Social Networking as a Learning Tool: A Q&A with Jane Lowe
August 8, 2012
At the start of the year, Steve Downs kicked off our Transparency Talk blog with a great overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) social media strategy and how it has evolved since their early adoption and experimentation stage two years ago. Given the many questions grantmakers have about developing and assessing social media efforts, we are continuing to learn from the road the RWJF staff has traveled by offering a series of interviews with staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work.
Transparency Talk (TT): First, let's start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a Team Director of the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?
Jane Lowe (JL): It's been my experience that using social media has enabled me to get glimmers of ideas that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And these ideas are coming from lots of different sources I wouldn't have heard from or necessarily known about in the past because they're outside my professional network. In general, I feel like I'm in the position to see a greater diversity of viewpoints than I have in the past.
For example, we recently hosted a gathering of foundations and practitioners all committed to improving the lives of young men of color and it was valuable to watch the stream of tweets coming from the event. Reading them in real time and seeing the range of things participants were thinking and worried about really added to the experience for me and will ultimately inform my approach to the work.
TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect vehicle for collective learning. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of using social media for collective learning? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.
JL: Earlier this year we hosted a webinar that was a follow up to poll results we had released late last year. One of the findings from that poll was that physicians felt as if they're not prepared or able to address the social needs of their patients—having enough to eat, a place to live, a job to go to—and that this is getting in the way of positive health outcomes. The intention of the webinar was to bring people together to move the conversation further along: if physicians don't feel like they are capable, what specifically needs to be done?
Once the webinar wrapped up, we directed participants and the wider field to an online discussion forum to explore these ideas in greater depth and pose new ones. It was great to see such diverse engagement from people who work in medical care, public health, transportation, housing and other fields. We used Twitter to spread particularly interesting ideas and insights and invite new voices in to the discussion, and ultimately heard many perspectives we might not otherwise have uncovered.
TT: What circumstances do you think made this a successful experiment? And reflecting on the experience, what was the biggest reward or outcome from this experience?
JL: While we've been hosting webinars for quite a while now, it and the forum were really excellent vehicles to have a meaningful dialogue with people who are ready to do something, who recognize there's a problem, but who might be unsure about what can be done to address it.
It was a chance to share information about a program we currently support—Health Leads—but also to think about other solutions and to call on others to consider how they could be addressing this gap in their own work. And as I mentioned earlier, it was an opportunity to identify new people and organizations that we may not have known about in the past, but that are informed and committed to addressing an issue that's core to our work at the Foundation. The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, in particular, relies on developing partnerships with individuals and organizations outside of the traditional worlds of health and health care—including those who work in social services, transportation, urban planning, criminal justice, and more. Social media is an important part of our strategy to learn about, reach, and engage these diverse networks.
TT: That sounds like a very positive experience. Have you actually uncovered new grantees as a result of these kinds of convenings? Or other critical partners? And what, if anything, surprised you most about the experience?
JL: I don't think that I was necessarily surprised, but I think it's notable that the webinar and forum focused on an issue that's going to require a multi-sector approach to be solved. Social media is helping all of us to make connections that could not have happened in the past, to break down silos that serve as obstacles to progress. It makes me hopeful about the solutions that could result from these new relationships and connections.
TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?
JL: I use Twitter more than anything. One of the things I like to do is to monitor the hashtag #violence because so much of the work my team supports deals with the topic. It's fascinating to me to see the wide range of issues being discussed as well as the types of people who are participating. By monitoring it at my desk when I have a few minutes, I can understand trends, identify new research and resources, and discover new thinkers.
I tend to read more than I post because I am primarily interested in using social media to discover new thinking and to understand trends in what people are discussing. So, the best advice I can give is to tell my colleagues to go ahead and jump in, but start by listening. Identify the groups and people you want to connect with and then build your comfort level as a content contributor—but never stop listening.