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How Change Happens: Driving Technology Adoption

ABSTRACT: Recent research into the dynamics of social networks provides lessons for data leaders about how to spread and sustain change.

Most data leaders know that change management is the key to driving adoption of new technologies and behaviors. But most don’t know what that means, other than creating a communications plan to alert people about the new technology and a training plan to educate them how to use it. 

A new book titled “Change: How to Make Big Things Happen” by Damon Centola, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, identifies the patterns that cause large groups of people to adopt new beliefs or behaviors. His work provides a framework for data leaders who want to use technology to effect positive change in their organizations. 

Appeal to Head, Heart, and Herd 

I’ve written and spoken about change management for years. My formula for getting people to adopt new technology is: “Appeal to the head, the heart, and the herd.”  (See “Change Management for BI Leaders: Three Keys to Success”.)

Appealing to the “head” involves communicating what is going to change and training people to adapt to those changes. Appealing to the “heart” involves getting people emotionally vested in the change by providing a compelling vision or incentive that energizes people. This is where most change management plans start and end, and why most don’t work. 

The most powerful change agent is the “herd” because we humans are herding animals who subconsciously adopt the behaviors of those around us to an extraordinary degree. The simplest way to capitalize on our herding instincts is to promote the behavior of individuals who adopt a new technology through webinars, case studies, and other promotional vehicles. Although this is good advice, it may not always deliver positive results. That’s because there are complex social dynamics that drive the “herd”: it’s not obvious who follows who and why, and who resists adopting new behaviors and why. 

Strong and Weak Social Networks 

Fortunately, Centola’s book offers groundbreaking insights on how the herd operates. He explains how information, ideas, and behaviors spread through social networks using “strong” and “weak” social ties, and sometimes why they do not. He cites examples of “social contagion” as diverse as the growth of Twitter, the Black Lives Movement, and solar panel adoption. He shows how social dynamics cause some movements to spread rapidly but fail to take root; how others start slowly but spread exponentially once they reach a tipping point; and how other movements never get adopted, despite massive investments in marketing and communications. 

Social influencers can’t overcome the cultural and social norms that make people resistant to change.

Dispelling myths. In the first section of the book, Centola dispels the notion that change spreads like viruses through acquaintances or “weak social ties.” He shows that real change happens slowly with a cluster of “strong social ties” and then jumps from one cluster to another through “wide bridges” of social interaction. He also dispels the myth that social influencers are the best way to effect social change. Although they can rapidly disseminate information, social influencers can’t overcome the cultural and social norms that make people resistant to change. That can only happen through strong social ties. (See figure 1.) 

Figure 1 – Strong Versus Weak Social Networks

Chart from Austin Weekly News, August 25, 2021

Centola shows that humans don’t adopt new ideas or behaviors unless people in their immediate social network do so. He argues persuasively that change happens slowly on the periphery of social networks, not at the center. 

Social Tipping Points 

But there are caveats. The most interesting is that broad-based change doesn’t occur until 25% of people in a strong social network have adopted the new norm. That’s because there is inherent risk in change—to one’s reputation, competency, economic security, or even physical safety. Thus, people won’t adopt new ideas or behaviors until they see a sufficient groundswell of support for the new norm. 

Broad-based change doesn’t occur until 25% of people in a strong social network have adopted the new norm.

But the tipping point also depends on the social context. Centola describes several barriers to adoption even within a strong social network: 

  1. Credibility. People won’t adopt an innovation until people just like them adopt it. Sometimes, a person’s strong social network isn’t enough. People might need to create a new social network comprised of individuals who are dealing with the same issues, such as a rare type of disease or an unusual housing or family arrangement. The person’s normal social network, which typically consists of family, friends, and neighbors, doesn’t provide the credibility needed to adopt a new behavior. 

  2. Legitimacy. This is the inverse of credibility. Here, individuals want to see broad-based support for an innovation before they jump on board. For example, people on a sales or marketing team might reject a new technology if it’s only used by data engineers from the information technology department. If only engineers new the technology, salespeople might question its relevance and suitability to them and their department. 

  3. Emotional Solidarity. A characteristic of a strong social network is that its members have strong feelings of solidarity for the group and each other, and sometimes hostile feelings for rival groups. Common examples are religious groups, sports fan, or celebrity followers. Interestingly, Centola shows that it’s easy for such groups to change allegiances if they encounter “bridge teams” that span rival groups. For example, the existence of a cross-functional committee might be sufficient to overcome resistance within departments to a new enterprise initiative. 

Advice for Data Leaders

Centola’s provocative research provides guidelines for data leaders who want to manage change and ensure the adoption of a new technology, approach, or technique. Here are my key takeaways about how data leaders can apply the principles from Centola’s book: 

  1. A communications plan is not enough. Data leaders need a persona-based communications plan, but they shouldn’t think that is enough to ensure widespread adoption of a new technology or initiative. A communications plan shares important information but doesn’t bring about change. Employees need to see others in their social group adopt the new technology before they embrace it.

  2. Executive endorsement. Although it’s imperative for the CEO or CIO to publicly endorse an impending change, their words (i.e., as social influencers) won’t necessarily overcome the psychological, occupational, or reputational risks that the new technology or initiative poses to individuals. It’s important to initiative change on “the periphery” in one or more social clusters within the organization. 

  3. Seed the change. To optimize rates of adoption, data leaders should select two or three groups with high levels of solidarity in which to introduce the new technology or initiative. Then, within each group, select two or three well-connected individuals to learn the new technology or approach. Give them ample training and encourage them to spread the change to others.

  4. Link groups. Data leaders should select groups for an initial roll out that interact broadly with other groups. Data leaders can nurture the “wide bridges” of social interaction between groups by scheduling meetings between the groups to foster sharing and drive adoption. Sales and marketing usually engage in ongoing communications so they might be a good place to start. Or select groups whose members actively participate on cross-functional committees or teams. These wide bridges accelerate the spread of new behaviors. 

  5. Scale up. If all goes well, adoption will eventually reach the 25% tipping point, and then spread exponentially. So, prepare for large-scale adoption by having systems, licenses, and training programs ready to go.


It’s critical for data leaders to understand the social dynamics that drive adoption of new technologies and practices. Without a clear knowledge of how change happens in organizations, data leaders won’t achieve their goals and career aspirations. Centola’s book offers a helpful framework to guide the deployment of new technologies and initiatives.

Wayne Eckerson

Wayne Eckerson is an internationally recognized thought leader in the business intelligence and analytics field. He is a sought-after consultant and noted speaker who thinks critically, writes clearly and presents...

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