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Using social networks to disseminate science and innovation

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Using social networks to disseminate science and innovation

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The past few years have seen a number of attempts instigated to try and uncover scientific discoveries that are largely being unused, and to disseminate them to people who can make use of them.  We’ve seen for instance, organizations such as NASA and GE release various intellectual property to innovation communities, whilst earlier this year saw the launch of Algorithmia, a site that aimed to share unused algorithms with people and organizations that had a lot of data.

So it’s interesting to note a recent study that explores a similar theme.  It highlights how solutions to many of the worlds problems already exist, but they are not disseminated to the people who need them.  As William Gibson famously said, “the future already exists, it’s just unevenly distributed”.

“The challenge is not that we don’t have solutions to solve major societal problems, but that we struggle with how to take a known solution and get a large number of people to use it,” the researchers state. “There is a big gap between what science offers us and what gets applied.”

Utilizing social networks

The researchers believe the answer to closing that gap lies with social networks.  They think that if you combine our social networks with knowledge about social motives, then you can begin to influence the adoption of various health related innovations.

The current paper builds on an earlier project conducted by the researchers whereby they surveyed government officials in India to gauge their influence within their communities.  The hope was that by determining their influence, they could then utilize that to spread information around public health throughout those communities.

Having identified influential nodes in those local networks, the researchers then set about better understanding how particular types of messages ‘go viral’.

“You think you can just tell someone the scientific facts, and that will solve the problem,” they say. “There is very good evidence that it doesn’t solve the problem at all because personal beliefs interfere.”

They mention chlorhexidine as an example of where parental beliefs hinder adoption.  Traditions dictate that parents apply mustard oil to the umbilical cord in the belief that breaking this ritual will bring their child bad luck, which causes them to be reluctant uses of chlohexidine.

“It’s like the sports fans who always wear the same lucky shirt,” the researchers continue. “You can tell them as much as you want that wearing the same shirt will not help their team, but they are still going to do it.”

How to disseminate best practice

The researchers believe that the key to disseminating information, and importantly changing behaviours, you first need to understand the motives of people around the information they currently have.  They suggest that people either need to believe they’re right, or that they’re liked.

People who want to be right tend to respond more to scientific data from respected and influential people.  People who want to be liked however, tend to respond better to information from those they trust or feel an obligation towards.

The researchers surveyed over 14,000 health workers in India to determine the ratio falling into each camp.

“We are asking them about who they go to for advice on family health solutions as well as questions that will help us assess the extent to which these people are driven by the need to be right or the need to be liked,” they say. “Based on those characteristics, we can identify who is most likely to influence them and what message is most likely to influence them.”

The data from this survey will populate a digital dashboard that will be given to the NGO Care India, who will use it to help health officials to scale up innovations by identifying influential people in their communities, and assisting them in crafting a message that will help disseminate the best practice.

“A lot of people think that networks just make pretty pictures and nice visualizations,” they conclude. “We want to prove that networks can do something very actionable and solve major world problems.”

A contrast to the positive deviance project

The project marks an interesting contrast to the positive deviance project headed up by Richard Pascale.  They too subscribe to Gibson’s notion that the future is unevenly distributed in that they believe that the best practice you are looking for often already exists within a community.  They believe that you need to find these positive deviants, and understand from them why they go about things in the way they do.  You can then use that ‘insider’ to help to disseminate those behaviours more widely within the community, because those people have already gone through the journey you want the rest to go through.

Of course, the lesson for most of us, is whether these approaches can help us in our own work, which may involve trying to change behaviours within our organizations.  Let me know in the comments what you think.

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