The technology diffusion curve is a very well established way of analysing the extent to which some new innovation has been adopted within a community or industry. Innovators lead the way, followed in turn by early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally the laggards.

If we look around us today, for example, smart phones are now into the late majority in the general UK population, whereas something like Cloud collaboration tools like Google Apps or Office 365 are probably only just entering the early adoption phase (certainly for larger businesses).

I hadn’t realised quite how established a model this was until researching it for a presentation earlier this year. I’d always imagined that the model was a product of the digital age, but in fact it turns out that the theories (if not the model) go back to the late 19th Century. The model itself was created by Everett Rogers in 1962.

I was reminded of the model last night in a conversation on Twitter with Martin Thomas about the adoption of social networks by CEOs. As my research over the past year has shown, CEOs predominantly aren’t on social networks. Only three of the FTSE100 cohort managed both LinkedIn and Twitter profiles when I last looked in the summer. “But where is the empirical evidence?” asked Martin.

Well, the diffusion of social network technology within the CEO community is, at very best, just entering into the Early Adopters phase. And the thing about anyone adopting a technology at the early stages is that there isn’t empirical evidence. If you are ahead of the curve, you have to leap unknown and take some risks. This is what Geoffrey Moore describes as Crossing the Chasm

But how to reframe that for what appears to be a remarkably risk averse community in the boardroom? Well, the point of being in the early stages of technology adoption is to strive for competitive advantage. Only once the majority have adopted something will the evidence of efficacy become obvious and then at that stage, when the secret is out, competitive advantage disappears and you get into just plain costs of doing business.

So why should a CEO start experimenting with social networks? Because, if they want to be competitive as a CEO, they need to find ways to get ahead of their competition. And maybe social networking might be a way to do that.

It might, of course, not be. And at that stage you enter the world of Mysteries rather than Puzzles. Or, as I’ve been talking with some people recently, a world that can be described as things that are like Clocks or things that are like Clouds. The metaphor was coined by Karl Popper, and the world of business is obsessed with Clock-like thinking.

Clocks are known, structured, predictable, possibly complicated but not complex or chaotic. Clocks are the realm of later technology adoption. You will find plenty of answers to how other people have adopted them.

But much of the world we face is more like a Cloud. Amorphous, complex, chaotic. Difficult to model. And without any great empirical body of cause and effect. The minute you reach into a Cloud to explore it, it changes shape around you. This is the world of Early technology adoption (although there will be endless gurus and prophets around us who will pretend that the Clouds are Clocks).

Why should anyone adopt some new, early technology? To explore and learn. To find out how or why it might help them.

Can you innovate without exploring early? It’s unlikely.

Can you maintain competitive advantage over your peers without innovating? Not in the long term.

Maybe CEOs are too long in the tooth to worry about taking risks to maintain lead over their competition. Sit back, take the money, take no risks… But that challenge alone might be enough to spur them into some sort of action.

5 thoughts on “Early adoption

  1. Thanks Matt for a very interesting response to my Tweeted musings.

    In my self-declared role as a Dissident I am obliged to challenge orthodoxies and assumptions.

    I was thinking about the truism that institutions need a human face, which is often used to justify the recommendation that CEOs personally embrace social media. On the surface this sounds like a no-brainer: of course we want the people leading our major institutions to be publicly accountable and to be open to scrutiny. But how many of the institutions that we happily deal with on a daily basis offer us a human face? Does it matter that I struggle to name most of the people running the organisations from whom I buy the majority of my goods and services? Do I care that the head of BT has no real profile outside the business pages, so long as the BT people I deal with on a regular basis are polite and helpful? By the same token, if the people running the corporate Twitter account are smart, responsive and able to talk to be in an appropriate tone of voice, does it matter that i can’t have a one-to-one dialogue with the CEO?

    This isn’t really a social media question. It is more a reputational question. As you know, i am a huge advocate for the use of social media and have spent the last six years trying to convince often cynical and cautious CEOs of its merits. But our arguments have to be intellectually robust and be capable of being held up to scrutiny, otherwise we risk being accused of over simplistic, naive thinking.

    But at least it makes for a good debate.

    1. Maybe the underlying problem is that we have a generation of business leaders for whom personality has been at best on the “nice to have” list at time of recruitment?

      1. How important is personality in leaders? Arguably Harriet Green’s departure from Thomas Cook was in part down to a belief by the board that she was too busy promoting her own personality rather than that of the company.

        It is a rich debate.

  2. My turn to chip in to this debate! I agree with Martin’s point that, in most cases, we don’t care who is in charge of the businesses we deal with as consumers. We find the deal, buy the product, complain if it’s faulty – and hopefully get good customer service. The CEO is, in most cases, irrelevant.

    But what about if we’re in a B2B environment? Perhaps we’re in a complex process of negotiating and buying that can take months or even years. We need to understand the company we’re dealing with very well. Over time, they almost become partners. In this scenario perhaps it would be helpful if the CEO of the business we’re negotiating with is a bit more visible? He or she may not be on Twitter, but wouldn’t it be reassuring if we could find them on LinkedIn and actually see their photo (not a grey blob) and find out a bit more about them? Wouldn’t it be even better if we can across blog posts written by them on topics pertinent to our industry needs? It would reassure us to know that the person leading the business we’re spending millions of dollars with isn’t just a grey entity but someone who really understands our requirements.

    Just a thought.

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