Thursday, April 29, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 7)

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

This is the seventh 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 9 of the text.

This chapter deals with the ongoing role of the tech steward in the day-to-day operation of the digital habitat for a community of practice. The authors offer various guidelines and specific suggestions, focusing on the practical activities and responsibilities, highlighting the creative, inventive, and the basic work of technology stewarding. The role of the tech steward is not just to manage the configuration, but to make it a productive habitat.

Principles of Technology Stewardship:
1. Keep the vision of your community's success above the technical details of technology implementation. Be sure to participate in the community, while maintaining a vision and using your experience to guide your goals and performance criteria. This sets tech stewards apart from IT support professionals who focus solely on the performance of the technology.

2. Keep the technology as simple as possible for the community while meeting its needs. The authors point out that the technology shapes the community and vice versa. No matter what shiny new technology you find, focus on the simplest structure in the beginning. Keeping the technology simple allows for community successes and failures to guide subsequent steps.

3. Let the configuration of technologies evolve as the community evolves. The tools used by the community will change over time as members substitute new tools for ones in the "official" configuration. A community's use of technology becomes more intricate over time. Focus on the configuration and the actual technology in use, keeping in mind that the important thing is how the tools fit the community's practices.

4. Use all the knowledge around you. People in your overall network can be your best source of information. The community has knowledge of the local technology conditions, other tech stewards can suggest technology to adopt or avoid, product focused user communities can provide context and/or advice, and you can bridge the expertise of vendors or other external technologists with your knowledge of the community. Connect and participate, share what you learn as a tech steward with others.

5. Finally, "back it up." This may be elementary, but the data brought in and created by the community is important, to include member lists, shared resources, and artifacts of shared interactions. While in some cases the IT department can be depended on for regular backups, other types of community configurations require more proactive measures from the tech steward to ensure community data is backed up. Make sure key files are saved in a redundant manner to avoid catastrophic loss of key files and artifacts.

Stewarding in the foreground is different than stewarding in the background
While there are different ideas about what a tech steward should do, there is only a finite amount of time. This makes it important to focus on what matters most to the community- where it is now and where it may be in the near future. The authors have devised the following list to help of tasks where the tech steward can invest their energies. There are two tasks where technology and the tech steward are in the foreground, and five where the tech steward works in the background. The text has a series of pointers regarding planning, technology, and practice associated with each task that I will not cover in detail here.

These activities are where the community faces major changes in its technology and the tech steward is in the foreground:

1. Implementing and deploying a new community platform or set of technologies (new or migration). This is covered in detail in other sections of the text, as the decision to implement and deploy a new community platform is one of the core tasks a tech steward is involved in.

2. Community closure and end-of-life issues for distributed communities. The tech steward has a key role as a community reaches the end of its lifecycle. These center around archiving data and artifacts, and shutting down online spaces, and related activities.

On the other hand, these are the ongoing technology activities that go on in the background of communities:

1. Supporting new members in their use of the community's technology. There are training, configuration, and orientation tasks that a tech steward may be involved in as new members join the community. The tech steward need to be aware and understand their responsibilities in the onboarding process.

2. Identifying and spreading good technology practices. The tech steward has a unique position in the community to monitor how the community is using technology and what emerging best practices are associated with each tool or configuration of tools. The tech steward should also look for ways to disseminate these best practices to the community in a timely manner.

3. Supporting community experimentation. A community's configuration will evolve over time, and the tech steward needs to take a proactive role as this process unfolds. The key actions here include encouraging this experimentation, spreading the word on successful new practices/ tools/ configurations, and acting on the results while preserving the integrity and effectiveness of the digital habitat.

4. Attending to community boundaries created by technology. There are a number of boundaries created by the community technology, mainly in the level of accessibility that a community has to the outside world. The tech steward needs to bridge these boundaries where appropriate, while honoring the members' preferences for tools and privacy.

5.Assuring continuity across technology disruptions.There are a variety of ways that the digital habitat can be disrupted. These can be created by the introduction of new tools or configurations, accidental actions that affect parts of the system, or other unforeseen technology problems (network outages, etc.). It is incumbent on the tech steward to be attentive to what is going on in the community tech environment, prevent these disruptions if possible (careful migration, etc.), and minimize the impact of the disruption to the best of their ability. There are a variety of maintenance tasks that can help prevent issues, and testing any changes in a non-production environment before implementation is also important.

Beyond cycling between stewarding in the background and the foreground, there are other factors in successful tech stewarding. Constant change in the larger tech environment as more Web 2.0 and even 3.0 technologies are introduced can challenge even the most knowledgeable and capable tech steward.

Stewarding technology involves knowing a lot but it also includes intuition, guesswork, and being able to tolerate uncertainty and not knowing. This uncertainty requires insight and inventiveness to understand the community's underlying needs regarding technology, and intuition to help determine what "good enough" looks like. This kind of work cannot be reduced down to one formula. Tech stewarding is an emerging and dynamic practice, where a good practitioner balances technical and community knowledge in order to help shape the evolution of the community and its digital habitat.

I hope you were able to get something out of this post. I will be wrapping up this series in my next offering. I welcome your questions and comments.

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