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5.2 Diffusion of Innovations

Transformational change begins when organizations become aware of new processes, technologies, opportunities, constraints, and expectations. Institutional theory helps us understand how new ideas and practices spread throughout a social system. You read about how Walmart supported the development of The Sustainability Consortium to drive change on a global scale (see Sect. 3.2.3).

Diffusion of innovation theory is a key theory which sheds additional insight into the process. Sociologists beginning with the French sociologist and legal scholar Gabriel Tarde originated the concepts basic to this theory (Singhal 2009). Anthropologists, rural sociologists, and agricultural officials expanded the theory focusing on things like the diffusion of the horse among the Plain Indians and farming and family planning practices in Third World countries. Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, popularized and expanded the theory into the social sciences with his book Diffusion of Innovation. Published initially in 1962, the book is now in its fifth edition (Rogers 2003). To date, the theory has appeared in over 4,000 articles published by scholars representing a wide range of disciplines. Researchers have applied it to the diffusion of sustainability-related initiatives, the spread of organic farming, sustainable prevention innovations, and renewable energy technologies (e.g., Craig and Allen 2013; Smerecnik and Andersen 2011).

Some individuals and organizations adopt innovations earlier than others. Innovativeness is “the degree to which an individual or other unit of adoption is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than the other members of a system” (Rogers 2003, p. 22). Change agents from outside a social system bring awareness of the innovation to the social system—first through gatekeepers and then through opinion leaders. Rogers proposed an S curve of adoption whereby within any social system there are innovators (2.5 %), early adopters (13.5 %), early majority (34 %), late majority (34 %), and laggards (16 %). Innovators take risks, are younger, have more resources, and interact frequently with other innovators. Early adopters also are opinion leaders who are often younger, have more resources, and are integrated into communication networks. But they are more judicious in their choice of which innovations to adopt. Peter Nierengarten, Director of Sustainability and Resilience for the City of Fayetteville, AR, discussed the S curve. He said:

The challenge is reaching beyond the 50 % [the innovators through the early majority] to the more conservative demographic. Those are the ones that you have to be particularly interested in when designing your communication messages. That is why we went with this livable community messaging idea. Regardless of what you define livable as, who could be against friendly, livable, hospitable communities?

Awareness of the S curve made its way into how Peter thinks about communicating with stakeholder groups in Fayetteville.

Organizations which adopt sustainability initiatives differ from those which do not. Looking at how for-profit organizations embrace sustainability, Hannaes et al. (2011) also appear to be influenced by the diffusion of innovation theory. They identified two distinct types of organizations: embracers and cautious adopters (laggards). They concluded that the practices of the embracers may provide a snapshot of the future of management. Companies which embrace sustainability see the payoff in terms of intangible advantages, process improvements, the ability to innovate, and the opportunity to grow. Cautious adopters see it in terms of risk management and efficiency gains. Embracers tend to recognize that sustainability strategies have the potential to deliver new customers and markets, innovate existing business models, increase market share and profit margins, and provide a competitive edge. Realizing it is difficult to quantify the outcome of sustainability activities, embracers remain enthusiastic and take a leap of faith. They show six characteristics: they move early, even if information is incomplete; they balance broad long-term visions with projects offering concrete, near-term wins; they drive sustainability top-down and bottom-up; they aggressively de silo sustainability integrating it throughout company operations; they measure everything and, if necessary, create measures; and they value intangible benefits. Initially, embracers focus on waste reduction and efficiencies (e.g., water, energy, materials). These low-hanging fruits are used to make the initial business case for implementing sustainability strategies. For example, Clorox began by measuring its carbon footprint and laying the groundwork on projects so that executives would later adopt greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, solid waste reduction, and water reduction goals.

The diffusion of an innovation is a five-step process beginning with knowledge followed by persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation (Rogers 2003). During the knowledge stage, people become aware of the innovation but know little about it. Many people rarely seek more information. During the persuasion stage, some people become interested and actively seek out additional information. In the decision stage, people weigh the advantages and disadvantages (personal and for the system) of adoption and decide to either adopt or reject the innovation. During the implementation stage, people judge the innovation's usefulness and may continue to seek additional information. Finally, during the confirmation stage, people decide whether or not to continue using the innovation. An innovation can be rejected at any stage.

In the next section, I incorporate diffusion of innovation theory with additional research discussing awareness and knowledge. Then, the focus shifts to how elements of the innovation and the social system can influence an innovation's adoption.

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