Principles of Innovation and Change


1.  To provide a common basis of definitions and terms.
2.  To provide an understanding of the complexity of innovation and change and the importance of the human element.
3. To explain the variety of approaches that can be used to implement change


Participants in the Process of Change
Barriers to Innovation and Change
Technology Transfer, The Hard Lessons
Some Basic Rules of Change
Centralized vs. Decentralized Diffusion Systems
Approaches to Innovation and Change
Examples of Technology Transfer Programs



The U.S. General Accounting Office provides this definition:  "Technology may be broadly defined as the knowledge, skills, methods, and techniques used to accomplish specific practical tasks."  Thus, technology is more than just methods and materials; in the broader context it also includes the people, policies, and procedures which ensure its application.


The National Science Foundation defines innovation as "a technology new to a given organization".  Thus, technologies do not necessarily have to be new to be innovative, but are new to the organization.


Research is the creation of new knowledge.  Research is defined by Hartgen as follows:  "Research involves critical investigation, evaluation, or experiment with the purpose of revising currently accepted conclusions and/or improving practice or procedures in the line of new facts or insights."

Technology Transfer:

The term "technology transfer" refers to all activities leading to adoption of a new product or procedure by any group of users.  "New" is used in a special sense: it means any improvement over existing technologies or processes, not necessarily a chronologically recent invention.  Technology transfer is not simply dissemination of information and passively awaiting its use.  Technology transfer is an active term.  It implies interaction between technology sponsors and users and results in actual innovation.

Information Dissemination:

The act of providing information about technology change through various written, and audiovisual techniques.  Dissemination simply means that material is distributed to prospective users for them to evaluate and use as they see fit.  Dissemination is almost always a one-way process with little user feedback or follow-up about how the material was used.


The spread of an idea, method, practice, or product throughout a social system.  This generally occurs gradually as some users wait to see how it has worked for others before they are willing to adopt a new method.  Communication patterns, especially one-to-one encounters, are a key element in determining how fast or how far a new method spreads.


An individual who is willing to take risks by adopting "new" methods, products, or practices which are not widely used at the time of adoption. Such a person can also be referred to as an early adopter because of a willingness to take the risks associated with new methods.


The deliberate linking of people to promote the exchange of ideas, and the establishment of direct contacts among people with similar problems, to promote a general increase in information flow.

Change agent:

A person who encourages and supports the adoption of new technology or innovations. Such a person usually acts as an intermediary between the source of information and the ultimate user.  Some examples are University Extension agents in agriculture, product salesmen or brokers.

Technology transfer intermediaries:

Individuals who serve varied functions between applied researchers and users.  The functions include translating technical material into simple language, linking potential adopters with experts, and facilitating the two-way flow of information between users and developers of new ideas.

Innovation re-invention:

The adaptation or modification of an innovation which takes account of existing environmental/organizational conditions.

Technoloqy Push vs. Pull:

A technology "push," also known as top down transfer, is diffusion from higher levels of authority to lower levels.  An example of "push" is Federal efforts at technology transfer through legislation, regulation, or policy.  Entrepreneurs and other individuals or organizations whose objectives are to implement a technology typically "push" in order to do so.  In marketing terms, the client is "sold" the technology.

A transfer "pull" is just the opposite, a bottom-up form of diffusion.  The client demands the technology.  The search for innovation moves up from the lower levels of an organization until it is accepted or addressed and resolved by higher authorities
Another view of push vs. pull is that push represents innovation in search of a problem or market, while pull results from a problem searching for a solution.  For example, consider the maintenance of public transportation vehicles.  Federal agencies could adopt a push approach by developing improved techniques and then mandating their use or encouraging them through training and information dissemination.  An alternative pull approach would be to have the transit agencies seek better methods to solve their problems.  The Federal role would then be to disseminate innovative maintenance practices generated by the local agencies.

Vertical transfer:

The movement of information on technology from top to bottom of an organization or system of organizations.  Vertical transfer follows an orderly "chain of command" in the flow of information.

Horizontal transfer:

The movement of information on technology between people with a similar class of jobs (peer-to-peer) within an organization or between similar organizations.



People who do research also are sometimes involved in the transfer of information to potential users of research.  Their success depends on their ability to understand user needs and to put the information in a form that users can understand.

Change agents:

People who encourage and support the adoption of new technology or innovation. Such people act as intermediaries between the source of information and the ultimate user.  Some examples are university extension agents for agricultural innovations, sales representatives and brokers.  Professional association officials may also act as change agents through the studies and programs they sponsor.

Early adopters:

Individuals or groups who are willing to take risks by adopting "new" methods, products, or practices not widely in current use.  These users are called early adopters.  They are a key to the diffusion of innovations because they provide practical evidence that an innovation actually works and this is important to later adopters.  These users may frequently create their own innovations in response to specific problems that they face.

Late adopters:

Individuals who are slow to adopt new ideas and procedures.  These persons wait for others to try new methods before they will try them themselves.  Late adopters will not accept an idea unless their peers have done it first.


Many of the problems associated with change relate to poor communication.  Generally people won't try new things if they are not able to get "good" information from someone they trust.


Those who have worked at getting organizations have learned some lessons over time,  These are:



Two systems exist for diffusion of innovation: centralized or decentralized.  Decision making in centralized systems is concentrated at a high level, while decentralized systems feature wide sharing of power within the diffusion network.  In centralized systems diffusion is vertical--from the top down, as innovations emerge from formal R&D projects.  Decentralized systems use horizontal diffusion, as local experimentation is often the innovation source.  Centralized systems favor technology push, where "needs" are defined at a high level while decentralized systems use technology pull, where needs are defined locally.

Innovations which cannot be easily modified or re-invented are best diffused using a centralized system.  Innovations which lend themselves to modification are best diffused by a decentralized approach because such an approach allows local adaptation of innovations to reflect local needs.

Centralized Systems

1. Overall control of decisions by national government administrators and technical subject matter experts.
2. Diffusion from top down experts to local users of innovations.
3. Innovations come from formal R and D conducted by technical experts.
4. Decisions about which innovations should be diffused are made by top administrators.
5. An innovation centered approach; technology push, emphasizing needs created by the availability of the innovation.
6. A low degree of local adaptation and re-invention of the re-invention of the innovations as they diffuse among adopters.

Decentralized Systems

1. Wide sharing of power and control among the members of the diffusion system; client control by local community leaders.
2. Diffusion innovations through horizontal networks of peers.
3. Innovations come from local experimentation by non-experts, who often are users.
4. Local units decide which innovations should be innovations should be diffused on the basis of their informal evaluations of the innovations.
5. A problem centered approach; technology pull, created by the locally perceived needs and problems.
6. A high degree of local adaptation and re-invention of the innovations as they diffuse among adopters.


Many approaches have been developed to describe the process of innovation in organizations.  They demonstrate two things.  First, that there is a variety of methods of change from centralized to decentralized approaches.  Secondly, current procedures have characteristics of the several approaches and it is useful to examine the technology transfer models as it relates to the others in order to understand the process.  The approaches described are the problem solver model, the research, development and diffusion model, the social interaction model, and the national diffusion network model.

Problem Solver Model

In the Problem Solver Model, client needs play the prominent role and information is related to problem solving.  The basic process is one of problem identification, solution search, selection and then application.  Information is used (often haphazardly) at each individual step to assist in carrying out the process.  Outside change agents may assume the role of problem solver and, to be successful, they must develop and maintain a cooperative approach.

The Research, Development and Diffusion Process Approach

The R, D and D model forms the basis for much of the research activity in Federal government departments and research laboratories.  According to this approach, research is justified because it creates new knowledge.  This view of technology transfer is based on the idea that "if the knowledge is there, a use will be found for it."

While this process has been used by several agencies, the emphasis each has placed on the different components has varied.  A unique example of the application of this approach is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's cooperative Extension Service.  This approach is unique because of its reliance on a decentralized network of county agents to diffuse information on new technology and facilitate adoption.  The R D and D approach has not always produced effective results in other agencies.  Without a network for diffusion and feedback from users, it is difficult to understand the needs of potential users or perform relevant R, D and D.  Normally, little is known about needs of users, since few systematic efforts are conducted to match user needs with available technology.

The Social Interaction Approach

This approach to diffusion and utilization has received considerable attention over the past 45 years.  As its name implies, this approach emphasizes analyzing the interaction between people in order to better describe information flow.  It concentrates on the diffusion of innovations throughout social systems in which personal communication plays an important role.  Concepts such as opinion leader, early adopters, etc. are associated with this approach.

Resource and user organizations constitute the formal structure, and groups of individuals make up the informal structure.  The interplay between formal and informal structure depends on the intensity of interpersonal exchange of information.  The greater the exchange, the more effective the network will be.  This approach describes how individuals exchange information rather than how organizations can increase the adoption of innovations.

The National Diffusion Network Approach

The National Diffusion Network (NDN) model was established in 1974 by the U.S. Office of Education to encourage the spread of innovative educational programs among schools throughout the nation.  This approach is interesting because the innovations come from educational practices at the local level, while the decisions to promote innovations are made by a centralized review panel.  Promising innovations are reviewed by a panel of experts; those judged most effective are then made available to schools interested in new approaches.  The NDN makes use of two types of change agents: developer/demonstrators and facilitators. Developers are persons who have been involved in the development of the innovation and are funded by the NDN to disseminate information about their program.  Facilitators, on the other hand, try to match potential local adopters with the appropriate demonstrator.  Working at the state level, facilitators identify educational needs and provide interested schools with information on the exemplary innovations that are available for adoption.

Facilitators in the NDN model function as change agents or intermediaries; they are neither experts nor champions of any particular innovation.  Their responsibility is to inform local schools of the types of programs the NDN offers and to link developers with interested school officials.

The FHWA Technology Transfer Approach

The model employed by the FHWA for technology transfer is a variation of the Research, Development and Diffusion model discussed previously.  The FHWA model has undergone some recent changes that may eventually improve its diffusion capacity.  Technology transfer gained program emphasis within the FHWA in the mid-70's.  Regional and divisional offices designated technology transfer specialists to coordinate such transfer activities as the dissemination of report reviews and abstracts of films and tapes to state departments of transportation.  The FHWA requested that each state designate a technology transfer specialist who was to receive the information from the divisional technology transfer specialist.


The last twenty years have seen the rise of deliberately designed technology transfer programs.  Many of these have been legislatively mandated by a government concerned that it was not reaping the full benefits of extensive research funding.
Among the many federal technology transfer programs to state and local governments set up were:
-- Urban Observatory
-- National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (LEAA) Technology Transfer Program
-- Pilot cities Program (LEAA)
-- High Impact Anti-Crime Program (LEAA)
-- Federal Highway Administration, Implementation Division --Urban Technology System
-- California Four cities Program
-- Urban Consortium for Technology Initiatives (UCTI)
-- Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC)
-- Smithsonian Science Foundation Exchange
-- Integrated Municipal Information Systems Program
The 1980 Stevenson-Wydler Technology Act requires that federally operated laboratories make a deliberate outreach effort to share their findings and personnel skills with the public and private sectors.  Each lab must devote a certain percentage of its overall budget to directly funded technology transfer.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC)

The Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer was formed in 1971 as an informal network of Department of Defense (DOD) laboratory representatives who held periodic meetings on ways to disseminate DOD developed technology to nonmilitary users.  Today, the consortium has grown to include over 150 laboratories that employ approximately 180,000 professionals located in 34 states.  Each FLC member laboratory has a technology transfer coordinator who operates that laboratory's technology transfer program.  Technology transfer coordinators respond directly to requests for information, services and equipment.  They also try to bring practitioners with problems together with others who have experience in solving similar problems.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) has chosen a unique approach to fulfilling the terms of the Act:  the skills of laboratory personnel are being treated as "technology" to be shared, even technological skills that are not specifically job related.  Thus, if a small business or government agency needs help in introducing microcomputer technology into its workplace, they can sometimes get help through qualified personnel at federal laboratories, even though such work may not be part of their actual job.  To implement this program, the FLC has established a training program for technology transfer agents at each facility.

The Ohio Technology Transfer Organization (OTTO)

In Ohio the Governors Office started the Ohio Technology Transfer Organization (OTTO) in 1978.  This program used technology transfer agents with business and technical backgrounds located at community colleges throughout the State.  The success of this program relates to the fact that agents were given a great deal of autonomy as to what technology to transfer, what problems to help solve.  The problem uses a computerized resource index, as well as newsletters, seminars, workshops, and other training programs.  In 1982 agents logged 608 requests for help and processed 77 specific problems.

Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PENNTAP)

One of the most difficult aspects of technology transfer programs is measuring their effectiveness in a meaningful way.  Since its inception in 1965, the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PENNTAP) has been meticulously trying to document the savings generated by its program.  According to 1982 figures, their total number of inquiries that year was 1,293 with an average benefit ratio of 16:1.  They estimate the economic savings of their program to be in excess of $10,000,000.
One of the problems with comparing different technology transfer efforts is that the formulas for measuring benefits vary drastically from program to program.  Standardizing cost benefit formulas for technology transfer efforts would be the logical next step in federally coordinated technology transfer.

Rural Technical Assistance Project (RTAP)

Federal Highway's RTAP program is structured to include elements found to be common to successful technology transfer projects.  Its agents publish regular newsletters and offer training programs for many different levels of personnel and technologies.  Most centers offer some kind of one-to-one technical assistance in the field, at least to the extent of having a hotline number for local people to call for help.
Structurally, RTAP is a hybrid, combining many of the characteristics of the Problem Solving, the R, D and D and the National Diffusion Network models.  Its emphasis on meeting the needs of the local audience puts a focus on the client that is typical of problem solving models; locating most of the centers at universities puts an emphasis on research characteristic of the R, D and D model.  Tying the program to local State DOTs and distributing it geographically as broadly as possible gives it a similarity to the National Diffusion Network.

Elements of a Successful Program

James J. Jolly, the editor of the Journal of Technology Transfer, has isolated four common elements that emerge from studying successful innovation programs such as those described above:
1. A newsletter featuring technological innovation in products, processes, and services.
2. An education program with seminars, workshops and training classes.
3. A one-on-one technical field agent that is a contact point for and a promoter of the technological innovation in products, processes and services.
4. The surviving programs have kept good management records and can demonstrate a substantial benefit to cost return on the operation of the program.


This information is disseminated under the sponsorship of the United States Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration, in the interest of information exchange. The United States Government assumes no liability for the contents or use thereof. The United States Government does not endorse products or manufacturers. Trade or manufacturers' names appear herein solely because they are considered essential to the contents of these reports.