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Early adoption

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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.

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