybrid seeds or vaccines, technology innovations do not serve the same purpose for all adopters. Besides, each adopter category does not deploy technology innovation in the same situation. Hence, fitness to purposes varies across the customer segments, affecting innovation diffusion.
- Varying economic benefits from innovations in getting jobs done—not all adopter segments derive the same financial benefit due to variations in getting jobs done and the operating environment.
- Role of externalities and timing affect the economics of innovation—externalities and timing play an essential role in adopting technological innovations. For example, mobile data networks influenced the adoption of smartphones.
- Technology life cycle affecting quality and cost— due to infancy, technology ideas in their birth cannot diffuse. As technology progresses, efficiency becomes dynamic. Along with the growth of the technology life cycle, the same idea, like mobile phones, starts getting attractive to successive adopter segments.
- Growth of innovation through feature bundling and enhancement—like smartphones, many innovations gain innovation diffusion momentum due to feature bundling. Notably, software has been adding speed to this innovation diffusion force.
- Adopters’ perception about innovators, continuity, and compatibility—the risk of continuity and compatibility affect innovation diffusion; besides, perception about innovators or brand value also plays a vital role in adopters’ decisions.
- Role of substitution and reinvention—from Edison’s lightbulb to Steve Jobs’ iPhone, all innovations faced diffusion barriers from substitutions, irrespective of their greatness. Besides, like the way digital cameras did to film counterparts, reinvention force stops the diffusion momentum of existing innovations.
Examples: demanding redefining innovation diffusion theory
The following 10 examples underscore the necessity of redefining innovation diffusion theory:
- Digital camera—according to Rogers’ adopter segmentation, space, military, and industrial users belong to innovator groups of digital cameras. Over the last 40 years, digital cameras have diffused all the adopter categories. Has it happened due to a communication process? In the absence of evolution due to the growth of the technology life cycle, could the digital camera reach the hands of everyone in the world?
- Computer—military belongs to the innovator segment of computer innovation. In the 1950s, there were only a few military customers for the computer. Its diffusion through subsequent market segments has occurred due to the advancement of semiconductor and software technology core and adaptation to consumer preferences in getting target jobs to be done.
- Mobile phone—during WWII, the US military carried mobile phones as backpacks. Mobiltelefonisystem A, introduced in Sweden in 1956, had a user unit weighing 40 kg. Even Motorola’s Dynatec handset, introduced in 1983, was a 3-pound machine costing $ 3,995. How has this idea of mobile phones reached the hands of billions of adopters, including farmers of less developed countries?
- Music player— Edison invented the Phonograph in 1877–an idea of music recording and playback. Despite the buzz, this great idea sat on the shelf and gathered dust over a decade. How has it diffused to the hands of everyone as a steaming service? Has it happened due to the communication effect?
- Airplane—after 15 years of invention, the Airplane idea was useless for mainstream customers. However, during the First World War, the US military found this great idea economically a better alternative for dropping bombs. Its diffusion through other adopter segments has been due to the advancement of technology and business model innovations.
- Smartphone—as of 2023, there appear to be over 6 billion smartphones worldwide. Many adults have multiple of them. Despite such a tremendous success of diffusion of this great idea, why did IBM not continue the maiden smartphone–Simon? Even the diffusion of the iPhone 1 came close to zero by the end of one year of launch. Is it because IBM or Apple could not communicate well about the benefits of Simon or iPhone 1?
- Automobile—one of the significant innovations has been the automobile. It started the journey as a three-wheeler. After 14 years of its unveiling in 1899, German automakers succeeded in selling only 900 cars. What has been the driving force of its remarkable diffusion?
- Electric vehicle—electric vehicle (EV) idea started its journey in the 1830s. Although there has been a surge in EV adoption at the dawn of the 21st century, what has been the driving force? Is it due to social and communication effects?
- Video on demand—in the middle of 1990s, a video on demand idea came up. By the end of the 1990s, during the dot.com burst, all the Startups pursuing video-on-demand went bankrupt. However, Netflix has created a success story out of the same idea. What is the underlying cause of the fall and rise of the diffusion of video-on-demand innovation? Can Rogers’ innovation diffusion theory explain it?
- Word processor—we all are users of word processors. Modern word processors as computer applications were born in the 1970s as dedicated computers, costing $12,000 and requiring an operator. How has it diffused as the preferred writing tool innovation?
Technology life cycle, dynamic efficiency, and varying purposes affect innovation diffusion
Unlike in the past, technology ideas in their birth do not qualify as better substitutes for existing means of getting jobs done. Hence, despite the latent potential, invariably, all significant innovations do not find adopters, whether we term them, innovators or early adopters. As a great idea, they sit on the shelf and gather dust. However, they are dynamic. Although they begin the journey in embryonic form, they are amenable to progression—offering increasing quality at a decreasing cost. Besides, unlike hybrid seeds or vaccines, adopters of different segments do not adopt innovation for the same purpose. Hence, the suitability for adoption and economic benefits from deployment vary across different groups. Such a reality has been the underlying force of time delay in adopting innovations by different customer groups.
For example, although people residing at the bottom of the income group’s pyramid are smartphone users, their primary purpose of adoption has not been using smartphones for sending e-mails or managing calendars. Instead, enjoying video content and socializing on Facebook are their primary purposes. Hence, busy professionals and low-income people have not been deriving the same economic benefit from smartphone adoption.
Any technology idea, including a light bulb, faces a barrier to diffusion due to the fitness to get jobs done (quality), cost, externalities, and side effects. For example, incandescent light bulbs were unsuitable for many lighting purposes. Similarly, music playback innovation suffered from limited reach due to the need for a dedicated player. However, the success of reinventing them has expanded the innovation diffusion scope, increasing the size of adopter groups.
Redefined innovation diffusion theory
There is no denying that the personal traits of adopters, communication channels, and the social system have implications on innovation diffusion. However, their implications are minimal, notably in this Internet age. Instead, following reoccurring patterns appears to be far more critical, affecting the spreading of new ideas in different adopter groups:
- jobs to be done and economic benefits–the main force of innovation diffusion has been the fitness to jobs to be done by different adopter groups better than ever before and the economic benefits they can derive from adoption.
- varying economic benefits and purposes to serve–all adopter groups do not adopt an innovation for the same or single purpose. They do not derive the same benefit from adopting an innovation either.
- substitutions—irrespective of greatness, all innovations face customer segment-specific barriers from substitutions. Hence, they need to keep overcoming to diffuse deeper through different adopter groups.
- technology life cycle and chasm—as the growth of the underlying technology core can make innovations better and cheaper, innovation diffusion through different adopter groups tends to synchronize with technology maturity. Chasm or pause of innovation diffusion may occur anytime due to the risk of facing barriers in technology progression.
- externalities—positive externalities like infrastructure, Network effect, compatibility, and standardization facilitate innovation diffusion. Similarly, negative externalities have impeding consequences.
- reinvention— irrespective of greatness, all innovations reach maturity and suffer from slow diffusion. However, the reinvention of matured innovation creates a new wave of diffusion—far more significant than before.
- perceived risk—perceived risk about reliability, maintainability, and compatibility also affects innovation diffusion.
In a competitive market, innovation diffusion takes place as wavelets caused by successive releases–as progressive waves. Each release appears as a burst of incremental advancement and works as a thrust in diffusing innovation deeper. Hence, innovation diffusion is an economic phenomenon instead of a social and communication process.