When I push two innovations in one, it is important to know my adopters

by Mr. Sheehy

Reading Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation is an interesting process. So much of what he says is basically obvious that it is tempting to skim through it and miss the insight or the application to appropriate situations. For example, as I read about the typical adopter categories relating to innovations, I found myself wondering about the fruit of attempting to combat them or even address them. When I refer to this concern, I am mostly considering the knowledge repository / wiki I am constructing and launching for my department, but I am also broadening it to include any item or idea I might be attempting to diffuse through the educational ranks.

Innovation Adopter Categories

With whatever innovation of a particular moment, I find myself reacting against the categories of adopters with a bit of a fatalistic streak – the categories exist, why should I change anything simply because I know about them? Will it matter whether I do anything? Won’t the bell curve of typical adoption patterns exist despite my efforts? Why fight the waves when the waves always win? The innovators are already in (that’s me), the early adopters will come when they come, followed someday by the early and late majorities and, eventually, even the laggards. It feels predetermined, and if that’s the case, throwing all my energy into catering to the “late majorities,” for example, is simply wasting energy. It’s pedaling the bicycle when you’re going down a hill so fast that the pedaling is not accomplishing anything.

But the pessimism of this thinking comes when I’m considering only the technical innovation my project advances – the wiki – and the frustration that accompanies diffusing such a tool through the ranks. When it comes to wikis (and blogs and the rest of the broadly labeled Web 2.0 world) I am generally indifferent towards the need to advance the innovation – an indifference that doesn’t sit well with many of my blogging companions, but an indifference nonetheless. I dare say a teacher can teach students effectively for this technologically advancing world without touching a blog or a wiki. Granted, I’m using these tools, but I don’t say everyone else has to as well.

Anyway, in terms only of this project and knowledge repository I’m building, my indifference is fueled by the reality of my goals, which are not to advance a wiki through teachers’ practice, but to increase collaboration among teachers, with the wiki as a suitable tool for achieving that goal.

With that as the reality, I should be extra attuned to these adopter categories that Rogers describes, because if the wiki does not diffuse, then neither will my collaboration innovation. When it comes to the wiki, the late majority in particular will carry enough weight to derail this project; thus it is crucial to keep those adopters’ characteristics in mind and cater to them as best as I can – with both innovations.

As much as I’d like to have it behind me forever, it is a pity that I need to complete this project (which is technically a grad school capstone internship) in one semester, because it presses the time frame for the innovation decision process into too fine a space. My one semester time frame is too quick for a late majority adopter to mull over the wiki and the knowledge repository long enough to adopt. These individuals need to see the product modeled and used by the early and early majority adopters. That’s a crucial element for them, and I’ll do well to remember this in a month or two when I evaluate the project: possibly the majority of my department won’t be ready to use it yet.

In fact, there likely will be only about three people in my department ready to use the wiki eagerly and comfortably by the end of the semester, when the project part of this knowledge repository ends. Amusingly, I have known this all along and can name the three people to whom I’ve catered my work and lobbied directly as I built it. I knew them to be the early adopters (with a pair of crucial opinion leaders) and I figured I had to have them on board for the project to succeed (and by succeed, I mean diffuse).

Early adopters are a more integrated part of the local social system than are innovators . . . This adopter category, more than any other, has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most systems. Potential adopters look to early adopters for advice and information about the innovation. The early adopter is considered by many as ‘the individual to check with’ before using a new idea. (p. 264)

I should add that another key for me for the two or three early adopters will be to convince them to use the wiki in the ways I intend, by filling out the reflections as much as possible – the reflections attached to each activity and lesson plan that build its context and allow another person to catch a glimpse of what the intentions and possibilities of that activity or lesson are. No one wants to do it, but when they do not, the tools become isolated and less relevant. I anticipate struggling with this as the early and late majorities come to use the wiki – another solid reason to keep these categories of adopters firmly in mind.

Concerning those majorities, I can also name key members of the “early majority” I have subtly wooed, but to be honest I have known I’ll be counting on the early adopters to draw these folks into the effort. I’m too far in my own world to mean much to these folks; to them, I’m the guy who’s off in his own planet going “clickity-clickity” too fast to make sense to anyone else.

The early majority may deliberate for some time before completely adopting a new idea. Their innovation-decision period is relatively longer than that of the innovator and the early adopter. (p. 265)

And that’s not even mentioning what the late majority thinks of me. We all get along great, but to them I represent something totally different than themselves. These folks didn’t sign up for the training sessions I have offered, even with the extra pay offered, but if the early adopters and early majority began to use the knowledge repository often, this late majority might even be ready for some training a year from now.

Adoption may be . . . for the late majority . . . the result of increasing network pressures from peers . . . and the late majority do not adopt until most others in their system have done so. (p. 265)

In a secondary manner, I should view the adopter categories as important in how the wiki and knowledge management tool can aid the rate of diffusion for future worthy innovations. This wiki might be a perfect place for a few of the adoption processes that Rogers defines to occur, in particular the observability, which is a crucial characteristic for an innovation to be adopted at a useful rate, and yet is astoundingly difficult to achieve in an educational setting.

The observability of an innovation, as perceived by members of a social system, is positively related to its rate of adoption. (p. 244)

Thus, the wiki and the reflections that will hopefully go there should create at least something close to observable actions.

Without the observation, how would the late majority in particular learn enough to adopt an innovation? Where is the hands on clarity they need? Hopefully in areas of educational innovations, the wiki I’m creating can help as teachers share the contexts, benefits, and pitfalls of their lessons even as they post the lesson itself into the repository – but really it can only help if we can overcome the big obstacles of the adoption and diffusion of the collaborative tool itself – the wiki.

Thus, despite my own best efforts to ignore the wiki and not care about whether people want to adopt it, I am stuck having to work hard to make sure it is adopted within my department. Alas, the cyclical situation and the ever present responsibility to care.

Thanks for reading.