Diffusion of innovation and social networks

idea rocket

The diffusion of innovation has been very important concept over the decades not just for product marketers but also in the field of new product development, R&D  and understanding social networks.

The statement, “If you want to increase the adoption rate or the public response to a new idea or innovation, it is better that individuals move away from weaker and easy to form ties and relationships” intrigued me. I wanted to explore why ? and so this article.

The scientific definition for diffusion is the process by which “molecules intermingle as a result of their kinetic energy and random motion”.

The word ‘diffusion’ is used more in conjunction with “Molecular Diffusion” but here we are talking about diffusion of a different order. It is the “Diffusion of Innovation”.  This theory was first popularized by sociologist Everett M Rogers.

The basic premise is that for new ideas to get adopted, it takes time even it has obvious advantages. Usually, there is a gestation period from the time they are introduced into the market, to the time they are widely adopted by the public be it cars, refrigerators or industrial pumps.

The challenges faced by many businesses is how to speed up this diffusion rate. The challenges are similar in all market driven innovation campaigns.

Can social networks and social media help speed up this rate of diffusion?

The answer is yes.

I stumbled upon this excellent book “Diffusion of Innovation” by Everett M Rogers, which talks at length about diffusion of innovation and its various influences. I will be referring some content from it. A definition of innovation from the book.

Diffusion is defined as a process by which innovation is communicated over time to general public belonging to a social network or a social structure.

Here communication over time means essentially adoption. Diffusion messages are about “newness” in an idea. The newness creates excitement and makes the messages travel further. The newness is what gives the diffusion a special character.

Social change occurs when diffusion happens.

The insights for social change is that, people do not change to adopt to innovations. Innovations change themselves as they go through multiple iterations to fit into the needs and behavior of the people.

The rate of spread of such innovations is more pronounced when there are conversations happening about the new idea among people, peers and within a social network.

Variables that determine the diffusion of innovation

Rate of adoption is the speed at which the innovation is adopted. There are many factors which affect that rate. The table below shows the important attributes.

Various attributes for Diffusion of Innovation

Diffusion of innovation
Various attributes for Diffusion of Innovation

Our focus in this article would be more on the effects of communication and the social system on the rate of adoption for the diffusion of innovation.

For various adopter categories and for  its detailed explanation. Please refer the below video.

Apart from the five perceived attributes, the communication system used has an effect. It is a known fact these days that rate of adoption is quite high if we use social networks like Facebook or Twitter for diffusion rather than interpersonal networks.

The social norms and sharing structure also affect the rate of adoption.  When opinion leaders or opinion organizations adopt, which normally happens anywhere between 3% and 16% of the adoption , it has a greater impact and speeds up the response rate. Further increase in response and adoption happens when there is ‘critical mass’ that swings positively and moves the diffusion process forward.

We need to understand that

The main idea that drives the diffusion process is the interpersonal communication with peers about an innovation.

The above statement holds good and we will explain that through an example. The decision whether or not to adopt to an innovation depends on the interactions an individual has with others. There is considerable amount of subjectivity involved as the information flows through interpersonal networks.

To understand the diffusion process we need to understand the nature of the social networks.

Watch this video below which explains the Diffusion of Innovation in an animated form.

Examples – Diffusion of innovation

The example below talks about the use and spread of the medical drug ‘Tetracycline’ in 1966 among doctors. Even though the example is an old one, it is still relevant today.

Tetracycline is a useful antibiotic which is used by doctors in their daily practice. The researchers, James. S. Coleman and his team used various network indicators to assess the diffusion process which were far more important than individual characteristics of age and socio- economic states.

Useful Note: James . S . Coleman is an American sociologist. He was a pioneer in Mathematical sociology and strongly influenced the American goverment in its education policy through his brilliant yet controversial reports.

The findings were that the doctors with more network links were found to be far innovative in adopting the new idea than their colleagues who were isolated and not connected.

With only just two months after the introduction of the new medicine, 15% of the doctors adopted it and in 4 months it reached 50 %.

The degree of network inter-connectedness was an important predictor in the rate of adoption. These doctors had better communication channels and more income. The following S curve shows the rate of adoption of the medical drug.

The S shaped diffusion curve is usually created by the rate of adoption by the members of a social network.

S curve and Diffusion of Innovation

S curve and Diffusion of Innovation
S curve and Diffusion of Innovation

The rate of adoption forthe interconnected doctors immediately shot high whereas for the isolated doctors it took a straight line. The figure shows the S curve for the interconnected doctors. The S curve did not happen for the isolated doctors who did not have peer level contacts.

The presence of peer level contacts for the interconnected doctors allowed for subjective evaluations of the innovation speeding up the rate of adoption.

I couldn’t stop but to start writing about the diffusion of QWERTY keyboard and the non-diffusion of the Dvorak keyboard when I read about it a couple of weeks back. I was compelled to write this and wanted to explain how interestingly the diffusion of innovation works with some examples.

Let me revisit a bit on what “Diffusion” means within the context of innovation. Diffusion means social change. As quoted by Everret M Rogers in his book “Diffusion of Innovations”, it is defined as the process by which change occurs in the very functioning and structure of the social network or the social system.

Rogers, further quips that the word ‘diffusion’ is often used when there is a spontaneous spread of ideas. A better word that other authors and researchers use is ‘dissemination’ which is more controlled, directed and managed. Rogers contends that he uses diffusion for both planned and spontaneous spread of new ideas.

Let’s look at the below example.

Why the Dvorak keyboard was not diffused?

It is sad that the QWERTY keyboard is widely accepted and used world over to the Dvorak keyboard. This QWERTY keyboard, we so commonly and unsuspectingly use it in our mobile phones, laptops and desktops is such a bad design that we hardly notice, as we have got used to it and we became habituated to it.

It was quite surprising to know that the QWERTY keyword which was introduced a century back in 1873 was used to deliberately slow down the typists and bring in inefficiencies.

By the way, QWERTY is the first six letters of your keyboard that you use today. Please find the picture below.

The bad design of the QWERTY keyboard
The bad design of the QWERTY keyboard

In the year 1932, professor August Dvorak of the University of Washington, conducted elaborate time-motion studies including filming people on how they use keyboards, invented a much more efficient keyboard arrangement called the “Dvorak” keyboard.

Useful Note: You can view the superior design of Dvorak’s keyword at this MIT webpage and a brief note of August Dvorak.

The Dvorak keyboard had a superior key arrangement and design. It had the letters AOEUIDHTN…S across the home row and was quite effective in reducing the strain on the typists.

The Dvorak keyboard reduces the inefficiencies by introducing an arrangement of keys, where 90% of the typing was done on the middle row, 20% on the upper row and 10% on the lower row.

Moreover, typing rhythm was facilitated by introducing vowel letters on the left side of the keyboard and consonants on the right hand side of the keyboard. This key shift arrangement resulted in a 56 % finger load to the right hand and 44% to the left hand (as we know that 90 % of the public are right handed). Further rhythm was introduced when successive keystrokes fell on either hands. So, if one hand is moving to press the key, the other hand gets ready to press the next key. Excellent isn’t it.

On the other hand, the QWERTY keyword was used and introduced to prevent jamming on an archaic typewriter design. The design was awkward no doubt and was introduced to slow down the typists speed. QWERTY keyboard was known to cause Carpel tunnel syndrome but still it is widely used in the present day world.

The reason some say is because of the vested interests of manufacturers, product design and marketing people to promote the use of QWERTY keyboard and the rest is history.

What we need to understand here is that, superior design and innovation does not mean it will automatically lend itself to higher rate of adoption or propel diffusion.  Diffusion of innovation has not happened in the case of Dvorak keyboard and what could be the reasons?

The ‘hum’ of the refrigerator

Another example to illustrate this unfortunate situation is the “Refrigerator hum” which really fascinated me.

We all have refrigerators at home. Our present day refrigerators use a motor (and so the hum!) to run a compressor. This compressor condenses the liquid releasing the heat into the surrounding environment which the liquid had absorbed previously inside the refrigerator before it got vaporized.

Before this system got widely used, there was a superior design which was the “gas refrigerator”. The gas refrigerator design used the ammonia refrigerant. The refrigerant was vaporized by a gas flame. The vaporized ammonia dissolves with water and cools the system.

Then why didn’t this simple design make it to the masses. The diffusion of this superior design innovation has not happened. People say largely it is because of the large corporations like GE and others who have heavily invested in the R&D for further development of compressor motor technology refrigerator for business profits and partnerships and little did they care about the superior design of the market place.

Even though the “gas refrigerator’ technology was launched in parallel, it couldn’t simply compete with the huge advertisement budgets of the large corporations.

The diffusion of the gas refrigerator just simply did not happen.

So what actually runs behind this diffusion process?  How do we get to know which innovation or idea will diffuse spontaneously or in a planned manner. Nobody can predict accurately. From what we understand it is in the way the social network behaves. Which is again dependent on the prevailing times and culture.

But having said that, it does not mean we cannot manage it. We can nurture it and give it the right environment for diffusion and growth.

Diffusion of innovation can be facilitated when the idea or innovation is introduced in the right social network and through a right decision making process.

How does the ‘Innovation decision process’ work?

On record, the process is like any other activity where the information is actively processed for informed decision making.  Here, the uncertainty in adopting a new technology or innovation is considerably reduced through this process and the individual clearly knows the merits and demerits of using such an innovation.

Through this process, we ask the following relevant questions which helps the user in making the decision.

  1. What is the innovation all about?
  2. How does it work?
  3. Why does it work?
  4. What is the impact?
  5. What are the benefits?

For now, we will look at how some innovations are different from the other and how do the masses perceive them. Perceptions about a product make a huge difference in the social system. Not all innovations and ideas are the same and cannot be analyzed in the same manner. It all depends on how people perceive them and hence the different rates of adoption.

brain with idea
Keep working on the innovative decision process

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1.The competitive performance factor:  Competitive performance is all about how an idea or innovation fares with respect to others in the same genre as well its perception relative to the previous idea from the same genre. The other important factors are the social prestige and the convenience of use. Financials alone cannot tip it but then it is the ‘what is in it for me’ factor that matters a lot for the individual and also for a large section of people.

2.Fitting into the prevailing norms: The idea or innovation should abide to the existing norms, values, past experiences prevalent in the social system or social network at that point in time. Adoption would be difficult if not impossible in societies and countries where innovation or the idea simply does not fit in. The prevailing values and the culture of the social system must be satisfied and accepted first before the idea to be adopted or the diffusion of innovation to happen fast.

3.Easy to understand and use: If a new idea or innovation is easy to understand and use it will be quickly adopted. More complex system will be slowly adopted.

4.Experimentation and testing: The new idea or innovation should be experimented, tested and explored. If it is explorable, then it is easily adopted by the audience.The idea or innovation should provide an opportunity for people to learn or give them a learning experience.

5. The visible results factor: The new idea or innovation should give visible results to the audience. It should also be result oriented and should be clearly understood by all. Visibility of the results further fuels discussion and “iteration of successive ideas”.

It is an accepted norm that when a new innovation or idea has the above attributed then its success rate and adoption rate is high as well.

The Segway PT vehicle example

The Segway product is a good example of how a newly introduced product innovation has become a victim of socially controlled policies and inadequacies of present day society at large.

The Segway vehicle was introduced as an innovative design way back in 2001. You must have seen the Segway vehicle used in some big time Hollywood movies in R&D labs, University campuses and shopping malls. Even now you would see people using them in some of the shopping malls in your countries.

The Segway PT is a battery powered two wheeled vehicle equipped with computers, sensors and motors to balance itself. The vehicle moves forward and backward by shifting the weight forward or backward with a turn handle for turning the vehicle.

The Segway vehicle
The Segway vehicle

Image credit: Pixabay

I have taken the below account on Segway vehicle’s legal status in Czech from the Wikipedia. The legal status and the usage of the vehicle is still unclear in that country.  A rider on Segway PT is seen as a pedestrian and is seen on par with pedestrians with Roller skates and the likes. The transport department in Czech see the Segway PT as ineligible to fulfill the requirements of full-fledged road vehicle. The Segway PT is still not allowed in some parts of Prague.

In Germany, the Segway PT is supposed to have red light and a number plate at the back.  Whilst in Denmark, the SegwayPT is classified as Mopeds.

As we can see the restrictions that are imposed on a innovative product differ from country to country based on the prevailing social norms and culture of that place.

Connections among individuals

Usually, individuals tend to link among others who are similar to them and have the same likes and dislikes. These links are easy to obtain with least effort. The irony is that, such easy to form connections are not the best way for the diffusion of innovation to happen. In contrast, if the connections are geographically and socially distant then such connections are usually stronger in carrying information about new ideas and innovations.

If individuals want to be innovative in adopting new ideas they will have to move away from the weak ties of easily formed links and connections.

Social learning theory

Another important thing is the aspect of social learning theory within a social network for the diffusion of innovation. This has direct consequences on the rate of adoption of a new idea.  The social learning theory was popularized by Stanford University professor, Albert Bandura in the year 1977.

Useful note: Albert Bandura, is ranked  as the fourth most cited Psychologist in the world behind B F Skinner, Sigmund Frued and Jean Piaget.

Social learning theory advocates that the individual learns through observation. By observing the behavior of others, the individual likes to do something similar.

The observation need not be a blind imitation but an informed and organized extract of the essential elements. The same is applied in one’s behavior.

If someone publicly displays, usually a celebrity and gets a rewarded for it then that behavior becomes a norm or a learning for others to follow.

Individuals change their external behavior as a result of learning from others. The same happens with the diffusion of innovations as well. The ‘network link’ and ‘interpersonal networks’ are the main reasons for such diffusion.

A beautiful note from one of the scholars goes like this. It says that the

Diffusion model looks at the society as a ‘huge learning system’ where everyone is observing and learning from each other.They change their behavior based on others and yet they behave and operate independently of one another.


For further resources on this subject, please find the links below.

  1. Diffusion of Innovation on the Wiki
  2. Smart insights– Diffusion of Innovation
  3. Life and times of James. S. Coleman

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