Sunday, 20 February 2011

Rogers' five adopter types

This week raises the question of who innovates, and who follows. A classic text on the subject is Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers, first published in 1962, but on its fifth edition in 2003. Depending when they take up an innovation, Rogers classifies people as ‘innovators’, ‘early adopters’, ‘early majority’, ‘late majority’ and ‘laggards’. Below are some of my early thoughts on Rogers' five adopter types, and some consideration of how they correspond to my experience with people's attitudes to innovation and how they might apply to contexts I know.

My first thought is that Rogers’ categories seem reasonable enough - common sense perhaps. This doesn’t in itself mean they lack value, but I wondered what makes this a model and not just a description. Are they the same (in this case at least)?

I was surprised and even a bit shocked at the statement that later adopters are “generally less empathic, have a lower ability to deal with abstractions, have fewer years of formal education”, etc. This seemed to me likely to be a bit of a generalisation. Surely there are wider factors than individual personality at play, especially within organisations? I wondered, was there any actual correlated evidence, use of personality tests etc? It made me question whether other aspects of what Rogers has to say might also be more personal opinion than testable fact.

Thinking about how Rogers’ categories correspond to my own experience of people’s attitudes to innovation, I found it easy to apply the categories to technology take-up, but wasn’t sure if this was really the same thing as innovation. It made me wonder that perhaps because innovation is such an early stage in the process, we don’t see it often, and that would be why I’m finding it hard to think of innovators (as opposed to people who just like to buy the latest piece of consumer electronics).

I tried to think how Rogers’ model relates to two contexts I’ve work/ed in. Firstly, an educational technology research group within a univeristy Engineering department. Here I found that although someone can be at the cutting edge of their field (Ed Tech), they can be part of the late majority or even ‘laggard’ with other innovations - even to the point of lacking awareness of technologies which have become mainstream IT in their context (e.g. referencing tools, software design tools (such as the UML) or web site building tools). At the other end of Rogers’ spectrum, that same person might be perfectly capable of introducing some quite innovative concepts into their teaching - suggesting to me that like innovations, which our forum discussions have suggested are dependent on context, so too are Rogers’ adopter types. I also found myself speculating a bit about the difference between research (even educational technology research) and elearning innovation. I wondered if it was partly that because academic research has a tradition of being grounded in the preceding literature that it tends to progress in small steps (although innovative leaps are possible too). It could also be to do with the facilities available to research groups - while they might develop an innovation, without sufficient participants to try it out, it might never really get taken up. Also research funding arrangements may have an impact - if it’s risky to show your project has ‘failed’ then you might avoid even attempting anything too innovative.

I also thought about how Rogers’ model might apply to the commercial environment of a technology-based training development wing of an IT consultancy company. In the commercial world there is clearly a need to supply something which customers will pay for. If your customers generally want what they already know (e.g. Powerpoint-like support for instructors, or relatively didactic CBT), and are not ready to accept innovation, then it can be hard for a company to be innovative - after all, they will not risk losing customers.

Rogers, E.M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations (5th edn), New York, Simon and Schuster.

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