Diffusion of innovation and asking why

In his book, “Liminal Thinking,” Dave Gray uses the term “The Obvious” to refer to our individual view of the world. “The Obvious” is a map that we’ve built up over time to navigate the world around us, and it influences most of the conscious decisions we make in a given day. We trust our map implicitly, even take it for granted, but rarely to think about how that map came to be.

The Pot Roast Story  is an example of relying on ”The Obvious.” In the story, a woman, for years, diligently follows a family recipe that calls for cutting the ends off a pot roast before cooking. When the woman decides to find out why the recipe calls for cutting off the ends of the roast, she finds out it was less about the result than the original circumstances.

Every day we make decisions in our life and in our work based on our individual map, on what we consider “The Obvious.” What if we looked deeper? What if we started to ask why we do the things we do? What is it we are actually trying to accomplish?

Cooperative Extension, like other adult education programs, has a mission, though the exact mission and wording varies state by state. The word cloud below captures the most common words in Extension mission statements from 32 states found on websites in October 2016. What stands out to you?

wordcloud

Viewing just the word cloud, we surmise that Extension is associated with universities, and uses education and research-based knowledge to improve and strengthen people, families, and communities. But why do we believe education and research-based knowledge will improve and strengthen people, families, and communities?

The answer, for many adult education programs, is grounded in the theory of Diffusion of Innovation. This theory provides an underpinning for much of what Extension does, and a substantial body of peer-reviewed literature has developed around it.

In a nutshell, “Diffusion is the process through which an innovation, defined as an idea perceived as new, spreads via certain communication channels over time among the members of a social system.” – A Prospective and Retrospective Look at the Diffusion Model, Everett M. Rogers, Journal Of Health Communication Vol. 9 , Iss. Sup1, 2004 [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10810730490271449]

Extension has developed as a system to communicate innovations (broadly defined) to our audiences, with the assumption that this will lead to the audience adopting innovations that will “strengthen and improve their lives.”

Diffusion of innovation theory is implicit in the logic model, which posits changes in knowledge lead to changes in action which lead to changes in condition. While it seems self-evident that people require knowledge before their behavior will change, do we do enough to consider, and affect, the other complex factors that influence changes in behavior?

We encourage you to read more about the diffusion of innovation, and ask if it sufficiently answers your “why question.” If it doesn’t, then what does? The next step is to delve a bit deeper with the diffusion of innovation theory and ask questions, e.g.:

  • Where does the innovation come from?
  • What is the role of Extension in developing or discovering the innovation?
  • What is Extension’s role in communicating that innovation?
  • Are there steps beyond communicating that will lead to adoption of the innovation?

In our next blog post, we will look at some of these questions, particularly through the lens of networks. In our view, networks can play a key role in facilitating the discovery and spread of innovations.

Authors: Bob Bertsch (@ndbob), Karen Jeannette (@kjeannette), and Stephen Judd (@sjudd)

This post was published on the Military Families Learning Network blog on November 16, 2016.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

3 Replies to “Diffusion of innovation and asking why”

  1. Thanks for the timely and thought-provoking post Bob, Karen and Stephen! With the increasingly complex and varied challenges Extension and the communities we serve face, innovative solutions are needed more than ever, wherever they may come from. The questions you pose at the end are particularly provocative in that regard. I look forward to your thoughts on the potential role of networks.

    Mark Lubell and colleagues at UC Davis (http://environmentalpolicy.ucdavis.edu/project/extension-30-knowledge-networks-sustainable-agriculture) have been looking at diffusion of innovation within the context of knowledge networks. And more specifically, the role they can play in supporting innovative practices providing not just private benefits (those realized by the individual adopter) but public benefits as well (environmentally sustainable agriculture in this case).

    You and your readers might also look at work related to Adaption-Innovation (A-I) theory at VTech (http://www.alce.vt.edu/signature-programs/problem-solving/problem-solving.html) and elsewhere as it relates to cooperative problem solving. It suggests each of us has a preference along the adaptation and innovation continuum, and both are necessary to effective problem solving (with implications for how one might most effectively lead collaborative change efforts).

    Thanks again!

  2. Jeff,

    Thank you for sharing these ideas and resources.

    Per your suggestion a year or two ago, I read the Extension 3.0 white paper http://environmentalpolicy.ucdavis.edu/node/321.- I found it particularly interesting to think about the communication patterns for outreach communication (Table 2) and associated examples. I look forward to looking at some of your other recommended readings, too.

    Also, as part of this discussion, we heard from Jared Decker via Twitter about using the “Unified theory of acceptance and use of technology” in his education efforts (See tweet https://twitter.com/pop_gen_JED/status/800845807406587904). I haven’t looked into this yet, but I wanted to be sure we included the different ideas we are hearing into the mix.

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