MANUSCRIPT: Growing a professional network to over 3000 members in less than 4 years
Use of Web 2.0 and social media technologies has become a new area of research among health professionals. Much of this work has focused on the use of technologies for health self-management and the ways technologies support communication between care providers and consumers. This paper addresses a new use of technology in providing a platform for health professionals to support professional development, increase knowledge utilization, and promote formal/informal professional communication. Specifically, we report on factors necessary to attract and sustain health professionals’ use of a network designed to increase nurses’ interest in and use of health services research and to support knowledge utilization activities in British Columbia, Canada.
“InspireNet”, a virtual professional network for health professionals, is a living laboratory permitting documentation of when and how professionals take up Web 2.0 and social media. Ongoing evaluation documents our experiences in establishing, operating, and evaluating this network.
Overall evaluation methods included (1) tracking website use, (2) conducting two member surveys, and (3) soliciting member feedback through focus groups and interviews with those who participated in electronic communities of practice (eCoPs) and other stakeholders. These data have been used to learn about the types of support that seem relevant to network growth.
Network growth exceeded all expectations. Members engaged with varying aspects of the network’s virtual technologies, such as teams of professionals sharing a common interest, research teams conducting their work, and instructional webinars open to network members. Members used wikis, blogs, and discussion groups to support professional work, as well as a members’ database with contact information and areas of interest. The database is accessed approximately 10 times per day. InspireNet public blog posts are accessed roughly 500 times each. At the time of writing, 21 research teams conduct their work virtually using the InspireNet platform; 10 topic-based Action Teams meet to address issues of mutual concern. Nursing and other health professionals, even those who rated themselves as computer literate, required significant mentoring and support in their efforts to adopt their practice to a virtual environment. There was a steep learning curve for professionals to learn to work in a virtual environment and to benefit from the available technologies.
Virtual professional networks can be positioned to make a significant contribution to ongoing professional practice and to creating environments supportive of information sharing, mentoring, and learning across geographical boundaries. Nonetheless, creation of a Web 2.0 and social media platform is not sufficient, in and of itself, to attract or sustain a vibrant community of professionals interested in improving their practice. Essential support includes instruction in the use of Web-based activities and time management, a biweekly e-Newsletter, regular communication from leaders, and an annual face-to-face conference.