The Late Adopter’s Advantage

The diffusion of innovations is a theory describing the five stages through which innovations, such as emerging technologies, spread through markets. It starts with the innovators and early adopters, progresses through the early majority, at about the halfway point advances to the late majority, and finally ends with the laggards. With rapid advancements in emerging technologies accelerating the pace of today’s business world, it often seems like if you’re not an early adopter, you’re a laggard.

Historically, since small and midsized businesses were at a disadvantage compared to larger competitors in terms of resources (money, people, time), they were generally not early adopters. However, with emerging technologies becoming less resource-intensive, most notably cloud computing and the services it enabled, more small and midsized businesses were among the early adopters. This may have made their more cautious peers feel like, in today’s survival of the fleetest, they are hopelessly behind the times. There is, however, still something to be said for cautious optimism and patience.

At the beginning of the late majority for an emerging technology, at a time when its successful early adopters are being publicly and relentlessly celebrated, it reaches a pivotal point that the Gartner Hype Cycle calls the peak of inflated expectations. This is when the success stories become tempered by cautionary tales. This leads to the trough of disillusionment, which is when those inflated expectations crash down closer to reality and technology providers build up emerging technologies with improvements that bring them closer to maturity. After this begins the slope of enlightenment, which is when tangible business benefits start to crystallize as second- and third-generations of the emerging technologies hit the market.

Many of the emerging technologies that can be of most benefit to small and midsized businesses are now somewhere between the peak of inflated expectations and the slope of enlightenment. This creates a valuable opportunity for organizations that have so far been holding back on investing heavily in emerging technologies, which I call the late adopter’s advantage.

Take, for example, the much ballyhooed big data. Gartner declared in August of this year that it had reached the peak of its hype cycle. “That’s not a bad thing,” Nate Silver explained at the recent IBM THINK Forum. “The hype often comes before the progress takes place. What that means is first you have the hype over new technology and people realize that we have great hardware and software but I need more people on staff who know how to use this stuff, I need to start experimenting. With any new technology, big data included, if you don’t have a good corporate culture that gets people on board in the same room from all levels of the company willing to implement the new technology, and willing to think about its importance and its goals, it’s not going to help you out very much at all. The prerequisite is having a highly functional corporate culture that can adapt and change, that can criticize itself where it needs to, and realize where there are potential opportunities without falling for the hype.”

It’s not too late to adopt emerging technologies, such as big data, analytics, cloud, social, and mobile. In fact, being a late adopter has advantages. You get to learn from the trials and errors of the early adopters, and benefit from the technology improvements driven by feedback from the early majority. By not falling for the hype, you get to leapfrog to the progress. 

Furthermore, small and midsized organizations have an added advantage. They often have a corporate culture similar to the one Silver described, one that can criticize itself where it needs to, one that can adapt and change, making them more agile than larger competitors that are often weighed down by bureaucracy. The agile advantage of being a small or midsized business coupled with the late adopter’s advantage can be a powerful one-two punch. Now is the time to throw down with emerging technologies.

This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.


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