Digital Diplomacy in Three Graphs

  • 6th September 2016
Digital Diplomacy in Three Graphs


Rogers’ diffusion of innovations curve and Gartner’s hype cycle help explain the crucial interplay between the possibilities that are offered by digital tools, and the realities of technology perception and adoption at diplomatic services. This blog aims to provide a reality check to the current ‘blue sky’ coverage of digital diplomacy by providing a third graph, combining Rogers’ insights on technology adoption and Gartners’ depiction of hype cycles.

The first graph is Rogers’ diffusion of innovations bell curve, positioning adopters of new technologies in the range from innovators to laggards. In this innovation cycle, diplomats are often in the middle of the bell among the early/later majority.  Their cautious approach to the use of new technology is often inspired by the ‘risk avoidance’ culture of diplomatic services.

The most active digital diplomacy has been led by techno-enthusiastic leaders such as Karl Built, the former Swedish minister of foreign affairs. The main challenge is how to sustain technological innovation after the initial push of innovators. Sustainability of innovation in diplomatic services depends on the integration of technology in their operational procedures and, even more importantly, on the evolution of their organisational and professional cultures.

In addition, digital diplomacy growth has been limited to a few diplomatic centres and countries. For example, the diplomatic corps in Washington DC has been among the innovators and early adopters (see the bell curve) in digital diplomacy. Inspired and forced by the dynamism of the local Internet scene, many Washington-based ambassadors have become more advanced in adopting and using new technologies than their colleagues in the capital or other diplomatic centres. The US State Department has been a pioneer in using digital diplomacy.

Second is Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which depicts the dynamics of the diffusion of digital innovation. It starts with the ‘technology trigger’ – the moment of innovations and inventions – and builds up to the peak of inflated expectations, characterised by ‘blue sky’ coverage of new technology in the media. It has happened with all technologies starting with social media, MOOCs and big data. At this point in the cycle, the fortune turns downwards. All big promises face reality-checks and an inevitable disillusionment, which generates cynical comments on the new technology. This dynamism turns into the slope of enlightenment, which reaches, after some time, the plateau of productivity. This is what ‘remains’ of technology. For example, today, the web has reached the plateau of productivity, while other technologies, including Twitter and Facebook are on the slope of enlightenment.


Typically, diplomatic services join the technology race after the peak of excitement, during the through of disillusionment of the Gartner Hype Cycle. In this case, the delayed entry into the technological hype could be blessing. First, diplomatic services have not invested as much in the new technology as the earlier adopters. Thus, they do not need to fight for ‘their’ technology or solution. Second, after the peak of inflated expectations, the discussion about the technology is much more objective. One can hear critical views, which are often supressed while the excitement is building up. The main challenge for diplomatic services is to make a bridge to the plateau of productivity and avoid going all the way to the bottom of the through of disillusionment.


The third Digital Diplomacy graph combines Rogers’ Bell Curve and the Gartner Hype Cycle. The Digital Diplomacy graph visualises the main challenge for diplomats, who are situated mainly in the ‘late majority’ of adopters of new technology, to make a smooth and fast shortcut towards the plateau of productivity. This shortcut is rarely a matter of technology, and often depends on making simple -almost trivial – changes such as ensuring the use of effective subject lines in e-mail communication. A more sophisticated measure would be to utilise social media tools in networking and knowledge management activities of diplomatic services. One of the most effective examples is the use of Diplopedia in the US State Department, where the Wikipedia-style platform and logic was used to gather the knowledge and expertise of diplomats.


Currently, diplomatic services face challenges to make shortcuts towards the plateau of productivity in social media, big data, and online learning, to name a few. At DiploFoundation and the Geneva Internet Platform, we aim to help diplomats and diplomatic institutions in making this shortcut, so that they will arrive safely on the plateau of productivity.

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