Innovation or Invention: is there even a difference?

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Innovation or Invention: is there even a difference?

On July 16, 2015, Posted by , in Technology, tags , With No Comments

Technology is synonymous with innovation. But is it really always an innovation when the word is used? Is it not perhaps an invention? The words are so similar- only the ‘nova’ and ‘ven’ parts differ. Do these words have the exact same meaning or could there be some subtle differences?  

To understand and explore this further we will draw on a concept formulated by Andrew Stein which he called the ‘continuum of innovation.’ His proposal identifies three key stages: namely (1) idea; (2) invention and (3) innovation. He also identified the characteristics of each phase:

(1) Idea – theory, research, science

(2) Invention – design, engineer, prototype

(3) Innovation – commercialization, delivery, acceptance

Innovation Continuum (Credit:

In simple terms: someone has a bright idea and conducts some form of scientific research into the field. The next step involves designing and creating a prototype. The final step is the delivery to and acceptance by the masses. Interestingly, once the process is in innovation stage, new ideas come about and the entire process starts again. There is therefore an element of newness in each of these stages. Thus we discover that innovation follows after the invention. In fact many innovations may flow out of one invention.

We mentioned that the innovation stage is characterised by delivery to and acceptance by the market? But how does this process unfold? Ah, time for another fascinating theory. And for this we travel back in time to the year 1962. Prof Everett Rogers published already then what is known as the ‘diffusion of innovations theory’ to describe how organisations and people adopt new technology. His book ‘Diffusions of Innovations’ and his later books are among the most often cited in diffusion research.

As can be seen on the graph, the response or adoption of new technology can be grouped into five categories; pay particular attention to the percentages. Let’s explore each phase on the curve briefly.

Innovators (2.5%) -the smallest group -are those people who like to stay right on the cutting edge. Members of this group are willing to experiment with new ideas. They should be prepared to cope with a certain level of uncertainty and possibly also an unprofitable or unsuccessful innovation. However, they may not have the respect of others in the social system.

The Early Adopters (13.5%)are those who follow the innovators. They are also risk takers so the unknown appeals to them. As visionaries, they are continuously looking for new opportunities. They are more likely to hold leadership roles in the social system. They serve as role models and their subjective evaluations about the innovation reach others in the system through their interpersonal networks. Their acceptance reduces uncertainty about the innovation and their acceptance of it is in effect the stamp of approval.

This takes us to the Early Majority (34%): with 16% on board, they are the next 34% which gives us the first half of adopters. People in this category are pragmatic and want concrete proof that something is viable. They have good interactions with other members of the social system but do not necessarily hold the leadership or influence as the early adopters. However, their networks are still important for the diffusion of the innovation. Once sold on the innovation they are very loyal and even become evangelists of the product, often through word-of-mouth especially to the next group.

Late Majority (34%) now follows. With the early majority now on board the group of people adopt the new technology more readily. They are the other one third of all members of the social system who wait until peers accept it. They are conservative and may be skeptical about the innovation but economic necessity and peer pressure may move them to adopt it. Close peers usually persuade the late majority to accept the innovation.

Laggards (16%): these are people who may never adopt a certain technology.

So now we have clarified the concepts ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’. We have seen that innovation follows after the invention and carries with it an element of acceptance by the masses or market. We have also explored the phases of adoption of an innovation. We are now ready to ask two very important questions in our context: Is Social Media an innovation? And perhaps more importantly: how has it been adopted in South Africa?

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