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Facebook as Catalyst for Collaboration: A Q&A with Mike Painter, Robert Wood John Foundation

September 07, 2012

(Mike Painter is senior program officer on the Quality/Equality Team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A version of this post appears on the Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog. For more about the Robert Wood Johnson's Foundation's social media strategy and how it has evolved over the last two years, click here and here.)

Mike_Painter_headshotFoundation Center: Let's start with a glimpse into a day in the life of a senior program officer at a major foundation. How is Web 2.0 changing your job and your relationships with grantees and the broader community you serve?

Mike Painter: I'm Mike Painter, and I'm an avid social media user -- although I don't think I need a twelve-step program quite yet. Don't get me wrong, I certainly like and use e-mail, telephone, and video-conferencing a great deal. In my work at RWJF, though, social media, including tools like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, add an important and rich layer of capabilities and collaboration power to my tool set. Before I came to the foundation, I was an RWJF Health Policy Fellow for a year on Capitol Hill. While in that position, I soon realized that there were interesting things happening in our office that I wanted to share with others. We didn't have social media tools at the time to power that sharing, so instead I manually put together e-mail distribution lists to help keep people informed. That experience demonstrated to me the power of collaboration technology -- even something as simple as an e-mail distribution list. To me, social media is an obvious logarithmic enhancement of that rudimentary sharing and collaboration capability -- one that dramatically increases the reach and magnitude of my old distribution-list efforts.

FC: We've all heard talk in recent years about how social media is a perfect medium for collaboration and facilitating discussion. Among your efforts, what initiative or project comes to mind that stands out as a model of social media-driven collaboration?

MP: At RWJF we spend a great deal of time trying to improve American health and health care. To tackle such a complex, gargantuan set of tasks, we need collaborators and partners. We cannot succeed without them. Frankly, we need the ability to find great ideas and terrific people who can do most of that work -- the relatively small number of people at our foundation could never succeed on their own. One way we do that is to work with leaders from various regions and sectors -- health, consumer, business -- as they work to restructure health care in their respective local markets. We've used a number of technology platforms to enhance and promote that collaboration. And one tool, a Facebook group we started called Transformation Has Begun, is particularly promising.

Initially, we wanted to promote an online and ongoing discussion forum about improving the quality and cost of health care and attempted to host that forum on our own server, heavily promoting the discussions there using RWJF's significant communications assets. We absolutely got attention for that early site -- more than ten thousand page views. Unfortunately, the only way we were able to generate conversation or debate on that site was when we spoon-fed or manually prompted it. Essentially, we generated zero spontaneous conversations and fairly quickly realized that the site was a failure. So, after a fair amount of internal discussion, we decided to shut it down. Rather than give up on electronic collaboration entirely, however, we decided to go where people already were -- Facebook.

FC: What made the move into a new online space successful?

MP: When we moved the conversation to Facebook, we initially worried that people would not want to mix fun posts about the weekend, parties, kids, and biking with intense policy discussions about transforming health care. Turns out they would. What we found was that people joined the group fairly readily -- and almost immediately began generating spontaneous discussions about healthcare transformation. They shared materials, engaged in spirited debates -- all without our prompting. Clearly, participants liked the format and found it easier to access than the RWJF-hosted site.

FC: What surprised you the most about the effort?

MP: I think we were all pretty surprised by the stark contrast between the spontaneity on Facebook compared to the almost complete lack of interaction on our hosted site. It's also interesting that the conversation on Facebook seems to have legs. Over a year later, the conversation is going strong, the number of participants has grown, and my RWJF colleagues and I are simply participants among many. We jump into conversations when it makes sense, and sometimes we ask for input about project ideas or highlight interesting materials or issues.

FC: Can you share any interesting examples about how a conversation that started online at Facebook informed your work or strategies offline? And for those who may be skeptical about the return on investment from social media, what are some specific takeaways from your work?

MP: As members of this Facebook community, we ask the group for help from time to time. For example, in 2011 we were developing a new call for proposals around Payment Reform Strategies for High Value Care. Normally for this sort of project we would craft the call for proposals pretty quietly based on internal, non-public discussions involving staff and expert advisors. In this instance, though, we decided to solicit feedback from our Facebook community. We posed the program design problems to the group in a series of questions and received a significant number of helpful comments. Then we used those comments to develop the call for proposals. And, importantly, we reported back to the group as we were developing the project to let them know how their comments were helping us shape the project. Essentially, we crowdsourced the development of the project concept -- and were rewarded with a terrific product with a real-world sense of what leaders want and need from this sort of payment experimentation. The call for proposals itself attracted seventy-two high-quality proposals from across the nation. And, ultimately, from those proposals, we awarded grants totaling almost $1.8 million to four cutting-edge payment reform projects.

FC: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing a similar approach?

MP: We're not saying that any particular social media tool is the single best answer or approach. Certainly, we hope to see many new and exciting social media approaches -- and hope to try them out as well. I think we did learn that it pays to experiment with these tools -- to be bold. It turns out the risks were actually minimal and manageable -- and the upside was pretty big. Some of us may have had unfounded fears about losing some measure of control of the discussions we were promoting when we moved to Facebook. And yes, we almost certainly ceded a measure of control. But in return we got a glimpse of something much more important and powerful -- energized and empowered collaborators willing to work with us toward achieving some big, important goals -- like improving health care in this country.

-- Janet Camarena

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