Innovation Diffusion As a Process For Status Attainment

Ada Leung, University of Arizona, Tucson
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - In the post-modern knowledge era, employees are no longer easily replaceable labor. They create and enact new local knowledge about their jobs and such processes make them less vulnerable. Apart from keeping their jobs, employees also thrive for better positions in the organizational hierarchy. Therefore, the consumption and diffusion problems of technological knowledge should be examined along with the intention of human actions and their consequences.
[ to cite ]:
Ada Leung (2002) ,"Innovation Diffusion As a Process For Status Attainment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 485-486.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 485-486

INNOVATION DIFFUSION AS A PROCESS FOR STATUS ATTAINMENT

Ada Leung, University of Arizona, Tucson

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

In the post-modern knowledge era, employees are no longer easily replaceable labor. They create and enact new local knowledge about their jobs and such processes make them less vulnerable. Apart from keeping their jobs, employees also thrive for better positions in the organizational hierarchy. Therefore, the consumption and diffusion problems of technological knowledge should be examined along with the intention of human actions and their consequences.

It may shed light to understand the difficulty for new knowledge transfer if we consider the organizations as "fields", the social arenas within which individuals struggle to maximize their social standing (Bourdieu 1984; Kvansny and Truex 2000). The individuals in the fields practice their working lives according to some "habitus", the practice-unifying and practice-generating principle (Bourdieu 1984). In the context of technology consumption, habitus refers to the expectations, aspirations, and attitudes towards technology that inform the consumption and diffusion of technology (object and know-how) (Kvansny and Truex 2000). Employees of different positions have different sets of practices because they possess different sets of habitus and capital (resources) (Bourdieu 1984). To transfer knowledge or not is one of the practices that the individuals can use to maintain or thrive for more desired status in the institution.

The sharing of knowledge imposes risk on the knowledge holders as once the knowledge is widely distributed its value depreciates (Collins 1989). The knowledge holders may become dispensable if their skills are readily available. Though information technology and employee appraisal systems enable superficial transfer of information (facts and rules), they may not provide sufficient incentive for the sharing of new technological knowledge among members in the organization. Professional employees tend to "black box" their expertise to retain their privileged status within the organization (Barley 1986).

Nevertheless, some people are still motivated to diffuse their new knowledge strategically. Why do these people forgo their competitive advantage and diffuse their knowledge? In this paper, I look at the social processesthat accompany knowledge transfer and how such processes motivate some knowledge holders to share their newly acquired knowledge (innovation). Moreover, I discuss how such knowledge is socially shaped during the diffusion process.

This paper tries to extend Bourdieu’s theory of cultural fields in a technological field. Though codes and programming syntax appear to be very different from lyrics, novels and opera, the principle of cultural distinction is still applicable. According to Geertz, the logic of culture does not only appear in cultural objects, but also locates in the patterning of activities that occur in the course of daily life (Geertz 1973; Mohr and Duquenne 1997). Occupational fields are good places to study those patterns as people spend a substantial proportion of their days in the workplaces.

I employ Bourdieu’s cultural capital transformation to explain what happens to the knowledge diffusers (hereafter opinion leaders) after innovation diffusion. Opinion leaders are defined as those who share their high field-specific cultural capital with their followers. I argue that the opinion leaders who choose to strategically communicate their newly acquired knowledge with other people trigger a series of reciprocal social exchange processes. Through these social exchange processes, the opinion leaders will attain higher status in the organizations. Moreover, since their knowledge will be routinized after the diffusion, these opinion leaders are able to develop structures that favor their knowledge and reinforce their influence over others in the institutions.

Therefore, there is a dilemma for knowledge transfer: by not sharing, the knowledge holders can cling on to their competitive advantage in the short run; by sharing, the knowledge holders are transformed to opinion leaders and have the opportunities to achieve more desirable positions in the institutions and are able to modify the institutional structures to strengthen the domination of their knowledge in the long run. As a result, the consequences of technological change are not deterministic. Apart from the institutional aspects, the aspirations of the knowledge holders are also important in determining the outcomes of the innovation diffusion and adoption.

During the six-month fieldwork period, I conducted 14 semi-structured interviews among nine staff members in the technical services division. During the interviews, the informants were asked to describe their job responsibilities and the practices of their technological knowledge. The interviews were conducted in the informants’ offices and lasted average of 30 to 90 minutes. In addition, I observed nine meetings (both internal staff meetings within the technical services division and some other inter-departmental meetings), and two internal training courses. The goal of attending the meetings is to understand the communication and diffusion processes of technological knowledge among members in the organization.

The fieldwork data provide encouraging support for the social exchange and structuration processes initiated by technological knowledge diffusion. The professionals with high field-specific cultural capital (middle-level managers in the setting) exchange their embodied cultural capital for symbolic capital (prestige), social capital (social ties with colleagues in other departments and agencies), and economic capital (financial resources). Moreover, they refill their cultural capital with new knowledge by attending conferences and workshops frequently.

Since various forms of capital may transform at different rates during different stages of technology adoption and changes of positions in social space take time to realize, a longitudinal research program is planned to investigate the capital transformation phenomena.

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