• Diffusion of innovation: How do people make sense of things?

    by  • February 18, 2013 • Uncategorized

    The case of Edison’s Electric Light innovation, which disrupted the status quo, is an interesting example of  how the design of the system can facilitate the diffusion of an innovation. Hargadon and Douglas (2001) argue that sense-making happens in the context of existing apprehensions, so when introducing a novel product/service/system an innovator has to design the system in a way that it provides cues to the user through which they can comprehend it (using their existing mental schema). At the same time the innovation also has to provide cues through which its novelty can be understood, appreciated and used. Edison did this by making several design choices (at times inferior ones) to make his novel electric lighting system mimic the existing gas lighting system, so that people could understand its value. Besides this, the design has to be robust enough to have room for the new features/uses to evolve as people’s familiarity with the newness increases over time. Such disruptions, which often involve changes in the actors and their roles, interactions and behavior, preceded by changes in people’s mental schema and scripts (sense-making), are also referred to as institutional change.

    The article by Hargadon and Douglas (2001) describes how robust design can help diffuse the novel system. However, it does not really define the process of making robust design. For example, TiVo with their introduction of the digital video recorder in 1999, tried to do the same, but they were unable to evoke cues through which people could exploit the novelty of the system. Now the question of choosing to present consumers with some old familiar features, some novel ones and perhaps some advanced ones for evolutionary purposes is still unclear.

    Let us take a look at this from the basic question of how do people make sense?

    Insights from institutional theory can be of good use to understand human behavior.  Gerth and Mills (1953, p. 173) defined institutions as organizations of social roles which “imprint their stamps upon the individual, modifying his external conduct as well as his inner life”. In essence, institutions shape our sense-making. But what are those institutions and how do they influence people and/or an organization’s behavior. Scott (2001) identified three ‘pillars’ that form institutions: regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive, as depicted below:
    Three pillars of institution

    These pillars exert conformity pressures on people’s/organizations behavior and otherwise impose sanctions for deviations in different ways. They define what is possible to do and think and what is not. This was very much the case with the Gas-lighting system, and Edison had to overcome all the barriers imposed by existing institutions by strategizing in way which paved the path for him to relax regulatory pressures, alter cultural-cognitive thinking and hence make electric lighting normative. This robust design aspect influences more on the cultural-cognitive aspect and assists in overcoming a normative pillar (at a later stage) but does not help much on the regulative front, which is quite powerful in many industries. There, the perspective of ‘power’ and ‘interest’ of actors helps understand the situation. Who is going to lose power and has to concede his/her interest (in this case the actors in the gas industry)?

    Those on the losing side (in terms of power and/or interest) are likely to retaliate and those who expect to gain are going to support the new institution or the new logic. To influence these forces, Edison used tactics like threatening to resign from the venture. In most of the cases, people/organizations create their allies (in the relevant stakeholder group) and earn their support to legitimize the innovation and counter-act the existing institutional conformity pressure. One must acknowledge that it is a time consuming process!

    The next important question: what are the tools, techniques and strategies available to the innovator of a disruption, apart from robust design, if any?

    Some of these strategies might be of use:
    • Discursive strategies (transform the ‘meaning’ embodied by particular technologies, by producing new concepts, objects and subject positions) & rhetorical strategies.
    • Resource mobilization and ally building.
    • Using Regulatory agencies (such as professional associations), to theorize change
    • Development of measurement tools as a strategy to develop its own legitimacy and power.

    At a higher level of abstraction one could say the goal of disruptive innovation diffusion is centered on ‘legitimization’ and the means to achieve it are mostly to be found in ‘discourse’.


    Gerth, H. & Mills, C. 1953. Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
    Hargadon, A. B., & Douglas, Y. 2001. When Innovations meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light, Administrative Science Quarterly, 46: 476–501.
    Scott, R. 2001. Institutions and Organizations, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA. p. 77.

    (Originally published at http://www.vaibmu.com/diffusion-of-innovation-an-institutional-perspective/)