Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 5)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the fifth post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapter 7 of the text.

This chapter describes the contextual factors involved in making pragmatic technology decisions that shape a community's digital habitat. These factors are important because neither communities or technologies exist in isolation.

The first context is the community's state of readiness for technology change. The stage of community development is important, as the technology needs of a community will change over time. The diversity and complexity of the community is another factor in the technology needs of a community. Experience with the use of technology can influence whether the community will be able to adopt new technology easily, or will be disrupted by the change in digital habitat. Finally, the community attitudes about technology can substantially impact the decision to make technology changes, and how the changes will be implemented.

The community's relationship with its environment has direct technology implications. Organizational relationships are very important, especially if the community is completely contained in one organization, as this has a wide range of impacts including resources, accountability, and compliance with various organizational standards. The relationship of the community to an IT department or provider has wide-ranging implications on a community's digital habitat. The IT department may have standards or procedures that will need to be followed that may or may not be optimum for the community. Another factor is the community's need to be connected to the outside world, as this will need to be facilitated by the technology. Multimembership must be considered when making technology decisions, as there are ways to make it easier for members to be part of many other groups in addition to the particular community of practice. The way the community addresses security is very important to how its technology is configured. Security touches many parts of the digital habitat and is a key part of its environment.

Time and sequencing issues can influence the decision about what and when a new technology is implemented. Community schedules are a very important consideration, as the change can be more or less disruptive depending on the timing and coordination with the community schedule. There can also be external schedules that need to be taken into account. Although a current decision may be pending, sometimes it is in the best interest of the community to wait, keeping in mind there will be other chances to make the change.

Budgets and resource considerations have a large impact on the technology of a community, as it usually serves to constrain any decisions about changing the digital habitat. Resources usually affects the scope of what can be changed as there is a tradeoff between scope and available resources. Contributors, decision makers, and stakeholders are generally the controllers of the community's resources, and having them on board before making changes is very important. Technical resources and expertise will have a big impact on the technology of the community and the choices that are made. Above all, the tech steward's time is a key resource to be taken into account when any technology decisions need to be made, as this can affect what technology is chosen and how it is maintained and operated.

Finally, the infrastructure considerations are very influential in the technology decisions around a community of practice. Online access and the individual technical settings must be accounted for. Hosting and vendor relationships have wide-ranging impacts on community technology. The options of using an Application Service Provider (ASP), internal hosting, working with software vendors, or programming a solution internally must be carefully evaluated in light of what the community's needs entail. Relationships with internal IT resources and system requirements also need to be part of the assessment of technology and how it will be configured and/or changed. The need for single sign-on and the potential installation of client software can affect these relationships substantially.

Due to the complexity of a community's digital habitat, a tech steward many need to pay attention to a daunting number of contextual factors when making technology decisions for the community. The bottom line is that the tech steward should try to stay aware of the context of the community at all times as it evolves and understand how that context affects technology stewardship.

Please post comments below as you are so inclined.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 4)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the fourth post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapter 6 of the text.

People experience being part of a community in a variety of ways: communities have different styles. That's why different habitats work better for different communities. The text refers to this as having different orientations toward the process of learning together. An orientation is a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community. The authors have observed nine orientations that have implications for the selection of technology (the order does not suggest ranking). Orientations are not mutually exclusive, and they reflect the importance communities place on various ways of being together. This post will briefly review these orientations, what constitute signs of life and success factors, some key questions, and the technology implications for each orientation.

1. Meetings: Communities with this orientation place emphasis on gathering at a certain time to engage in shared activities. These meetings can be face-to-face or blended, online synchronous, and/or online asynchronous. Signs of life for this orientation are regular, well attended meetings, with enthusiasm to participate, connections with others, and successful outcomes. Success factors center around meeting practices, the member experience of the meetings,and the flexibility in the agenda to allow for spontaneous interactions. Questions have to do with the details of the meetings (size, composition, and logistics). Technology implications for this orientation include the use of technology for online meetings, and how technology can facilitate the face-to-face meetings of the community.

2. Open-ended conversations: Some communities never meet, but instead learn through ongoing conversations. These open-ended conversations can be single-stream, multi-topic, and distributed. Signs of life are a sustained flow of contributions and responses. Success factors include having enough variance in the topics, enough contributions to feel active but not overwhelming, active participation by a representative segment of the community, and a well-organized conversation archive that prevents circular conversation and allows newcomers to get up to speed quickly. Questions center around user preferences around conversations, accessing and harvesting conversations, and multilingual requirements. The technology implications are a selection of the right tool for the conversations (email, chat room, wiki, blog, threaded discussion) and how to configure these tools to best facilitate the conversations.

3. Projects: In some communities, members want to focus on particular topics and really go deep and collaborate on projects that solve problems or produce artifacts. Learning is not just a matter of sharing knowledge or discussing issues, but instead is something done together in order to develop their practice. Projects usually involve a subgroup of a community, and can take the form of co-authoring a document, a practice group, project team, or instruction. Signs of life are committed engagement in producing some change in the community's world, such as developing a useful artifact, addressing a recurring problem, or responding to a challenge. Key success factors include collective definition of projects, coordination and leadership, adequate communication between subgroups and the community, and compliance with internal project management process and procedures (if applicable). Questions center around project activities,the requirements to enable project completion, and how the project will connect to the rest of the community. Projects create several technology implications mainly around virtual spaces (including space creation and security), collaboration methods for the team, technology to allow sharing from the project to the community, and how to enable creation and storage of artifacts.

4. Content: Some communities are mainly interested in creating, sharing, and providing access to documents, tools, and other content. Valuable and well-organized content is useful for members; can attract new members and makes it possible to offer a community's expertise to others. Content orientation can include a library, structured self-publishing, open self-publishing, and content integration. Signs of life include the regular creation or identification of new material and frequent downloads or use of existing material; active involvement with content- discussing, tagging, commenting, remixing, reorganizing, and exploring relevance. Key success factors are a careful and ongoing organization of content, a flexible taxonomy, ease of publishing internally and externally, ease of creating new content, archiving of aging material, use of tools that invite active involvement with documents,and excellent search capabilities. Questions refer to frequency of activities around content, use of content, types of artifacts, responsibility for maintaining content, and access to content. The technology implications focus on content management: uploading, organizing, combining, search, application of taxonomies, and editorial functions. In addition to managing artifacts, enabling conversations around the content is also important.

5. Access to expertise: Some communities create value by providing focused and timely access to expertise in the community's domain, both internally and externally. Communities with this orientation focus on answering questions, providing advise, or engaging in just-in-time problem solving. This includes access via questions and requests, direct access to explicitly designated experts, shared problem solving, knowledge validation, and apprenticeship and mentoring. Signs of life are rapid and reliable responses to requests for expert advice and assistance; well-established methods for eliciting community expertise- people should know who to approach for specific expertise. Key success factors consist of known or designated holders of expertise, quick access to reliable sources of information and quick responses from experts, accurate routing to best sources of help, reliability of responses established by reputation or through a validation process. Questions to consider include how to get rapid access to information and advice, the importance of formal validation, discovery of experts and expertise, status as a center of excellence, the employment of outside experts and their support requirements, and the size of the group that needs to interact, as this makes a difference in the type of support needed. There are several technology implications with this orientation, including determining the best mode of communication (synchronous or asynchronous), the level of automation of discovery and archiving of expertise, and the technology around validating the answers provided by experts.

6. Relationships: Some communities focus on relationship building among members as the basis for both learning and being available to each other. Communities with this orientation place a high value on knowing each other personally. This is done by connecting, knowing about people, and interacting informally. Signs of life are networking, bonding, friendship, references to personal lives in conversations. Key success factors consist of ways for people to get to know each other and build their identities, opportunities to connect informally beyond community events, networkers acting as connectors with other people,and having individual control over personal disclosure and exposure. Questions revolve around how members are drawn to the community, how important trust is to the ability to learn from each other, the level of curiosity and willingness to disclose information and investing the time to get acquainted outside the domain-oriented interactions, and the size of the community and the need for widespread connections coupled with whether the community is open or closed. Relationships are between people, technology seems less relevant. However, the advent of online social networking  and social media have enabled the creation of online relationships. These relationships can grow without the participants ever meeting each other face-to-face, to include immersive environments such as Second Life. In these cases the technology can actually foster the creation of communities.

7. Individual participation: Learning together happens in the context of a group, but it is realized in the experience of individuals. Increasingly, their participation in any community takes place in the context of multimembership in many other communities- a factor that is bound to give them a unique perspective in any given community or facet of community life. The main variants of this orientation include varying and selective participation, personalization, individual development, and multimembership. Signs of life are where members develop their own style of participation and are aware that others develop their own styles, they feel they have a meaningful connection to the community regardless of the form of their participation, and the community welcomes, supports, and thrives on this diversity. Key success factors center around valuing diversity, supporting and facilitating different levels and modes of participation, practices and tools that are used to bridge between interaction modes, communicating preferences, availability, and multimembership, obvious customization options, and the ability of members to manage their interactions across different tools and communities. Questions go to the extent that the community's success depends on uniform participation experiences, the degree of diversity of the members in terms of proficiency in the core practice and learning styles, the amount of ownership members take in their own learning compared to how much they expect this to be defined by the community, and how many communities members belong to simultaneously and if they require the use of different tools. The technology implications of this orientation are mainly focused on the individualization of the experience using technology, bridging the the various modes of participation, and supporting the multimembership paradigm.  

8. Community cultivation: While many communities are content with loose self-organization, other thrive on attention to community cultivation. For different reasons, the success of the community comes to depend on a high level of ongoing attention to process and content. Variants to this orientation include democratic governance, strong core group, internal coordination, and external facilitation. Signs of life are that the community's activities are well planned, its reference materials are well produced and well organized. and members find someone that is always very responsive to their requests, contributions, and changing needs. Key success factors consist of efforts made to support the community are appreciated by other members, enough time is available to engage in cultivation, the personality, skills, and leadership of those who take on the community cultivation roles, and good succession planning for transitions. Questions refer to the needed information to cultivate the community, the actions the cultivators should take in regards to technology and how it affects participation, and what the community culture is around feedback tools so they are not "gamed" and give accurate results. The technology to support this orientation can be fairly basic (telephone, email, etc.) but can also include online polls and conversation management systems.

9. Serving a context: All communities of practice are oriented to their members' learning experience, but they also exist in a context that can influence how this learning takes place. In some cases, serving a specific context becomes central to the community's identity and the ways it operates. This context may be inside or outside of a larger organization, and can even be global. Variations on this orientation thus can be organization as context, cross-organization context, a constellation of related communities, or a public mission. Signs of life are community members fully engaged in the mission defined by their context, and reciprocal recognition and resources from people outside the community. Key success factors include clarity on the community context, channels for negotiating the relationship of the community to its context (such as organizational sponsorship), recognized and supported boundary roles that serve the orientation to context, tools that enable outsiders to interact with the community that reflect their needs and openness of the community, and ease of granting controlled or open access to the community. Questions are around the goals, agenda, or mission that the community is serving, the extent that the community has to keep track of its activities and it learning to justify itself to outside constituencies, the importance for the community's technology infrastructure to be integrated with broader information systems, whether the community is open or closed, the importance of having the community visible and accessible to non-members accounting for their needs and current methods of interaction, and how members integrate their community activities with their other activities, such as their job in their organizations. There are major technology implications for a context orientation, mainly in regards to integration of the technology with other systems and also the ability to control access to the extent needed by the community.

Understanding the orientation of a community of practice can improve the performance of its tech steward, but also can assist a member in being a better participant of that community. Orientations create specific technology-related challenges in many different ways, especially around compatibility with existing infrastructures. Also, many communities span different orientations, and also can change orientation over time. All of this will affect the technology needed to support the learners of the CoP.

The last few posts have established a frame of reference for both communities and their digital habitats. This has been done both from the perspective of how technology can affect communities, and how communities can influence their supporting technology. The next few posts will use this context to go into more detail around specific practices of technology stewardship.

Thank you for reading this post. Please ask questions and comment on your thoughts around this topic.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 3)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the third post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapters 4 and 5 of the text.

This post will deal with the central concept of the book, the idea of the digital habitat. Communities of Practice need habitats to learn together.A digital habitat refers to the portion of a community's habitat that is enabled by a configuration of technologies. Just as a natural habitat reflects the learning of the species, a digital habitat is not just a configuration of technologies, but a dynamic, mutually-defining relationship that depends on the learning of the community. It reflects the practices that members have developed to take advantage of the technology available to create a sense of  "place" for the community. A digital habitat is first and foremost an experience of place enabled by technology. 

To help make sense of ways in which technology can be experienced as a habitat for the community, the authors propose four perspectives called the Constitution of the Habitat:

Tools that support specific activities. Tools are a discrete piece of technology that supports a specific activity or activities in the community. The tool perspective is important because it addresses the functional adequacy of the habitat is supporting all the relevant activities. Tools are the primary entry point for tech stewards, as they anchor the construction of the habitat in the specific demands of what a community is trying to do.
Platforms into which vendors and developers package tools. Platforms in this context are technology packages that integrate a number of tools available in the marketplace (for purchase or for free) that one can acquire, install, or rent. Even Skype, something normally considered just a tool,  is actually a platform as it supports voice calls, conference calls, presence, chat, directories, and other capabilities. Platform focused considerations include questions that reflect the feasibility of acquiring, deploying, and using one or more tools together. There are several factors when selecting a platform such as features, usability, scalability, and sustainability which need to be evaluated against the needs of the community. Platforms are a secondary but important entry point for tech stewards as it reflects the availability of the technology for constructing the habitat.

Features that help make tools and platforms useable and "liveable". A feature is a characteristic that makes a tool or platform usable for a specific purpose. Some features define a tool, others add to its functionality or to the enjoyment of the experience, such as the ability to preview posts, and flagging of new content. Some features are very concrete facilities that are almost "mini-tools". Other features serve as subtle and pervasive design characteristics, such as a consistent user interface across a platform, consistent navigation, or adherence to data exchange or platform interface standards. The features of a tool or platform determine its usability for a given community, and thus determine the "habitability" of the habitat. Tech stewards need to evaluate features in context, and balance features that enhance functionality, flexibility, or security, with the need for simplicity and ease of use.

Configuration of technologies that sustain the habitat (which is rarely confined to one platform). This means the overall set of technologies that serve as a substrate for a community's habitat at a given point in time-whether tools belong to a single platform, multiple platforms, or are free-standing. For communities with complex sets of activities, the full configuration often involves multiple platforms, or selected tools from different platforms combined with a main platform. The configuration perspective includes all relevant technologies in play, both those used "by everyone" and those brought in by individual community members, either temporarily or permanently. Tech stewards need to view the community's configuration broadly enough to include all relevant tools yet narrowly enough to make visualization of the whole practical.

As a substrate of the habitat, the notion of configuration suggest pieces that "fit together". However, nothing guarantees that the tools in a given configuration will be integrated is such a way that the community will experience them as a coherent habitat. There are both functionality and usability questions that determine the level of integration needed for the habitat. There are four perspectives that suggest different ways that integration can be achieved and sustained, ranging from mostly designed into technology to mostly dependent on the on the community:

Integration through platforms: This method of integration relies on the use of a single platform to achieve a uniform user experience. While this is a simple solution technologically, there may be tradeoffs in regards to feature or configuration for the community.

Integration through interoperability: Using this method of integration involves a combination of tools or platforms that come together using interoperable standards or technology to provide a more uniform and simpler user experience. This can be a technologically complex undertaking, but the ability to use disparate tools and/or (and maybe leverage existing technology) makes this an attractive option.

Integration through tools: This method takes advantage of a separate tool, like an RSS aggregator or a tool that can connect to multiple chat systems, to provide unified functionality for the user. While this could add another tool to the habitat, it is also a less technology-intensive solution.

Integration through practice: Using practices to piece together disparate technologies is not generally the best method to integrate tools, but sometimes it is the only way. The concept of  "sneakernetting" or moving data using physical media from one computer to another is an example of integration through practice. Using practices to integrate tools or platforms does not involve making changes to the technology, but it can detract from the user experience of the habitat.

The best way to understand how technology contributes to community life is to consider fundamental challenges communities face in trying to learn together. We can use these challenges to make sense of the broad landscape of tools that have been adopted by communities. Here are three key challenges that drive communities to adopt technology as pairs of concepts called polarities:

Rhythms: togetherness and separation. Time and space present a challenge for communities. Forming a community of practice requires many sustained conversations over a relatively long period of time. Tools can foster these conversations by either bringing the community together for a synchronous collaborative session or foster asynchronous collaboration that allows users to interact while separated by distance or time.

Interactions: participation and reification. The polarity of participation and reification is a process of meaning-making that is fundamental to the learning theory of communities of practice. On one hand, members engage directly in activities, conversations, reflections and other forms of personal participation in the learning of the community. On the other hand, members produce physical and conceptual artifacts- words, tools, concepts, methods and other forms of reification- that reflect their shared experience and around which they organize their participation. (Literally, reification means "making into an object".) Technology contributes to both of these polarities, and complimentary tools and platforms can be used to support either participation or reification as needed for community members to further their mutual learning.

Identities: individual and group. Learning together is a complex achievement that weaves communal and individual engagement, aspirations, and identities. While learning together is a key component of any community of practice, often members cannot always participate in this group learning experience. This is usually due to being in multiple communities, or online social networks that can consume an inordinate amount of an individual's time and energy. Technology contributes to the tension between individual and groups and also can increase the complexity of the polarity. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology can help manage this complexity, and also open the possibility of more meaningful multi-membership in many communities.  As this multi-membership becomes more common, tools to manage this group/ individual polarity are an increasingly central contribution of technology.

These polarities do not cover everything there is to say about the challenges of community formation and development. However they do capture something fundamental about communities- something that has to do with their physical, social, and political nature, not the technology. The authors used these polarities to compile a diagram (this version located here) that maps the relationship of general categories of tools to the various polarities:

Much of the balance of the text goes into more detail about selecting tools for communities based on analysis using many of the concepts shown above. Tool and platform selection is a key part of being a tech steward. A good working knowledge of the ideas of constitution, integration, and polarities is very important to providing quality technical stewardship to a community of practice.

I hope you found this post interesting and thought provoking. I encourage you to post comments and questions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 2)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the second post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapter 3 of the text.

One of the key concepts of the book revolves around the idea of Technology Stewardship. Every Community of Practice (CoP) that uses the Internet for its learning environment should have someone responsible to make sure that digital habitat is meeting the needs of its members. This person is known as a tech steward. They take responsibility for the community's technological resources for a time, working at the intersection between technology and the community. Technology stewarding adopts a community's perspective to help a community choose, configure, and use technologies to best suit its needs. Tech stewards attend to both what happens spontaneously and what can happen purposefully, by plan and by cultivation of insights into what actually works.

Technology stewarding is both a perspective and a practice. It can be considered a collection of activities carried out by the individual tech stewards and as a role within the community. The perspective is a natural outcome of taking care of a community that's using technology to learn together. Adopting the perspective means becoming sensitive to many different social and technical issues, and developing a language to give the perspective voice and precision. Good tech stewards provide the level of technical expertise needed by a particular community. Their role may be invisible or limited if the technology does not grow beyond the initial needs of the community. Other develop complex configurations that need constant and deliberate attention.

The text provides this definition:

Technology stewards are people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs, and enough experience with or interest in technology to take leadership addressing those needs. Stewarding typically includes selecting and configuring technology, as well as supporting its use in the practice of the community. 

This definition is meant to clearly distinguish between technology stewardship and traditional IT support. By emphasizing the experience with the workings of the community, this highlights the insider perspective that shines a very specific light on the potential fit between community aspirations and technology. This insider perspective also emphasizes the practices that community has to develop to leverage technology. Most tech stewards are members of their community, and may take on other leadership roles as well.

Technology stewardship is something anyone can do. It does not require absolute expertise with technology, but enough to play the role- for instance, to see the potential usefulness of a tool or represent the community's needs to other technologists. In some communities, technology is the focus of one individual or a small group. In other cases, the work can be shared more widely or even be dispersed across an entire community, as often happens in technology-oriented communities where almost everyone shares the responsibility. Stewarding technology should be treated as a team sport for two reasons. First, it helps to have a group within a community share the work-or at least share in the understanding of the role. Second, it helps to connect with other stewards (from whatever community) who can provide a larger context, offer support, share ideas, tips, and innovation, and help in pressuring a tool developer to address community needs. Still, many tech stewards struggle alone. For the purpose of the text, tech stewards are referred to as if it were a distinct role carried out by one person.

Technology stewardship involves several streams of activity. These streams can become more or less salient at various times,but they should not be thought of as a sequence. They mostly run in parallel and constantly inform each other. 

Community understanding: The first and foremost activity of a tech steward is to understand their community and its evolution well enough to be able to respond to its expressed and unexpressed needs with respect to technology. This understanding of how the community functions includes its key activities, member characteristics, subgroups, boundaries, aspirations, potential, limitations, as well as its context.

Technology awareness: With the community perspective in mind, tech stewards need to have enough awareness of technology developments to have a sense of what is available and possible. Technology awareness requires an informal but ongoing scanning of the technology landscape-through personal experience, playfulness, conversations, reading, or participation in technology-oriented communities.

Selection and installation: The combination of community understanding and technology awareness should enable tech stewards to help their communities make informed choices about technology. This involves both small and large decisions, such as selecting a whole new platform, choosing to upgrade to a new version of a tool, or advising the community to settle for what is "good enough" at the moment. The technical aspects of selection and installation may necessitate additional expertise to help in the process.

Adoption and transition: Selection and installation are only half of the equation. Tech stewards also need to shepherd their community through the process of adopting (or rejecting) the new technology. Tech stewards can play a a critical role in taking their communities through the learning curve usually associated with technology adoption and transition.

Everyday use: Tech stewards need to integrate the use of technology into the everyday practice of the community as it evolves. This stream of activities involves all sorts of tasks, from the mundane to the sophisticated. It has technical aspects such as tool management, upgrades, access and security, and backups. It also has community aspects such as onboarding newcomers, and spreading new practices associated with the use of tools, helping craft agreements about technology use, and building capacity for stewarding in others. These tasks require observing, listening, inventing, and teaching. They also help tech stewards maintain the ongoing understanding of the community necessary for seeing emerging needs and participating actively in its evolving self-design from the technology side.

While the role of the tech stewards play depends on the communities they serve, there are some characteristics that the authors have observed in practice:

About technology and practice: While knowledge of technology is a key asset, tech stewards pay attention to how technology is used to achieve community ends. The alignment of tech stewards with the values and direction of a community makes them able to contribute in ways that technical experts might not.

A broker: Tech stewards often server as brokers between the community and the technical resources in its vicinity, such as an IT department, an open source community, or a vendor's support organization. A broker is in a position to appreciate the concerns and knowledge resources of people who can't always talk to each other directly.

Part-time/ voluntary/ paid: The tech steward role is usually part-time -whether it is an ad hoc response to a need or a longer-term commitment. Since participation in most communities of practice is itself part-time and voluntary,the amount of time available for for the role of tech steward is also limited. Having the technologists in an IT department recognize the legitimacy of the tech steward's role will save wear and tear on voluntary tech stewards.

Occasional visibility: In periods of stability the role may not be very visible- until problems arise or new technologies are introduced. There is work to be done in the background, nevertheless. When technology problems arise or new technologies are introduced, the visibility of and demands on tech stewards can change dramatically.

People take on the role of tech steward for very different reasons, from personal interest to curiosity to generosity. Others are thrust into the role without much of a choice. Why would anyone accept the role, much less volunteer for it? Even though the role is important to the community, tech stewards need to be clear about the benefits for signing up for a role with a steep learning curve. Some of these benefits include: satisfaction in serving the community (and taking up the role if no one else is doing it), leadership opportunities, learning and growing technical skills, and building a reputation among the community and its leadership.

The nature and relevance of technology stewarding depends on the community and its circumstances. The role presents different kinds of challenge, depending on the community size, stage of development, diversity, level of support, membership age, organizational setting, and interest in technology. A key factor affecting stewarding is where the community is situated. Stewarding within an organization involves control of resources (and interacting with an IT department), being involved in standard-setting activities, and facilitating the interplay between the organization and the community. Stewarding across organizational boundaries or outside organizations usually means that the tech steward must find resources and support for the community, bridge organizational boundaries between organizations, defining a community space outside of an organization, and establishing responsibility to the community or defining connection to other communities. There is also a circumstance where a tech steward may be stewarding across multiple communities within or across organizational boundaries. This involves a different and potentially complicated method of stewardship, but can also allow for sharing of resources and expertise across several communities.

Are you a tech steward for your community? Do you have the role and the skills to support a community of practice with technology? There are many such positions across many different organizations, and I have the privilege of fulfilling this role and find it to be very rewarding. The subsequent posts on this topic will delve more into the details of tech stewarding, including characteristics of digital habitats, evaluating and selecting technology, and more about supporting communities.

As always, I encourage your comments and questions.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 1)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the first post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapters 1 and 2 of the text.

Etienne Wenger is one of the experts on Communities of Practice, having authored several books on the topic. The definition of a Community of Practice (CoP) for the purposes of this book is a group of people brought together around a topic or area of interest with the intention of learning from each other. This learning places more on technology that just keeping a list of friends or exchanging messages: it implies that technology will help us find learning partners and engage with them meaningfully. While learning is not the driver for all communities, it is a large part of what makes interactions on the Internet attractive and productive. The book provides many examples of CoP's , including one of from the military, CompanyCommand, in which Army Captains have come together to help each other learn how to be better at the vital task of commanding a company in time of war.

The text defines three fundamental dimensions of a CoP: Domain, Practice, and Community. These dimensions also influence the underlying technology used to support the community.

Domain: In coming together in an online conversation, the members must have something in common that they really care about. This is an essential aspect of a Community of Practice. For a community to form, the topic must be of more than passing interest. This domain can extend inside and outside the community.

Practice: The members of a Community of Practice can be thought of in the terms of sharing a practice. Learning a practice is learning how to be a certain type of person with all the experiential complexity this implies: how to "live" knowledge, not just acquiring it in the abstract. This learning includes formal as well as informal activities, and can include sources from inside and outside the community.

Community: The learning connection is just as salient as a process of community-building. Learning together depends on the quality of relationships of trust and mutual engagement that members develop with each other, a productive management of community boundaries, and the ability of some to take leadership and to play various roles in moving the inquiry forward.   

Each of the three dimensions- domain, practice, and community- places demands on technology; conversely, technology opens up new facets for each dimension:

Domain: How does technology enable communities and their members to explore, define, and express a common identity? To see the landscape of issues to address, and then negotiate a learning agenda worth pursuing? And to project "what they stand for" and what it means to them and others? Does technology allow communities to figure out and reveal how their domain relates to other domains, individuals, groups, organizations, or endeavors?

Practice: How does technology enable sustained mutual engagement around a practice? Can it provide new windows into each other's practice? What learning activities would this make possible? Can technology accelerate the cycle through which members explore, test, and refine good or best practice? Over time, can technology help a community create a shared context for people to have ongoing exchanges, articulate perspectives, accumulate knowledge, and provide access to stories, tools, solutions, and concepts?

Community: How can technology support an experience of togetherness that makes a community a social container for learning together? Can it help people find each other and reduce the sense of isolation? Does it reveal interesting connections and enable members to get to know each other in relevant ways? Can it enhance the simultaneous interplay of diversity and common ground? Does it allow various people and groups to take initiative, assume leadership, develop roles and create subgroups, projects and conversations?

Communities of Practice offer a useful perspective on technology because they are not defined by place or by personal characteristics, but by people's potential to learn together. The text outlines the history of  the CoP, showing how technology helped spawn communities (from early email and bulletin boards up to Web 2.0) and also how communities helped influence technology (from the "Internauts" to the roots of the wiki and the open source software community). This helps to illustrate how technologies and communities are very intertwined.

The CoP perspective is helpful to understand digital habitats - where community and technology intersect. It helps us focus on how communities use technology, how they are influenced by it, how technology presents new learning opportunities for communities, and how communities continue to assess the value of different tools and technologies over time, and even how communities influence the use of technologies.

This is just an overview of an important component of Knowledge Management - Communities of Practice and how they form a part of a Digital Habitat. The next post will cover a key role in the digital habitat, the Tech Steward who serves to balance this interplay between community and technology.

As always, I look forward to your comments and questions.