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.


  1. Hi, Mark,

    Thanks for doing the careful summary! I'm wondering whether you see differences in how you might be a tech steward, depending on the context? Would working in a particular organization make a difference in your thinking?

  2. Absolutely. The context is very important,and the organization makes a big difference. Being a tech steward for a non-profit versus a commercial or government organization would be a much different experience.