Elearning Adoption in Organizations 2: Characteristics of the Diffusion Process

Getting a new idea adopted, even when it has obvious advantages, is difficult.

(Rogers, E., Diffusion of Innovations, p.1)

Last time, I began looking at the challenges of driving adoption of e-learning in organizations, and how looking at organizations from a Functionalist perspective could enable us to understand ways to drive the diffusion process for broad adoption of elearning in organisations.

Innovation & Change

Innovation and change: new ideas, processes, technologies, and work practices – are a common part of the workplace environment. Sometimes these emerge spontaneously, and are disseminated organically, but more typically, new or different approaches are implemented as part of an operational or performance enhancement program where the diffusion process is driven as part of the change or transformation initiative.

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that anyone who has tried to develop an elearning initiative for an organization has met with resistance at some level, whether it be a C-level exec with a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, or workers simply refusing to take advantage of the resources placed at their disposal, citing reasons including:

  • Perceived poor focus of the initiative
    • (“this doesn’t apply to me”)
  • Lack of time to learn a new way of working
    • (“I’m too busy to learn a new way of working”)
  • Too much effort to change
    • (“my approach works just fine – why should I bother to change?”)
  • Lack of awareness
    • (“I didn’t know about it”)
  • Resistance to change
    • (“I’m not going to change”)

Understanding why workers exhibit these behaviors can be an effective means to counteract potential blocks to implementing new initiatives and to transition people in organizations to align with changes.

Diffusion Process

Diffusion of innovation is a theory of how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. Based upon research undertaken by Joe Bohlen and George Beal in the late 1950’s, Everett M. Rogers developed and generalized the theory in his 1962 text Diffusion of Innovations, stating that

Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. It is a special type of communication, in that the messages are concerned with new ideas.


Rogers considered that the “special” (p.6) characteristic of diffusion centered upon the notion of innovation, or newness. This newness means that a certain degree of uncertainty is bound up in diffusion. Implicit in this is “a lack of certainty, of structure, of information” (p.6). Information (delivered by any one of a number of channels) is a means of reducing the degree of uncertainty.

Rogers asserted that innovation diffuses through organizations in an S curve (see Figure 1), as early adopters initially select the innovation, followed by the majority of users, until a technology or innovation is common.

Figure 1 The Diffusion Process: Bell-shaped vs S Curve of Innovation Adoption

Figure 1 The Diffusion Process: Bell-shaped vs S Curve of Innovation Adoption


Next Time: Phases of the Diffusion Process



Bohlen, J. M., Beal, G. M. (1957) The Diffusion Process, Special Report No. 18 (Agriculture Extension Service, Iowa State College) 1: 56-77.   [Internet] Available from: lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=specialreports [Accessed 3rd November 2017]

Rogers, E. M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed.. Simon & Schuster International.