Advancing Change in Education With Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Theory


Get your people on board with innovation.


New ideas can take a while to gain traction. The education sector is always changing, adapting, and innovating—but as any leader will tell you, the task of getting individual kaiako on board with a specific advancement can range from “no problem” to “herding cats”.


American communication theorist and sociologist Everett Rogers posed a theory in 1962 to explain how new ideas spread and gain acceptance in various groups and populations. This “diffusion of innovation” theory helps us to understand how new concepts get traction. Armed with that understanding, it’s easier to facilitate the process.


 

Five groups of people

The diffusion model identifies five different groups: the Innovators, the Early Adopters, the Early Majority, the Late Majority, and the Laggards. These are illustrated below:



The categories are reasonably self-explanatory. Innovators will be the ones coming up with and refining new ideas, methods, and tech tools. If it looks like it could work, Innovators will play and explore the opportunities and the potential. These new and shiny things will be picked up quickly by the Early Adopters, once there’s some evidence that they’re worthwhile. Early Adopters are still drawn to constant improvement and innovation, but they’re a little more cautious about new untested tools.


The majority groups make up, of course, the majority of the population in question. The Early Majority section often includes those who are willing to jump on a bandwagon once they see—from the Early Adopters—that it works and has potential. They’re not interested in pioneering this specific innovation, but when they see that it’s worthwhile they get on board. The Late Majority will join them as the tide turns and most of the people around them have adopted the new idea. For the Late Majority, joining the movement is not necessarily about the merits of the new thing itself; it’s about joining everyone else who’s already on board.


Laggards are the group most resistant to that specific innovation.


The small details of the concept and specific definitions of each group are perhaps less important to ICT leaders than the implications. Here are a few tips that will help you to implement change, in light of Rogers’ theory. Keep these in mind!


 

Follow the pattern.

Rogers’ theory posits that each group of people will pick up on a new idea from those in the group before them: Innovators can influence Early Adopters, Early Adopters can influence the Early Majority, the Early Majority can influence the Late Majority, and the Late Majority can influence the Laggards.


Don’t waste time having Innovators try to convince the Laggards of the merits of their latest idea! The theory exists as a guideline for how you can most effectively move an idea through the population—follow it for best results.


Let the innovators innovate.

Know who your Innovators are, and give them the cool new toys to play with. Necessary or transformative change comes from innovative ideas, and those will come from this group. Give them the space and tools they need to get creative.


Know the loudest voices of change.

Surprisingly, the Innovators are not your most effective or influential mouthpieces. They are probably the most knowledgeable and passionate about the concept in question—and that’s exactly why they are not the best spokespeople.


The Innovators are often seen as “geeks” in the specific context of that idea. They are outliers, and for that reason their opinions and recommendations are not easily accepted by the larger and more skeptical groups. They can introduce their ideas to the Early Adopters, who may then pass them on to the Early Majority—and it’s among that section of the population that you’ll find your loudest and most influential voices.


So don’t have your Innovators introduce an idea in a staff meeting. Allow it to progress more naturally until the Early Majority are picking up on it, and have them present it.


Or even better, make sure you have some Early Majority and Early Adopters in the team driving the change. Rogers’ model is more about mindsets than a linear progression of time as the change is rolled out; someone in the Early Majority, presented with the right evidence and enablers, might get on board sooner than an Early Adopter who hasn’t had as much opportunity to engage yet. When Early Majority are involved in the discussions and planning from the start, the concerns and hesitations from those groups can be addressed in the strategy, and those individuals can be powerful spokespeople from the beginning.


Pay attention to your early adopters

Innovators are great at coming up with ideas, but these will include the full range: wins, losses, and everything in between. It’s long been established that with every fantastic new invention comes many more that don’t quite hit the mark. That’s the nature of the beast!


So when it comes to establishing whether an idea for change might have momentum, the Early Adopters are a bit of a barometer. This group is open-minded but a little more discerning and cautious, happy to try things out and adopt or reject them according to their success (or lack thereof). Paying attention to this crucial group can minimise the waste of time or money.


Don’t expend energy on converting laggards.

Every idea will encounter people who are resistant to it. And if it’s a good idea, usually this group is relatively small. They will be very difficult to “convert”, and it’s not worth spending a lot of time or resources in the attempt. Doing so can derail change that is acceptable to—and beneficial for—the majority of a population.


It can, however, be helpful to talk to them in advance (presuming you can predict who they will be). This is how you will identify potential concerns and have an opportunity to mitigate them. It can also make this group feel seen and heard, not ambushed when the change idea is officially presented or adopted.


Understand that the categories are contextual.

The term “laggards” may feel derogatory rather than purely descriptive, but it’s important to note that these aren’t general labels for a person’s entire character; they change with each specific innovation. Someone who’s a Laggard or in the Late Majority for a new IT system, for example, might be an Innovator when it comes to a new method of teaching literacy.


Kaiako are individuals with different strengths and weaknesses. They won’t be in the same group every time! Rogers’ theory helps leaders to navigate change in a way that recognises different needs and perspectives specific to each situation.


 

Knowledge is power. If you are tasked with advancing an innovation or change in a school population, Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory can help you to make the process as simple and effective as possible—take advantage!


Get in touch with Think e-Learning to find out more about how we can help with professional development for ICT leaders and support your change journey. We have experience supporting primary schools, secondary schools, Kāhui Ako and tertiary institutions with their digital transformations, and we’d love to help you.