June 3rd, 2010
As soon as you start discussing future advances in IT, someone will make a familiar observation: not everyone embraces change. This is not news, and it’s not restricted to IT — or to any technology, for that matter. Some people resist changes in fashion, music, art, cuisine, politics, sports, religion, and technology. Some people are willing to tolerate a little change, as long as it’s not too much and not too fast. And some people want lots of change, all the time.
As we discussed in one of the earlier postings in this blog thread, there is a significant difference between “incremental” change, and “order-of-magnitude” change. Indeed, from a social perspective, “order-of-magnitude” changes might better be termed “disruptive changes” — for they turn things upside down, render established ways of doing things obsolete and irrelevant, and threaten established scientific, governmental, religious, social, and cultural norms.
As the late Thomas Kuhn observed in his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, this has been true for centuries, if not longer. Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, had the audacity to propose that Ptolemy’s view of an earth-centered solar system was incorrect, and that the earth actually revolved around the sun. It took the Catholic Church three years (after the publication of his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in 1543) to even take notice of this radical theory, and sixty years to take action against it. But in 1616, the church issued a decree suspending the book, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books. As if that wasn’t enough, Galileo Galilei was convicted in 1633 of heresy for “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of the Holy Scripture,” and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
We probably don’t have to worry about being excommunicated today for proposing new scientific theories, or possible applications of new technology — though it’s not always easy to distinguish that kind of knee-jerk reaction from the kind of Internet-related censorship that we see in countries like China, Iran, and Pakistan. Putting religion aside for now, it’s still worth noting that various computer-related technologies have been attacked, prohibited, regulated, belittled, and criticized over the past few decades. In the Web 2.0 world, for example, we’ve seen problems like these:
- resistance to user-generated content — e.g., blogs
- strong resistance to the idea of letting employees blog about their work, in the office
- rejection of web-based products (e.g., Google Apps) as “too lightweight”
- rejection of Facebook applications by various pundits as being “trivial” or “frivolous”
- rejection of “cloud” computing
While it took the Catholic Church decades to decide that Copernicus’ theories were heretical, and then centuries to remove that criticism (Pope Paul VI abolished the “List of Prohibited Books” in 1966), most individuals and organizations react and respond to new ideas and new technologies a bit more quickly … but not instantaneously!
Indeed, one of the most important things for champions, evangelists, and advocates of new technology must be aware of is the so-called “technology adoption cycle,” popularized by Geoffrey Moore in a book from the early 1990s, Crossing the Chasm. Based on earlier work by Everett Rogers on the diffusion of technology, Moore proposed five “categories” of technology adapters:
- innovators – the “pioneers” who want to obtain a strategic advantage by being the first in their neighborhood, their town, or their industry, to use the new technology
- early adopters — typically representing about 15% of the overall market, these are the people who see an opportunity for making a big improvement in some way that matters greatly to them — e.g., more revenues, bigger market share, higher profits, etc.
- early majority — these are the more conservative potential customer/users in the marketplace who are interested in improvements and benefits, but who typically want to wait until they see “case studies” of other people (i.e., the early adopters!) who have successfully used the technology
- late majority — even more conservative people, these are the ones that are typically driven by a desire for cost avoidance and/or cost displacement. They’re not so interested in (or willing to believe in) a 10% increase in revenues as they are interested in the possibility of a 10% reduction in costs.
- laggards — these are the people who will defer, avoid, and delay using the new technology until they have no alternative — e.g., their existing technology breaks down and cannot be repaired or replaced. It’s common to characterize the people in this group as “Luddites,” and indeed many of them are. But you’ll also find a lot of people from government agencies and non-profit organizations, whose budget restrictions are the main reason for waiting until the last possible moment to replace their old technology with something newer.
It’s easy to criticize the people who occupy both extremes on this chart, but that’s not the point I want to emphasize. The main thing I want to emphasize is that a finite period of time elapses between the first sign of a new technology (i.e., the extreme left side of the chart above) and the point where everyone is using the technology (i.e., the extreme right side). If you’re involved with new technology — either as a developer, evangelist, or potential user — you need to be aware of that.
My friend Capers Jones likes to remind me that it took the military 75 years to go from the technology of muskets to the technology of rifles; obviously things move somewhat faster with computer technology. Still, it was common to see a period of 15-20 years elapse between the innovators and the laggards for technologies like relational database, or client-server, etc. If you want something a little more specific and a little more recent, take a look at this May 2008 article, “20% of U.S. Has Never Sent E-mail.”
Some people hear a statistic like this and say, “Yeah, that’s my grandmother you’re talking about — and all the other grandparents in the country.” Aside from the fact that such a characterization is more and more untrue these days (see, for example, this 2009 blog, “Rise of the Silver Surfer – Germany Already Has More Internet Users 60+ Than Teens“), it speaks to the generational aspect of technology adoption. We’ll talk more about that in a future blog, if my fingers don’t fall off from doing too much typing today
The more important point to keep in mind these days is that technology adoption is occurring faster today. As an October 2009 blog, “Speed of Technology Adoption,” points out, it took roughly 50 years for electricity to permeate 90% of the market; it took 30 years for the refrigerator, and 20 years for the cellphone. I suspect it will be even faster for iPods, iPhones, iPads, and the i-thingies of the future.
Finally, one last piece of advice: you need to know what part of the technology adoption cycle you’re most comfortable with. Ideally, you (as an individual) and your employer, and your employer’s current and prospective customers are all at the same place in the cycle. It doesn’t matter (at least, not to me) whether you’re an innovator or a laggard or somewhere in between. The point is that if that’s how you (and your employer and your customers) reacted to the last technology innovation, that’s probably how you’re going to respond to the next one.