Thursday, March 1, 2018

Share the good news: a paper on improving "knowledge diffusion"

Ever feel like you missed out on a super cool Kickstarter project and you can’t believe no one told you about it? Amidst the fire hose of blogs, podcasts, social media, and more, how can we help good ideas get noticed, get shared, “go viral,” and make change happen?

That’s the question that a few scientists at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) decided to tackle back in 2014 ( Scientists usually don’t get to tell others what to do, and we don’t have many celebrity advocates or adorable cat videos to explain our research. So to influence others we often have to be creative, “lead by intrigue,” and hope our message catches on. But for a new idea to go viral, it helps to understand how it spreads from person to person.

Our first journal article on this research (published in PLoS ONE, taps into a huge array of different data sources including tracking web page activity, TNC employee data, and more traditional detailed surveys to give us some initial clues about how people are learning about innovations and sharing them with others. Going this deep with different kinds of data to explore diffusion is novel, and we learned some cool tricks other scientists may want to use!

Scientists call the way that new ideas spread “diffusion of innovations.” The process includes learning about and considering a new idea, trying it out, and telling others about it (not necessarily in that order).

Some innovations are new technology or practices (e.g., seven science innovations changing conservation, We focused on a more conceptual example: the spread of the new scientific principles and planning methodology at TNC: Conservation by Design AKA CbD, We asked how TNC staff and others received this new information, sought to learn more, and shared it.

CbD dates back 20 years and we saw lots of interest in it from beyond TNC in published science articles. Experts we interviewed said that ideas spread when you bring in partners early, invest in training and support, and do several other things which TNC did from the beginning).

We didn't find a silver bullet for communications that got people to seek out more information. But simple broad communications like short articles in internal newsletters and webinars to all staff worked best to promote seeking more information about CbD (as shown in the figure below, which tracks how many people went to a web site to learn about CbD in response to different events). The more venues through which someone heard about the new ideas in CbD 2.0, the more likely they were to share, so repetition was key.

There were several other factors that made people more likely to share information. Some were obvious, like people whose job included training others in conservation planning methods. Others were less obvious, e.g. people who took more online trainings (not limited to conservation) were more likely to share information about CbD 2.0.

We also learned that even with all the data available to us, there were still some surprising limitations. For example, Google Trends, much touted as a “Big Data” approach to track public interest in different topics, turned out to have unreliable data. Plus, it’s not specific enough: TNC’s “conservation by design” gets searched for less than a private company with the same name. So searches for “our” CbD got lost.

Most of my research tries to find how much information we need to make the right decisions without wasting time on unnecessary analysis. With the findings of this new paper, we have new insights into how we can share those tips and avoid either wasting time or making the wrong call.

So the next time you miss out on that sweet Kickstarter project, let me know, and let’s see if we can figure out how to better prepare for the next one.

Fisher, J. R. B., Montambault, J., Burford, K. P., Gopalakrishna, T., Masuda, Y. J., Reddy, S. M. W., … Salcedo, A. I. (2018). Knowledge diffusion within a large conservation organization and beyond. PLoS ONE, 13(3), 1–24.

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