Knowledge diffusion and transfer of technology: conceptual premises and concrete steps for human services innovators.

Author:Martinez-Brawley, Emilia E.
 
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Key words: innovations; knowledge diffusion; technology transfer

Practitioners and academics are recognizing that stability is no longer a measure of success in providing social services to people. Although at one time flux in an agency or government bureau was taken as a sign of a troubled environment, people have come to recognize that social services agencies can also "thrive on chaos" (Peters & Waterman, 1982). Managers and practitioners have become more accepting of the wave of reform that has seized their daily activities (Moore, 1993; "Organizational Change," 1992; Schoech, Cavalier, & Hoover, 1993). Scholars, clearly recognizing the increasing gaps between what is known in social work and the problems that are being confronted (Lindsey & Kirk, 1992; Task Force on Social Work Research,1991), have joined in the search for new solutions.

The search for new solutions in many social services agencies and programs has been coupled with a newly discovered enthusiasm for knowledge diffusion. The federal government and many private foundations have displayed new interest in knowledge utilization, information dissemination, program replication, technology transfer, and innovation diffusion. The federal government has funded knowledge diffusion prospects through the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, the Children's National Demonstration Program, and the Administration for Children and Families and through families and others (Backer, 1991; Backer & Shaperman, 1993). It has also supported international transfers through U.S. Department of Health and Human Services discretionary funds ("Transfer of International Innovations," 1991). Foundation initiatives related to innovation have been sponsored by the Aspen Institute (1993), the Synergos Institute (1992), the Mega Cities Project (1992), and others. In 1989 the largest 475 American foundations awarded $563 million for research and demonstration. The Exxon Foundation IMPACT (Implementation of Materials and Procedures Affecting College Teaching) Program was created to promote wider use of educational innovations (Backer & Shaperman, 1993).

Although the government and charitable foundations are no longer convinced that researchers can be constantly testing new programmatic strategies, they agree that innovations that have already been successfully tested need to be broadly disseminated and applied (Institute for Educational Leadership, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1992, 1994). In addition, these innovations should no longer be confined to those that originate in the United States. As the human services world becomes increasingly global, it is essential that federal, state, and local government and voluntary agencies and for-profit corporations become familiar with appropriately selected innovations from other countries that might prove useful in meeting the ever increasing needs of the United States (Conservation Company, 1993; National Association of Social Workers, 1993; "Rural Health Outreach Grant Program," 1991; "Transfer of International Innovations," 1991). Schorr (1988) suggested that the best way to combat helplessness in relation to social problems is to identify innovations that help and to encourage their diffusion.

But the process of disseminating new knowledge or ideas is not an easy one. As early as 1903, Tarde remarked that the problem of those who study innovations is to learn why "given one hundred different innovations conceived at the same time . . . ten will spread . . . while ninety will be forgotten" (p. 140). Innovation research has suggested some specific and predictable steps in the communication and adoption of innovations and the transfer of technology (Rogers, 1983; Rogers & Kincaid, 1981; Smale & Tuson, 1992). It might be that when the appropriate steps are followed, innovations spread, but when they are not, knowledge is not disseminated or is disseminated only in limited ways. Innovators have often ignored the intricacies of the process and have disregarded knowledge of existing predictable patterns (Chatterjee & Ireys, 1979; Watson, 1983). Innovations are frequently perceived, almost by definition, as potentially disruptive and as such are often ignored in organizations, and innovators are frequently regarded as discontents (Darvill & Smale, 1990) or deviants whose ideas and processes, though at times successful, do not deserve systematic study and attention. Yet, as Perlman (as cited in Governors Center, 1991) put it, "When one is dealing with human beings with deep and pressing needs, the disparaging of innovation is an immoral position" (p. 4).

New Knowledge, Innovations, and Their Diffusion

The term innovation simply means something new, something different from the established order or the common pattern. Although many innovations are the direct consequence of new discoveries in science or technology, many are the result of applying very old principles in relatively new ways or in new contexts. Case management is a notable example of the latter (Austin, 1992). An innovation is inherently neither positive nor negative. One may look at an innovation differently depending on whether the existing practices or structures are working or failing. An innovation takes on positive or negative qualities only when it is used to search for solutions to an existing problem. After a problem is defined, an innovative method allows one to explore alternative ways of solving it. But alternatives involve change, and change causes anxiety; thus, it is highly probable that innovations will encounter rejection. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1933/1988) suggested, the art of progress is "to preserve order amid change and change amid order" (p. 457). Whitehead understood the complementarily of change and stability. Thus, an important element in innovation is to preserve some sense of order to allay the anxieties of those who must participate in the process.

Discussing innovations in the public sector, Backer (1988) observed,

The very nature of innovation in the public sector

has changed drastically in recent years. In the

first part of this century, human service agencies

were innovative largely because they were new,

and were addressing social problems that had

not been responded to before by any kind of

organized effort. Now, these institutions have

matured in somewhat the same way that American

manufacturing has matured--there isn't

room for brand new service programs. The fertile

ground for innovation, therefore, is enhancing,

rethinking and expanding existing service

programs. (p.18)

However, in today's world, enhancement is often seen as having to do more with less. This is true not only in the human services but also in fields such as higher education, business, and engineering (Barber, 1986). Although curtailing resources can be a prescription for chaos, curtailments can also provide powerful incentives for examining new ways of doing things, particularly when those alternatives have been tried elsewhere. However, even under resource constraints, human services practitioners do not necessarily rush to researchers and other scholars to secure reports on the newest and most effective and promising ways of delivering services (Backer, 1988). The dissemination of new ideas, whether from research or from practice in other settings, requires special efforts from those committed to the diffusion of knowledge.

A brief glossary can be helpful in discussing diffusion of knowledge, innovations, or the transfer of technology. The promotion of a particularly innovative idea in a human services organization is part of a process that can be described in marketing terms. Regardless whether one accepts the analogy between marketing and knowledge diffusion (Fine, 1981), marketing terms are often used to refer to the processes involved. The term "social marketing" has been used to refer "to the use of marketing principles to promote or advance a social cause or idea" (Mannes & Meilleur, 1989, p. 44). The person who has identified the innovation and is eager to transfer it to a new setting is the "initiator," "marketer," or "seller" of the idea. The "adopter" is the person who, in the end, will accept the innovation or "buy" the "product" of the innovation. The "decider" is the person who makes the judgment as to whether to adopt the innovation; he or she may be the same as the "adopter." The "product champion" is the person who enthusiastically performs the marketing or selling tasks and who is at the forefront in describing to potential adopters the benefits of the product (Smale, 1993; Smale & Tuson, 1992). Finally, although the term "technology" is usually associated with hardware or scientific tools or even with spin-offs marketed for uses other than the ones originally intended, in the human services the term applies to a variety of transfer methods ranging from the publication of research results to hands-on technical assistance (Chatterjee & Ireys, 1981; Martinez-Brawley & Delevan, 1993; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991).

Conceptual Premises of Knowledge Diffusion and Innovation

Projects of knowledge diffusion in the human services have been more concerned with the use or application of knowledge to practice than with the formulation of conceptual frameworks for the process. In fact, those who transfer program knowledge usually focus on "changed outcomes" or on "programs that work," thus showing their concern with practical results. However, the knowledge diffusion field has developed a number of important premises or conceptual frameworks that can be useful in addressing the ways in which innovations or new technology is spread. Dunn, Holzner, and Zaltman (1985), backed by a body of literature and experiences in the field of knowledge diffusion dating back to Merton (1968), formulated the...

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