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Diffusion of innovation theory was developed in the early 1950s by Everett Rogers. It seeks to explain the spread of new ideas through individuals and members of a social system. This theory is still widely used now to spread innovations and ideas from the scientific world to the political sphere.
Therefore, diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels of communication over time among the members of a social system. Diffusion therefore is a special type of communication concerned with the spread of messages and ideas that are perceived as new.
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.
In his book ‘Diffusion of Innovations,’ (1995) Everett Rogers proposed 4 main elements that influence the spread of a new idea:
The social system
For diffusion of an idea to occur, it must be evident what kind of idea is being presented, is it viable and who the target of the innovation is. The rate if diffusion of an innovation is determined by such factors as the relative advantage, compatibility, the trialability and its usefulness in solving the needs of the targeted populace.
This is the process by which participants create and share information with the sole aim of creating an understanding with each other within the communication process. Any communication is passed through a communication channel which is the means of message transfer from one person to the other. In communicating innovations, mass media is the most effective in creating knowledge of the inventions. Interpersonal media are more effective in forming and changing attitudes towards an idea. This therefore leads to adoption thus diffusion of the idea and or product.
The time component is involved in diffusion of an innovation in three ways.
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.
Secondly, time is involved in diffusion in the innovativeness of an individual or other unit of adoption. There is a relative difference in the rate t which different individuals adopt an innovation. This leads to the discussion of the five categories of adopters in a social system.
Innovators – 2.5%
Early adopters – 13.5%
Early majority – 34%
Late majority – 34%
Laggards – 16%
The third way 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 is usually measured as the number of members of the system that adopt the innovation in a given time period.
The social system
The fourth main element in the diffusion of new ideas is the social system. This is a set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem-solving to accomplish a common goal. The members may be comprised of individuals, organizations and or even formal and informal groups. They are bound by practices, cultures, behaviors and beliefs which form a boundary within which diffusion occurs. The change agents within a social system will define the rate of diffusion within the social system.
Therefore, the social system is comprised of the five categories of adopters: –
These are the first 2.5 percent of the individuals in a system to adopt an innovation. They are an aggressive lot and do have communication circles amongst themselves and their peers. These individuals have some characteristics
They have cosmopolitan patterns of communication; out of the local scene
They have control of substantial resources which is important in a case when they lose from an unprofitable invention
Ability to cope with an innovation’s high level of uncertainty during the adoption process
Ability to understand and apply technical knowledge
The innovators therefore play a crucial role in the diffusion of an invention and also do gate keeping of the ideas. This is solely because they source for innovations from outside their social systems.
These are the next 13.5 percent of the members of a social system to adopt an innovation. They are the more integrated locals in a social system compared to the innovators who are more cosmopolitan.
Early adopters are often opinion leaders, serving as role-models for many other members of the social system. They are instrumental in getting an innovation to the point of critical mass, and hence, in the successful diffusion of an innovation.
They look up to the early adopters for advice and therefore looked at as the catalysts to speed up the diffusion of the innovation.
They dispel any fears of the new invention by adopting it themselves and then conveying a subjective evaluation of the innovation to near-peers through interpersonal networks.
This forms the next 34 percent of a social system to adopt an innovation. They adopt new ideas just before the average member of a social system. They frequently interact but do not hold any position as opinion leaders. They lie between the early adopters and the late adopters thereby being an important aspect in speeding up the diffusion process by providing the interlink between the two groups.
They are quite laid back in leadership in adoption of an idea but they provide the followers for the adoption.
This is the next 34 percent of the adopters within a social system. They adopt ideas after the average member of the society has adopted the innovation. This group is approached with extra caution, care and skill. This is because they wait until almost everyone else in the system has adopted the idea. Peer pressure may be an important skill to be used when approaching such a lot. They must feel safe before they adopt the innovation; this is subject to their relatively scarce resources.
This is the last 16 percent of the individuals in a social system to adopt an innovation. They posses no amount of opinion leadership and are so located within their locality and are isolated from any if not all the social systems. Their point of reference is the past and therefore decisions are made in terms of what has been happening or what happened previously. They are resistant to change and they need to be sure that the innovation will not fail before they can adopt it.
The Diffusion Process
According to Henry Assael (1995) diffusion is the process by which the adoption of an innovation is spread over time to members of a target market by communication.
The diffusion process requires an understanding of the following: –
The nature of the adoption
The element of time
The target market
Communication within and across groups.
The adoption of an innovation requires members of a group or individual to make a decision in regard to the new product line or idea. If adopters influence others to buy a product, both within and outside their reference groups, then the diffusion process starts. Therefore, adoption is the first step in the diffusion process.
The adoption process is one that involves decision whereby the consumer recognizes a need for the product (awareness), searches for information (knowledge acquisition)., evaluates alternatives, makes the decision, whether or not adopt the product and evaluates the product after purchase.
Steps in the Adoption Process
Consumers receive information about the product either through mass media or word of mouth. This therefore creates awareness of the product. This is normally perfected through advertisement on the mass media. For example a case at home is the recent revolution in the mobile telephone operators in the country. Zain Kenya lowered its tariffs to a then unbelievable Kshs. 3 for calling across all networks and SMS for only Kshs. 1 across all networks. This brought the awareness of the operator and its product.
At this point, the consumers already know about the product but they do not know whether the product is going to fulfill their needs. As a result of this therefore, consumers will collect information about the product, performance, service and availability. Taking the Zain Kenya example; following on the advertisement, many individuals was interested in knowing the performance of the new product and whether the prices were real as indicated without decline in the services they offer.
After collecting the above information, the consumers will evaluate the innovation more closely on range of factors such as prices, product features, frequency of use and its substitutability with existing products. This is the point whereby consumer will form a favorable or unfavorable attitude towards the product. A favorable attitude means that the consumers will try out the product.
At this very point, outright adoption may be risky and therefore the consumers will try out the product first.
For instance, in the case of Zain Kenya tariffs, the consumers could just try out the product by may be purchasing a line which they could be using to call one or two persons as a matter of trials. However, with capital intensive products, the consumers may opt to rent the product first since it is too risky to purchase a product which may lead to a massive loss if it does not work out as expected.
If the product performance is proven to be worth it during trial, then consumers may adopt it at this stage. However, rejection may occur at earlier stages if the innovation is deemed to be useless and cannot serve the interest and needs of the customers.
Adoption enough does not guarantee success of the innovation. It is followed by an assessment of the product after purchase. This will decide whether the innovation can still be used and sustained by the customer. Therefore, the success of a product lies squarely on the rate of repurchase. However, initial adoption is more important in defining the success of a discontinuous innovation since the first purchase for example of a mobile phone or a personal computer is significant.
Characteristics that Encourage Adoption
Rodgers and Shoemaker identified the following five characteristics which increase the rate of acceptance and diffusion of a new product.
This is the rate to which consumers perceive a product as being superior to existing substitutes. For instance farmers in Kericho tea farms are in support of the machines which harvest tea due to its superiority to human labour. With the machines, the farmers can harvest tea three to four times a month compared to once a month done with the human labour.
This is the degree to which a product is consistent with consumer’s needs, attitudes and past experiences. The tea harvesting machines are efficient to the farmers and therefore it effectively serves their needs. Due to this fact, the innovation is readily accepted by the tea farmers.
This is the ease with which to use the new product. The tea harvesting machine is easy to use compared to the tedious human labour therefore getting adopted by the farmers.
This relates to the ease to which the product can be used and be communicated to potential customers.
This is the degree to which a product can be tried before adoption. Discontinuous innovations generally have little trialability.
Studies of these factors generally indicate that relative advantage and compatibility are the most important in influencing adoption of an innovation.
Characteristics that Encourage Rejection of an Innovation
Ram and Sheth in their study of diffusion identified three factors which lead to rejection of An innovation.
This is a product’s lack of performance relative to price in comparison with the substitute products.
This is an instance whereby the innovation is not compatible with the users’ habits, past experiences and also needs.
This presents a consumer with a wide range of risk in case he or she intends to use the product. This includes physical, economic, performance and or social risk of adopting the innovation. The higher the risk involved, the higher the rate of rejection of the innovation.
Application of the Theory
This theory is applied mostly as the name suggests in the spread of new ideas within and without a social system.
The Ministry of Higher Education in Kenya
Former Minister of Higher Education, Hon William Ruto tried to push for the idea of government only sponsoring those courses in universities which will enable the country to realize vision 2030. This new idea did not do so well in all quarters starting from the universities to the lecturers themselves. This was due to the claim that they were not consulted as the stakeholders of the education sector. The minister did not consult with the stakeholders and is why this noble idea was not adopted by the concerned parties. The problem with the new idea was due to poor communication of the idea to all quarters concerned. It seemed not to fulfill the needs of the consumers of the idea and also was not consistent with the daily routine, beliefs and norms of the stakeholders of the education sector and the consumers.
The Tea Harvesting Machines (Shears) in Kenya’s Tea Farms
The invention of tea harvesting machines has led to rejection by the workers’ union and casual laborers since it will result in unemployment.
On the other hand this was embraced by the tea farmers owing to the fact that it would increase productivity and will be more efficient in harvesting tea. This rejection by the workers is because the innovation is not compatible with their daily routines and does not auger well with their interests. Due to this conflict of interests, the workers rejected the idea in totality.
Contrary to the views of the casual laborers, the tea farmers accepted the innovation because it is more superior to the current technology; human labour. Moreover, it serves their business interest of leading to more harvests of tea than it is done by human nature. Using the shears, tea is harvested up to four times a month compared to it being done once by human labour. This serves best their interest.
Circumcision of Luo Men
Research was done about the effects of male circumcision on the rate of HIV infection, and the findings were that it reduced the rate of infection by a whopping 60%. This therefore led to the Kenyan government to launch male circumcision campaign targeting mostly those communities whose tradition does not encourage male circumcision. Through the ministry of health, the government was able to communicate the merits of the innovation and therefore it was readily accepted by opinion leaders and eventually trickled down to the local populace. The invention was communicated well and at the same time it improved the quality of their health standards.
Criticisms of the Theory
The adopters do not fall within a definite line. This is because with one invention, the now innovator will be the laggard and the now laggard will be the innovator.
The diffusion of innovation theory does not quite give a clear prediction of how the innovation will be successful after going through the S curve.
An innovation may mutate in the process of diffusion thereby affecting the diffusion process. This has not been accommodated by this theory.
The theory also states that diffusion is only a one way thing; that it moves from the opinion leaders down to the locals. Sometimes, an invention may rise from the locals and is upon the rest to adopt the innovation.
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