Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social networking, community and the pace and shaping of innovation – 2

Posted in book recommendations, social networking and business, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 24, 2011

This is my second posting in a short series on innovation, and the diffusion and broad-based acceptance or rejection of change in communities and in society as a whole (see Part 1.)

I began this series by highlighting two very different approaches characterizing and understanding innovation and its acceptance or rejection, each carrying with it both insight and simplifying assumptions. Without repeating Part 1 here:

Ray Kurzweil sees innovation primarily in terms of acceptance, and with potential for diffusion and adaptation of innovative change to proceed at arbitrarily rapid rates.
Everett Rogers and his colleagues, on the other hand, have made careers studying the diffusion process, but primarily looking at this in terms of individual innovations, and not as trends and patterns of related and connected innovations.
• Kurzweil focuses on the innovations themselves and how they fit together synergistically in driving broad based societal change.
• Rogers looks at the diffusion process, without examining the innovations involved so much as the people and communities who are confronted by them.

I find myself drawn to both approaches, considering both the innovations that arise and how they do or do not diffuse into general acceptance, and the people and processes involved in that. Turning to the Rogers, et al side of this complex of issues, it was first observed as early as the 1950’s that innovation diffusion, and the processes of general acceptance or rejection of change are driven in large part by social networking and peer influence.

A lot has been learned about the social networking mechanisms that would influence and even determine the pace and process of innovation diffusion since innovation diffusion research per se reached and passed its peak of activity and began to ebb. Much of this new insight has been developed as a direct result of online social networking, as business people and academics have sought to better understand the dynamics of social networking sites and their use, and of social media in general. I have touched upon some of this with for example, my postings on how social networks are organized and structured (see Social Network Taxonomy and Social Networking Strategy), and on developments such as crowd sourcing (see, for example, Crowd Sourcing and the Opening Up of Open Innovation.)

My goal in this posting is to at least begin a discussion as to how an innovation might gain an initial foothold of acceptance and then diffuse through or be rejected by a community as a whole, and how innovation synergies might or might not develop. And that means reconciling and finding points of connection between two seemingly very different models of communities.

• Innovation diffusion research offers one basic model of community structure, with its members categorized according to how and how readily they adapt to change.

According to this paradigm, communities can be divided into pioneer and early adaptors, middle adaptors, and late and lagging adaptors. The labels change a bit depending on who is presenting the basic taxonomy but the principle is very consistent. There are people who gravitate toward and readily adapt new, and who are more comfortable with the uncertainty that new and unproven always brings with it. These people are also, as a general pattern, less in need of the validating experience of others in order to try new, or of social support in taking that chance. At the other end of this scale are those who adapt only after they see a broad based consensus of approval that a new innovation is in fact going to work, and that it will offer greater value than whatever it would replace – plus a margin to compensate for the costs of making the transition. They wait, in effect until an innovation is widely tried and tested and no longer all that new. And in between, you find the middle adaptors who do not jump into new first or wait until last either, but who are comfortable adapting after they see some success with it.

The earliest adaptors simply jump in on the basis of their own analysis of costs and benefits, and usually with a positive attitude towards risk, and towards being different and taking novel approaches. The later and last, lagging adaptors seek out broad-based consensus from others in their community that this new innovation really is a good move – and then, after all the facts are in they adapt too. In the middle you find the vast majority, numerically, of any given naturally developing community, and social networking and social opinion play a key role here if this innovation is to become widely accepted and not simply die off with just a rapid adaptor following. And this brings me to the second basic community model.

• Social networking and social media research categorizes communities and community members as to how widely and effectively they reach out to connect with others – and accept offers to socially connect in return.

I have already cited a posting above, outlining a basic social networking taxonomy, and I will refer to the basic terminology developed there in this series. And I want to set the stage for this part of this larger discussion by citing a specific innovation diffusion initiative that Rogers cites at the beginning of his book, as an example of how innovation diffusion does not always succeed:

• Rogers, E.M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovation, 5th edition. Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

In the early 1950’s the public health service in Peru attempted to introduce a public health innovation into local villages – boiling drinking water to help reduce the spread of water born diseases. But while some of their other innovations that they offered were adapted this proposed change was met with stiff resistance and very few people were willing to adapt it. More actively spoke out against it instead. This was a positive innovation that could have reduced the incidence of some very serious and prevalent diseases in these communities – diseases that both limited quality of life and added to a significant childhood mortality rate, so why did that happen?

The people sent in to educate these communities and evangelize this change did not know these communities or their ways or beliefs. They spoke in terms of germs and germ theory, but in ways that members of these communities could not relate to – invisibly tiny little organisms causing diseases they could see, and that they already had explanations for that they found satisfying. The boiled drinking water evangelists saw the belief systems endemic and entrenched in these communities as quaint and superstitious and simply ignored them, instead of seeking to understand them and present what they were doing in familiar terms. And the few people who did listen and try boiling their drinking water either were community outsiders and not part of the active social networking conversation, or they had particular reasons for trying this innovation that happened to fit within the strictures of the locally prevailing belief system anyway; none of these adaptors accepted the germ theory rationale that public health workers promoted and none of them were in a position to positively influence others – and in fact their adapting this change probably discouraged others from trying it.

• Who adapts early and who adapts an innovation first can set the stage for wider acceptance or rejection of change, and this is independent of the value that this change has brought to them.

I am going to pick up on this discussion with my next series installment, and will go on to discuss crowd sourcing and innovation diffusion, and innovation synergies.

You can find this and related postings in Business Strategy and Operations and also in Social Networking and Business.

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