The art and practice of Technology Stewardship is about selecting, configuring and helping people to use the tools that enable members of an online community to meet and learn together. It is part of the responsibility of community leadership and is typically undertaken alongside facilitation and other leadership tasks. Few communities have dedicated Technology Stewards though it could be defined as a distinct role.
The following key ideas and good practices arise from discussion among members of KM4Dev who formed a “Community Technology Learning Lab” in June and July 2012 to reflect on their own experience and practice of technology stewardship in development. The new terminology associated with this craft may intially seem offputting but we hope it will ultimately prove helpful. Most significantly, we noted that technology stewardship is mostly about looking after the health of a community or network - it is certainly not about being a technology expert.
We invite others to update and edit the text so that it may continue to evolve as a useful community resource.
Nurturing and supporting an online community is challenging, but choosing the right tools is probably not the most significant factor affecting the success of your community. Technology enables you to do things that would not otherwise be possible but groups can succeed in a non-ideal environment. Most communities “meet” using tools that are provided for them by others, with little opportunity for the group members to influence the selection of tools. In such circumstances, the community leaders may spend a lot of time and effort liaising with their corporate IT department and other decision-makers to ensure that the needs of the community are properly understood.
The technology landscape
There are many tools available for online communities – from basic email lists or internet telephony services to fully integrated packages with file sharing, wiki pages, membership directory, group calendar etc. It is helpful to unravel this complexity by looking at some different layers:
Activities: What members of the community do to collaborate and learn together (eg. asynchronous discussion) Features: The specific technical capabilities people actually use to support their activities (eg. email distribution) Tools: Products that provide the features needed community activities (e.g. mailing list system) Platforms: Bundles of tools that are designed to work together (e.g. DGroups includes an email list, members directory, online message archive, calendar, library, security and access controls). Configuration: The entire set of tools that enable a community to “be”.
It is rare for a community to use only one platform. Even if you think you have an all-encompassing software system, it is likely that some aspects of the community members’ ability to learn together will be facilitated, for example, by back-channel communications (e.g., phone or face-to-face) outside the scope of your all-encompassing product.
Directory of Community Tools
Members of KM4Dev are collaborating with CPSquare’s Technology for Communities project to list tools for collaboration and learning with information about their applicability in different circumstances.
Working with multiple non-integrated tools
Trying to use many different tools can be a significant challenge as community members struggle with a variety of URLs and different log-ins. One suggested approach is for different people to be responsible for leadership on each platform. The reality is that this can also lead to fragmentation of the community with subtly different behavioural norms evolving on different platforms as well as parallel threads of discussion on similar topics.
Understanding your community
Does your community need a mailing list, a wiki or a blog? Introducing a new tool will affect the social dynamics – positively or negatively. Most community leaders have an implicit sense of what their community needs but it can also help to work through the potential impact in a structured way to decide whether any further actions are needed to keep the community dynamics in balance (or to confirm the likelihood of a deliberate shift).
The Community Orientation Spidergram is helpful in analysing a community’s main learning activities. Each community is unique and it’s unlikely that you have an equal emphasis on all ways of working. This helps to identify what kinds of tools you might need most.
"Dimensions of Community Life" is another way of analysing and understanding community dynamics.
A checklist is available to help community leaders examine how well their current technology configuration meets the needs of your community.
Moving to a different platform
The most likely reasons for moving to a new platform are because the old platform is no longer supported or because community leaders want access to features not available on the old platform (e.g. search). A small and mature community may be ready for the change but in other cases there will be challenges and it is likely some members will be lost along the way.
The following web resources are interesting and helpful. See also CTLab: Background Reading & Other Resources
- Digital Habitat book and website - Technology has changed what it means for communities to “be together.” Digital tools are now part of most communities’ habitats. This book develops a new literacy and language to describe the practice of stewarding technology for communities. Written by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith, the book brings together conceptual thinking, case studies and offers a guide for understanding how technology can help a community do what it wants to do. It gives a glimpse into the future as community and technology continue to affect and influence each other.
- Technology for Communities Project: A companion to the “Digital Habitats” book and website. This wiki seeks to describe tools that are used by communities of practice, explain how they function from a community perspective, and suggest why a community might select that tool, given its orientation and activities. The pages attempt to define each tool, describe relevant features, the tool's uses in a community of practice, how the polarities can show up, give examples, and point to resources.
- Community Technology Learning Lab email group: A subgroup of KM4Dev to reflect on experiences in the identification and use of technologies to support collaboration and learning in networks and communities.
- Technology For KM4DeV: A room to discuss lessons learned and practical advices on how to choose and use the available technologies..
- on p. 59-60 of Mizuko Ito, et al.'s Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), the idea of a 'techne-mentor' closely resembles a technology steward in the every-day-lives of college students.