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Roger Clarke's Innovation Diffusion Theory

A Primer in Diffusion of Innovations Theory

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Notes of May 1991, revised May 1994, 26 September 1999

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1991, 1994, 1998, 1999

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A companion document is at

Some inventions 'take the world by storm' (archetype: the Sony Walkman).

Others seem to fail, lie dormant for decades, but when 'their time has come', their use grows quickly, even explosively (archetype: the fax machine).

Most achieve slow penetration at first, then their adoption grows more quickly, but later slows down again.

A broad social psychological / sociological theory called Diffusion of Innovations (DoI) Theory purports to describe the patterns of adoption, explain the mechanism, and assist in predicting whether and how a new invention will be successful. It is expressed in Rogers E.M. 'Diffusion of Innovations' The Free Press, New York, originally published in 1962, 3rd Edition 1983.

The theory has potential application to information technology ideas, artefacts and techniques, and has been used as the theoretical basis for a number of IS research projects. This document provides a brief overview of the elements of the theory, intended as preparation for a reading of the relevant IS literature.

DoI Theory is concerned with the manner in which a new technological idea, artefact or technique, or a new use of an old one, migrates from creation to use. According to DoI theory, technological innovation is communicated through particular channels, over time, among the members of a social system.

The stages through which a technological innovation passes are:

Early knowers generally are more highly educated, have higher social status, are more open to both mass media and interpersonal channels of communication, and have more contact with change agents. Mass media channels are relatively more important at the knowledge stage, whereas interpersonal channels are relatively more important at the persuasion stage.

Innovation decisions may be optional (where the person or organisation has a real opportunity to adopt or reject the idea), collective (where a decision is reached by consensus among the members of a system), or authority-based (where a decision is imposed by another person or organisation which possesses requisite power, status or technical expertise).

Important characteristics of an innovation include:

Different adopter categories are identified as:

Earlier adopting individuals tend not to be different in age, but to have more years of education, higher social status and upward social mobility, be in larger organisations, have greater empathy, less dogmatism, a greater ability to deal with abstractions, greater rationality, greater intelligence, a greater ability to cope with uncertainty and risk, higher aspirations, more contact with other people, greater exposure to both mass media and interpersonal communications channels and engage in more active information seeking.

Important roles in the innovation process include:

The change agent functions are:

DoI Theory is at its best as a descriptive tool, less strong in its explanatory power, and less useful still in predicting outcomes, and providing guidance as to how to accelerate the rate of adoption. There is doubt about the extent to which it can give rise to readily refutable hypotheses. Many of its elements may be specific to the culture in which it was derived (viz. North America in the 1950s and 60s), and hence less relevant in, for example, East Asian and African countries, and as time goes on.

Nonetheless, it provides one valuable 'hook' on which research and practice can be hung.

I also offer a resources page on the topic.

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The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

Sponsored by the Gallery, Bunhybee Grasslands, the extended Clarke Family, Knights of the Spatchcock and their drummer
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Created: 19 November 1998 - Last Amended: 26 September 1999 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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