Stewarding technology for communities

digital habitats

Book Review
Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities.
Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, John D. Smith.
CPsquare, 2009. 227 p.

We humans face profound environmental, economic, cultural, and political challenges. These new challenges require new kinds of communities to learn together. Our communities have to match the problems we are addressing in size and in complexity.

One way to address a specific challenge is to form a community of practice. A community of practice represents an intention to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it. A high level of identification with the issue connects the members and their orientation to practice.

Lots of learning potential is generated by the interplay between technology and community. Technology for community use has become an important area of practice, and it needs to be developed and nurtured to yield its full potential. People who take on the task of making this happen are called technology stewards.

Technology stewards usually are members of an online community addressing a domain of knowledge. But technology stewardship is not merely about technology, technical support, or even user support. Technology stewards search for better ways to serve their communities. A digital habitat is part of the life of a community, so choosing technology, installing it, and supporting its use requires understanding and improvisation.

Ideally, the ultimate effect of careful stewarding is an increase in community and in learning capacity.

Co-author Etienne Wenger is author of several books on communities of practice, including Situated Learning. Nancy White, Full Circle Associates, supports collaboration in the nonprofit, NGO, and business sectors. John D. Smith is the community steward for CPsquare.

The 11 chapters of Digital Habitats describe the idea and the role of technology stewards. The first section defines the notion of technology stewardship intellectually, historically, and practically. Section 2 offers three models for thinking about technology in communities. These models are meant to help tech stewards “read” situations and propose sources of action. Part 3 focuses on the evolving practice of stewarding technology. Part 4 addresses the future of technology stewardship: the interplay between community and technology, and how tech stewards can best develop their practice.

Good tech stewards provide the level of technical expertise needed by their particular community. For example, when a community has grown so  large that many people don’t know each other, the tech steward may set up a membership directory in response.

The authors clearly distinguish between technology stewardship and traditional IT support. They emphasize the importance of working within the community, and how an insider perspective creates the fit between community aspirations and technology.

A steward’s choice of technology should reflect the style of the community: formal versus informal, presentation versus discussion, whole group versus breakouts.  The effective tech steward doesn’t just manage the configuration, but makes it a productive habitat. He or she maintains the community’s vision while maintaining some flexibility with uncertainties and changes.

Determining what communities will tolerate or demand—including their needs, interest, and motivations—makes stewarding interesting work. This kind of work cannot be reduced to one formula.

The book’s final two chapters consider trends in the search for new digital habitats at the intersection of community and technology.

This is an inspiring book and I recommend it. For my purposes, though, the book would have been stronger with a few detailed profiles or case studies of stewards and how they worked within their communities.

The authors have created two online spaces that do offer rich supplemental resources. One is a group blog at http://technologyforcommunities.com .  The other is a tools wiki http://technologyforcommunities.com/tools .

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