Texas Tech University

More Than a Great Idea

Lucy Greenberg

October 27, 2023

Kerk Kee

Texas Tech faculty and students in the Innovation Diffusion Lab are discovering what helps a new idea do or die, and what that means for West Texas.

For a society that loves “the next big thing” some changes are harder than others.

Take ChatGPT – several people lauded its arrival while others remain concerned what its presence might mean.

ChatGPT is the most recent arrival on the list of innovations taking the world by storm. Before this, it was social media. Before that it was the internet. Educators fretted when the calculator was introduced to the masses. Automobiles were an outlandish idea when the world traveled by horse. 

We all know the innovations that succeeded because we use them every day. 

There are plenty of innovations, though, that never took off, one being flying tanks. Dreamed up by the Soviets, the idea was to airdrop (not via cell phone) tanks into the heat of battle. However, the innovation was abandoned when they could not find an aircraft strong enough.

A robotic speed-reader created in the 1960s is another idea that couldn't keep up. The “Readamatic” used a mechanical plate to slide down the page as a sort of precursor to the teleprompter. The problem: the plate produced a loud nails-on-chalkboard sound. 

So why do some innovations succeed, and others do not? 

In some cases, like those mentioned above, they just don't work. But other times innovations simply fail to capture the public's attention. 

Is there a way to know which time is which? Or to increase the likelihood of success?

Those are questions that Texas Tech University's Innovation Diffusion Lab (IDL) is trying to answer. Led by Kerk Kee, the lab is housed in the College of Media & Communication.

Adoption Curve
Kerk Kee and the members of the Innovation Diffusion Lab

“I started the lab as a place where students could collaborate on several federally funded grants under one umbrella,” said Kee, Virginia and Choc Hutcheson Professor in Mass Communication. 

The research within the lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and examines the social and communicative science behind why people accept or reject new innovations. 

Kee and his colleagues use the Diffusion of Innovations Theory (DOI) to guide their study. The theory was officially coined in the 1950s by sociologist and communication researcher Everett Rogers and posits innovations do not take off spontaneously. Instead, they follow a process in which some people adopt an innovation sooner than others, and that people fall into five categories: 

Adoption Curve
  1. Innovators – People who want to be the first to try something. They're venturesome and willing to take risks.
  2. Early Adopters – People who are leaders or represent leaders. They are already aware of the need to change and do not need added information to be convinced.
  3. Early Majority – People who are rarely leaders but do adopt new ideas earlier than the average person.
  4. Late Majority – People who are skeptical of change and will only adopt an innovation after it has been tested by the majority. 
  5. Laggards – People who are tradition-based and conservative when it comes to change. They'll need fear appeals, statistics and even social pressure to adopt innovations. 

Most people are in the middle. 

More than 80% of the population are early adopters, early majority or late majority. Laggards account for approximately 16% of the population, leaving less than 5% as true innovators. 

According to Kee, it becomes apparent why only a few innovations take hold. 

“Anyone looking to introduce a new idea or invention is going to need to persuade more than 95% of the population – that's a lot of people,” he said.

The IDL researches what happens when those 95% are presented with an innovation. What happens next can be understood through four categories: the innovation itself, communication channels, time and social systems. 

The innovation, which can be an idea, practice or object, must work and be helpful. Otherwise, the other categories do not matter. It must offer an advantage over the innovations that came before it. It also must be accessible for the public to try or observe. 

Communication channels are another factor in why an innovation is adopted or not. This is an important point of research for those in the College of Media & Communication. 

“If you build it but they don't know about it, or they don't believe you, they won't come,” Kee said. “That's why communication is fundamental to diffusion – to raise awareness and to persuade.”

Time plays an integral role in whether an innovation is adopted, and when it is. Many innovations see swift adoption at the start, a lag in the middle and another wave toward the end. But in some instances, there is a rapid volume of adoption early on. The researchers are seeking to understand what variables cause that rare but rapid rate of adoption. 

“We believe that adoption and diffusion can be accelerated with the right strategies,” Kee said. “It is our goal to identify these strategies to speed up the adoption of good innovations.”

Social systems are the final element in how successfully an innovation is diffused. Every culture, whether at a macro or micro level has its own goals, behavior and structure. Some innovations will further one culture's goals but can miss the mark in another. 

The culture of West Texas is one the IDL is especially focused on. 

“West Texas has its own unique challenges and opportunities,” Kee said. “Rural healthcare and water both need innovative solutions for West Texans to have a high quality of life.” 

Kee explains the researchers look at many innovations but use smart communities as a guidepost. 

“Smart communities are the focus that guide our activities,” he said. “Lubbock could greatly benefit from something like this in the future.” 

Smart communities are an innovation early in conception but will be increasingly attainable as cyberinfrastructure grows. For example, traffic lights would become “smart” lights, no longer running on timers but receiving data feedback in real time to help the flow of traffic.

“It's like the app ‘Waze' but connected and in real time,” Kee said. “Imagine lights having sensors and being able to speak to one another to help drivers redirect.” 

This kind of data sharing could be found in the medical field as well. 

Most healthcare providers have their own database and when they refer a patient to another provider, that patient's data lives somewhere else. In many emergency situations, patients would be better served if there was a central infrastructure that allowed data to be shared and integrated, regardless of provider.

“This could result in quicker diagnoses, faster intervention and more holistic care,” Kee said. 

The researchers believe healthcare innovation could greatly benefit West Texas. Many people living in rural communities see a local primary care physician but must travel to see specialists. 

Kee and his team imagine doctors being able to transfer and share data in a way that could save patients travel time and keep rural physicians apprised of the latest medical interventions. 

Water conservation is another concern on the High Plains. 

The IDL is looking into an innovation that could help farmers optimize yields and conserve water simultaneously. 

“There is new technology that allows sensors and real time data to find the plots of land that are dried out and send more water to that location,” Kee said. “This avoids overwatering and actually helps yield the healthiest crops possible.” 

But will West Texans be open to innovations such as these? 

Privacy is a common concern for late majority and laggard adopters. Kee doesn't believe that will remain as much of a concern in the years to come, though. 

“When the IRS started collecting taxes, there was widespread concern about privacy,” he said. “However, accountants were trained, and certified public accounting became a field of study all because people wanted privacy and accuracy when it came to their finances. 

“I believe data will likely follow the same route. As our world becomes increasingly data-driven, there will be jobs created to ensure data privacy.”

However, that's not the job of the IDL. 

“We have a pro-innovation bias and we're aware of that,” Kee said. “That does not mean we're not cautious.” 

Take airplanes for example. The first flights encountered problems, and some led to fatalities. But those problems were studied and fixed and we now all reap the benefits of air travel. 

“In the same way, our lab recognizes there are plenty of people who will focus on perfecting an innovation once its adopted. But that's not what we do. We study how it gets adopted in the first place, and to do that, you must be willing to push the envelope.” 

In the coming years, Kee hopes to identify if West Texans follow the general breakdown of adopters, or if the region leans more innovative or conservative when it comes to embracing innovation.  

“Innovation adoption is a complex phenomenon, often driven by the local socio-cultural-political context. We aim to better understand how the unique context of West Texas shapes our path forward.” 

Research information in this article is cited by Everett Rogers' “Diffusion of Innovations” fifth edition.