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Disruption, compatibility & relative advantage

Originally published 13/2/2007 on my Open University blog, during H807.

recumbent bike

Are innovations always disruptive? Probably yes, but some innovations are much less disruptive to the traditional way of doing things than are others. The ball point pen for example was really just a more convenient version of the fountain pen and caused minimal disruption to handwriting practice; the typewriter on the other hand brought a massive advance in efficiency but was much more disruptive, requiring people to painstakingly learn a completely new skill.

In Diffusion of Innovations Everett Rogers identifies ”compatibility” as a key factor in the rate at which an innovation diffuses through a community – by which he means the extent to which it is disruptive of existing cultural norms, habitual behaviours etc (Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 2003). Innovations which fit in with how things have always been done will be adopted much more readily, while the adoption of more disruptive innovations will require more effort or incentive, or may be rejected. To overcome this resistance to a highly disruptive innovation, the new technology must be seen to have a high ”relative advantage” – that is, the benefits of adopting it are so great that they outweigh the disruption caused.

The diamond-frame bicycle, as invented in the early 19th century and perfected at the end of it, was a revolutionary personal transport innovation which diffused through most human societies in little more than a century. Learning to ride it required some time and effort, but the huge advantage over previous methods of getting around easily compensated for this. But recumbent bikes (like the one in my photo) have not diffused widely, even though they’re an improvement on the original design in terms of ergonomics, speed and comfort. Why? Because for most potential adopters the marginal advantage gained does not justify even the small amount of effort needed to learn to ride it.

They don’t know what they’re missing, tho ;o)

Posted by rjm242 at 09:46 PM

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