CTLab:Tech Stewards

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What is a Technology Steward?

Online communities are enabled by technology platforms including tools and services needed for the community members to learn together. Each community is a unique combination of participants, subject matter and context – but we all need someone (or some people) to take responsibility for the community’s technical resources. Technology stewardship is part of community leadership and may be undertaken as part of the leader’s role or by a dedicated person/group within a leadership team.

Few communities use the term “Technology Steward” but we find these concepts helpful in describing important functions within a healthy community. However we recognise that community is about people and community building requires real skill, time, and attention. Choosing and using the right tech is not enough.

Some communities never grow beyond their initial needs so on-going technology stewarding is limited; others develop complex configurations that require constant and deliberate attention.

It is helpful to think about who does the technology stewarding in your community. If this is a neglected area, how might you cultivate someone (or some people) with the necessary skills and interests?

What does a Technology Steward do?

“Technology Stewarding” can be considered as a role and/or a collection of activities that are carried out – often by more than one person and typically alongside other leadership responsibilities within the community. It has varying prominence at different stages in the life of a community and may be invisible for most of the time until the community’s needs call for attention to technology.

Technology stewardship can be viewed as parallel streams of activity, whose emphasis will change with the evolution of the community.

  • Community Understanding
  • Technology Awareness
  • Selection & Installation
  • Adoption & Transition
  • Everyday Use

The specific nature of the role will vary according to the community and the technologies that it uses. In particular, technology stewardship will be affected by whether the community is located within, between or outside of organisational boundaries.

Technology Stewards

  • Help others understand what technology will best help them develop and engage a community over the long term;
  • Take care of a community that is using technology to learn together;
  • May provide user support, especially if the tech steward is supporting a small or big group in exploring different technologies that are not embedded in IT operations;
  • Have an eye on what is coming as well as working hard with people in the community to ensure they understand how to get the most out of their current toolset;
  • Adopt a community’s perspective to help a community choose, configure and use technologies to best suit its needs;
  • Serve as a ‘filter’ for various technology options, by looking at what infrastructure is already being used (either external or in-house) and using that knowledge to get as clear an idea as possible of the costs (in money, time and adaptation effort) as well as functionality benefits/losses with different tech options;
  • Attend to both what happens spontaneously and what can happen purposefully, by planning and by cultivation of insights into what actually works;
  • Are sensitive to many different social and technical issues (e.g. noticing that a community has grown so large that many people don’t know each other, so setting up a members directory in response);
  • Support and perhaps facilitate dialogue around options, then advocate for a particular set of options among decision-makers, users and eventual implementers (IT staff).
  • Engage in a process of dialogue with decision-makers and ‘ordinary users’ that translates perceived needs, experiences and technology options back and forth between different parties.

It may be particularly advantageous for the technology stewardship function to be undertaken by a group of people where there are substantial differences within the community membership (e.g. field-based and head office staff), or where significant decisions are taken by senior and middle management elsewhere in the organisation hence recommendations must be robust and effective, drawing from diverse worldviews.

The Community’s IT Department?

Technology Stewards are not necessarily technical experts. Although they may perform routine administrative functions such as resetting passwords or performing data backups, it is likely that they will call on others with deeper technical skills for occasional tasks requiring specific technical expertise (such as reconfiguring a web server or installing new software). The technology steward is more helpfully seen as a broker – able to identify and understand needs and draw in technologists from outside the community as and when required. Sometimes there is also a need to negotiate with IT policy makers within an organisation whose decisions affect the technology environment available to a community.

Technology Stewardship is about technology and practice. It is distinct from traditional IT support because of the emphasis on an “insider perspective”. The technology steward has a deep understanding of the community they serve, typically though long term personal experience with the community’s ways of working. The technology steward has authenticity and authority, derived from being a member of the community, to see the potential fit between community aspirations and available technologies and guide the community in developing the practices needed to leverage its technology.

For more information see Digital Habitats