Can Research on the Diffusion of Innovations Offer Insights about Enablers and Barriers to Information Use?

The body of literature focused on the enablers and barriers to research use is extensive and insightful. Nutley, Walter, and Davies rightfully categorize the literature as providing “a rich source of theories and evidence that can be mined to inform strategies for promoting research use” (2007, p. 192). Numerous mechanisms such as dissemination, interaction, and social influence are factors that should be considered in assessing how research use can be improved. Knowledge management or systems of information acquisition, management, and sharing are heavily influenced by how information is communicated. Therefore, the notions of knowledge push and pull provide fertile ground to assess how some of the challenges to individual and organizational learning may be addressed. The literature on the diffusion of innovations is interested in examining how new ideas, technologies, and practices make their way into adoption as well as the factors that enable a successful transition to new types of knowledge. Adopters and their decisions, and the role of intermediaries to persuade others about new knowledge represent two factors that influence the diffusion of innovations. However, perhaps the most insightful takeaway from the diffusion literature is the realization that individuals and organizations often fail to “discontinue ineffective practices” in pursuit of unlearning or effectively control innovations that quite simply, may not be ready for diffusion. Nonetheless, the research on the adoption of innovations offers insights about how to strengthen enablers and mitigate barriers to the use of information in decision-making contexts.

Simply put, if information is not shared, it cannot be used. However, there are different ways to disseminate information, and some are more effective than others. For example, people have limited attention spans, so bombarding a person with disconnected information will not be effective (Druckman & Lupia, 2017). It is also counter-productive for information to be distributed to only one group of viewers, as it will be difficult to engage the wider population (Nutley et al., 2007). This scenario is a particularly serious concern for politicians and policy makers, who need to receive the necessary information in a short time frame (Walgrave & Dejaeghere, 2017). Druckman and Lupia demonstrate that a more effective method is to frame information in a particular way in order to direct people’s thinking (2017). This framing approach is important in areas of public concern, as Arts et al. show, because informing people about issues can encourage their engagement (2016).

In order to leverage the full potential of information dissemination, strong links between different groups are needed (Nutley et al., 2007). Without these links, groups become siloed, which can happen even within an organization or political party (Walgrave & Dejaeghere, 2017). Silos can lead to miscommunication, and information being lost (Nutley et al., 2007). However, this situation can be remedied by examining information pathways more closely to see how information is exchanged (Cossarini, MacDonald, & Wells, 2014). Walgrave and Dejaeghere suggest that politicians not only have regular “in-party” meetings, but they also monitor other parties (2017). Strengthening the communication skills of staff in different departments while improving communication with the public enables an organization to become more effective on multiple levels (Cossarini et al., 2014). It is also important that groups decide to communicate effectively by selecting what to communicate. Druckman and Lupia point out that science communicators need to make a choice about what information “about the studied phenomena and the research process” to highlight (2017, p. 352).

Social influence also plays a key role in how information is communicated (Nutley et al., 2007). Influential people, such as leaders or experts, often “inform individuals about research and [persuade] them of its value” (Nutley et al., 2007, p.132). The major barriers to this method of communication are twofold. First, there may be no one expert in a field, or the field produces the bulk of its information in a form that isn’t always influential, such as gray literature (Cossarini et al., 2014). Second, if the influencers have their own agenda, they will present information in a biased fashion, directing attention in a dishonest or at least opaque fashion (Druckman & Lupia, 2017). To overcome the former, more effective communication is needed: the expert needs to demonstrate the value of the information and justify its application to address an issue of perceived importance. To overcome the latter, two solutions are possible—either give experts from more objective standpoints the same level of attention, or develop counter-framing, such as using the scientific consensus framework to counteract the “politically-induced status quo bias” (Druckman & Lupia, 2017).

The literature on the use of research, importantly so, goes beyond notions of how individuals and organizations learn about new information, technologies, and practices. Additionally, knowledge management can be regarded as about how learning is built (or acquired), managed, and shared by an organization and it treats knowledge as a stock or resource, or a process of accessing and applying expertise (Nutley et al., 2007). Multiple considerations emerge out of the knowledge management literature. Organizations and individuals alike are confronted with two distinct challenges when pushing and pulling knowledge in managing this resource. In the case of the former, “the fundamental problem…is the limited flow of knowledge and information into and within an organization” in terms of the breadth of dissemination and possible trade-offs between transparency and secrecy (Nutley al., 2007, p.169). With respect to pulling knowledge or the process of searching and acquiring it, the key challenge continues to be the effective engagement of employees to participate in that process. Fortunately, the application of incentives for more effective searching and sharing of knowledge can provide practitioners with partial solutions to address this challenge. A second challenge occurs with a preoccupation to use existing knowledge and at least a partial failure to prevent the use of outdated knowledge or use of research that is still in its infancy (Nutley et al., 2007). It is particularly important to consider this challenge when individuals or organizations are interested in advancing the frontiers of research use, that is, strategically engaging in knowledge management in a way that embodies unlearning and relearning.

The diffusion of innovations literature is concerned with understanding how ideas, technologies, and practices spread amongst individuals and organizations (Nutley et al., 2007). This understanding goes hand-in-hand with the literature on research use, for example, identifying the types of factors that contribute to completing tasks in a new way, that is, innovatively. Furthermore, decisions to implement innovations are often influenced by advocacy of individuals or organizations. Nutley et al. state that adoption decisions can be categorized on an entity’s tendency to be innovative, which is a relative concept. This categorization includes innovators, early adopters, the early majority, late majority, and laggards which collectively represent the continuum of groups in the adoption of an innovative idea, technology, or practice (2007). It is also important to acknowledge the socioeconomic factors that may affect adoption decisions by individuals and organizations. Similar to socioeconomic factors, institutional pressures and the role of imitation by organizations in response to norm-setters must also be considered. This point underscores the importance of acknowledging that the decision to adopt an innovation can often be an irrational process by which political factors end up influencing the decision-making process.

The role of social influence in improving use of research information, increasing awareness about the information, and persuading others to see the value in innovative pursuits is also a crucial aspect to the diffusion of innovations. Therefore, individuals who are able to communicate information effectively to others, as well as their traits which allow them to do this are key aspects contained in the literature on innovation. Opinion leaders have the persuasive role of convincing others to adopt an innovation, which is often influenced by actual or perceived authority and status (Nutley et al., 2007). Change agents, champions, or boundary spanners are individuals who are able to proactively address the reduction of barriers and, quite importantly, identify enablers, in order to persuade others to adopt an innovation. The tendency of change agents to be viewed as representative and credible (actual or perceived) is an important observation. They act as a bridge between technical experts and potential users of an idea, technology, or practice, and can effectively communicate with both groups (Nutley et al., 2007). In short, the research on the diffusion of innovations could inform strategies to support the communication and use of research information in decision making.



Arts, K., Ioris, A. A. R., Macleod, C. J. A., Han, X., Sripada, S. G., Braga, J. R. Z., & van der Wal, R. (2016). Environmental communication in the Information Age: Institutional barriers and opportunities in the provision of river data to the general public. Environmental Science & Policy55, 47–53.

Cossarini, D. M., MacDonald, B. H., & Wells, P. G. (2014). Communicating marine environmental information to decision makers: Enablers and barriers to use of publications (grey literature) of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. Ocean & Coastal Management96, 163–172.

Druckman, J. N., & Lupia, A. (2017). Using frames to make scientific communication more effective. In K. H. Jamieson, D. Kahan, & D. A. Scheufele (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of the science of science communication (pp. 251-260). New York: Oxford University Press.

Nutley, S. M., Walter, I. & Davies, H. T. O. (2007). Using evidence: How research can inform public services. Bristol: Policy Press.

Walgrave, S., & Dejaeghere, Y. (2017). Surviving information overload: How elite politicians select information. Governance30(2), 229–244.


Authors: Adrienne Colborne and Raja Ubhi


This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.


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