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How Innovators and Early Adopters Fail at the Technology Adoption Lifecycle

Cross-posted from my weblog The Design State

There is a very robust and lively conversation about eGovernment being held by government employees online. A lot of great ideas for improving citizen access, transparency and data distribution are being tested and implemented. Unfortunately, there’s an even larger group of government employees, officials, and managers who aren’t engaged in using the Internet to keep tabs on the newest trends.

I ran across the Technology Adoption Lifecycle the other day, and immediately started applying it to different people I know and different situations I’ve been in. The rest of this post heavily concerns the TAL, so it might be helpful to have that link open in another tab.

You’ve got the innovators, who come up with the great ideas in the first place, and then you have the early adopters, the people hop on the newest site, gadget, or trend as soon as it appears. The online conversation about eGovernment takes place almost totally between these two groups. Eventually they catch the interest of the early majority and you end up with the Feds starting to use social media to help expand their capabilities.

The problem with this paradigm is that the innovators and early adopters are too busy creating new envelopes to push and early majority folks are too busy settling in to their new digs to pay any attention to the two remaining groups: late majority adopters and laggards.

These are the CTOs, CIOs, PIOs and department heads who are still running Windows 98 at 800×600 screen resolution and using Netscape or IE6 as their browser of choice. They don’t use the Internet for anything but email (even though email has nothing to do with the Internet) and they get their technology news through print media trade publications.

The trade rags are fairly good at what they do, but it is in their nature to direct their content toward late majority adopters and laggards. You don’t read much about the possibilities of the Internet, information design, or web design in these publications. When you do read something about the Internet it is usually framed programmatically or in terms of infrastructure; how so-and-so used WiFi to make their job easier. From time to time they touch on Facebook (security risk!) or Twitter (security risk!) but the tone of the articles tends to run along the lines of “Look at this new-fangled contraption. Huh. Amazing what they can do nowadays.” Emphasis on they. There’s no encouragement, education or endorsement of what the rest of us are so gung-ho about.

The late majority adopters and laggards need to be brought into the conversation, and it is high time that the rest of us work on doing so. They aren’t going online to get their information, so we have to reach them through the channels they are used to. Working with trade publications to improve their reporting and coverage is a great way to start, since these new ideas will be presented in a familiar format. It also couldn’t hurt to send your boss, colleague, or peer links to relevant sites or articles online as a way of broadening their horizons. I’ll even start the email and let you fill in the links: “I noticed you read [Generic Government Trade Magazine], I thought you might be interested in the sites listed below, which offer a lot more content on similar topics. In particular, I found these articles to be very informative.”

Part of the reason the late majority adopters and laggards are who they are is because the rest of us aren’t talking to them. By engaging them in the work we do, it’s quite possible that we can increase the pace of the cultural change needed for truly effective egovernance.

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D. Scott Cobeen

I agree with it all until the last sentence….How can we engage them…when they : Dont have time, It is not their idea, they dont get it, they never actually use the technology, they…”Just say when” because this list of stupid excuses could go on and on….it is as we say here ,nice to have but not required…until then (it becomes required by the leadership)…it will not come to life in any venue by any genration.

Leadership must see the light and the sence it makes to leverage the new/trend technoogies for thier respective organizations…and not just with in the crack berries..
I am a new adaptor and inovator and let me tell you is sucks being either…

I see the need, but I am not in charge…

Oh, this is just my opinion and I am not venting…

People do not change unless required or unless it is to thier direct advantages…We work in DOD, so it must be required! or its not happening


Adam Harvey

I don’t think we’re in any disagreement, Scott. The challenges you note are definitely present. Perhaps the broader point I am trying to make is that sometimes change agents have to engage the late majority and laggards on their turf. By consistently respecting their different methodology and listening to their concerns, it’s possible that we can bring them along a little faster than otherwise.

Adam Harvey

I hadn’t seen that link, Jean-Paul. The points you raise are ones I hadn’t considered, but they are definitely applicable. Thanks for giving me something else to think about.


I agree that we often fail in technology adoption cycle to have the tough conversations where the believers try to convince the non-believers. It’s easier to talk to the people that agree versus the skeptics. I actually think a number of the government trader magazines have heavily covered social media and government 2.0 and I notice senior leaders are at least somewhat aware and want to engage. The trick is they are still not sure how to properly engage and the steps forward…

Arthur Eves

Technology Adoption has to be a key part of the innovation process. Whether top-down or bottom-up innovation has to make life easier for its users and be sold. Microsoft scores so well in the corporate environment because they court the C-suite aggressively and put tools in the hands of the users. The LAMP environment doesn’t have a sales force to hornswoggle the front office and so it looks scary. Its amazing how scared corporate IT folks are of “unsupported” software and innovation. They are highly risk-averse and I would bet that’s even more the case in gov. You don’t get fired for preserving the status quo or hiring IBM or Microsoft. Innovators need to make evangelist allies that reach out to admin and users. The top-down approach has saddled us all with software and processes that don’t work well. The bottom-up approach does lead to security concerns…and some breaches…and its usually done out of an attempt to do your job without being hamstrung. Bottom line: grow up. Its the job of innovators and early adopters to lose their smug superiority and show others the personal benefits that might accrue from the innovation. It won’t always work but not every innovation is as great as its cracked up to be.

Adam Harvey

I admit that the guys who came up with the TAL could have picked a less insulting word than laggards for users who adopt at the end of the lifecycle, but I don’t think infrequent users or novice users applies either. Those terms relate to skill-level rather than the adoption timeframe.

I’m having trouble thinking up a term less fraught than laggards at the moment.

Joshua joseph

Arthur makes some great points, which I’d like to build on. As someone who is not usually an early adopter myself, but now increasingly looking for ways to engage with and use e-gov related innovations, my sense is that early adopters tend to overestimate how “easy” this is for the rest of us…even when we’re motivated.

Agree with Adam that part of the problem is that the innovators, early adopters and the early majority folks are often too busy to pay attention to late and very late adopters. In addition to making a better case for the personal benefits of new technologies, as Arthur suggests, not sure there is a real appreciation of the psychological barriers to trying out new technologies. In particular, folks who are already comfortable using social media sometimes take for granted how alien it can be for an outsider to figure out how to navigate and get started on a site like Twitter or GovLoop. I’ve definitely seen that among my colleagues. Though it’s probably easier said than done, innovators and early adopters could help bridge the divide by more regularly stepping back into the shoes of those who have been largely insulated from social media. Making access easier and more intuitive for newbies could be a good way to encourage more interest and experimentation…and over time, could pave the way for greater adoption. Thanks for a great post, Adam.