The Psychology of Small Business IT Adoption

Convincing small business owners to adopt and apply technology in their businesses is often a difficult thing to do.  While most business owners readily accept the need to have computer software to help them produce information and an email account to communicate with others, even such fundamental business solutions as a business website or computerized accounting system can be a hard sale.

Solution providers in every category are looking for ways to communicate the value of their products and services to businesses, and many do not consider that communicating value to a small business owner is not the same as communicating value to a larger and more established enterprise.  There is research available which discusses why small businesses adopt IT, and how the importance (weight) of various factors change as the business grows.  With small businesses fueling the economy and numbering far larger than their enterprise counterparts, it makes sense to understand just why small businesses buy.  It’s also interesting to note that this research revealed that the different characteristics of firms and individual executives “did not have a unique effect on adoption decisions”.   If the decision wasn’t impacted by characteristics of either the firm or individual executives, what does impact the decision?

An academic study by Icek Ajzen (Organizational behavior and human decision processesUniversity of Massachusetts at Amherst) discusses a theory called the Theory of Planned Behavior, and this theory was posed as a basis for predicting who would pursue a particular course of action or activity.  The idea is that “intentions to perform behaviours of different kinds can be predicted with high accuracy”, and that the prediction is based on attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived control.  Okay, but what does that really mean?

Intentions represent the strength of a person’s conscious plan to do something.  So, when someone intends to do something, like adopt an IT product or service, it means that there is a strong positive plan in that person’s mind to accomplish the activity.  However, having a plan in mind – no matter how strong or positive – is impacted by several elements: attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived control.

Attitude represents the belief that the activity will lead to a consequence that means something.  If you have a plan to adopt an IT solution, but then develop a negative attitude towards the likely outcome (consequence) of using the solution, adoption isn’t likely to occur.  On the other hand, if the belief is that the results or consequences of adopting and applying the solution will be useful, and deliver benefits in the areas intended, then the chances of deciding to make the purchase increase dramatically.

Another factor which weighs on the intent to do something is the pressure related to “subjective norms”, or what might be considered to be social factors.  These factors exist in the firm, in the customer base, with partners, and within the market.  As an example, it is an expectation that a business will have email addresses, computers, and other technology to support the business.  This is simply a normal expectation of businesses today.  It is also a requirement that businesses protect customer information, a requirement and normal practice from both a privacy and regulatory perspective.  It is this expectation and the pressure to be “normal” (a motivation to comply) that also weighs on the decision to act and adopt.

The final factor is perceived control, which comes down to the person’s perception of how easy or difficult it will be to do what they’ve got in mind.  Looking at various potential obstacles, and judging whether or not the business has the resources and capability to overcome them effectively, results in either a positive or negative impact on the intent.

All of these things are placed in linear order, and a straight line can easily be drawn as you move through the process.  It’s all about:

  • Intent,
    • the attitude towards adoption,
      • belief of expected outcomes and their value,
        • expectations and the motivation to comply with them, and
          • evaluating barriers and the adequacy of resources to overcome them.

Boiling it all down to a fairly simple explanation, businesses adopt IT because there is a conscious plan to do so, and that plan is supported by a belief that the solution will do good things for the business, the solution is a recognized (if not expected) approach, and the business believes it has adequate resources and capability to effectively handle it.

Make sense?


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