“Communities of practice” (CoP) is a concept developed by Etienne Wenger and Nancy White and their collaborators; the idea has influenced organizational researchers and planners for more than a decade (Wenger 1999). Each CoP is defined by a group of practitioners who share a common field of endeavor and who also share a collection of practices to accomplish the endeavor. CoP’s emerge when a group of individuals gather to share expertise to solve their common problems. While not originally intended as a model to promote interaction in ICT-related fields, several strong connections between CoP and information technology have emerged.
In an example of a technological exaptation, Wegner, White, and Smith (2009) described the reflexive relationships between CoP and information technology; CoP’s have created useful technology and CoP’s have formed using technology that would not have formed otherwise. They observed that technology tools had enabled CoP to form in previously unconnected populations; in particular CoP that are small and widely dispersed and in which efficient communication was not previously possible formed in virtual spaces. Many technology tools have been developed by CoP’s, even if the members were unaware of that model of collaborating. The examples of technology-based CoP that have produced highly functional ICT include the programmers who created the Internet protocols as well as the global group of editors who contribute to Wikipedia.
Wegner, White and Smith (2009) also described technology stewards as a role that has emerged in communities of practice that use ICT. Technology stewards are neither the technologists who are responsible for technology infrastructure, nor are they the practitioners who use infrastructure provided by the technologists to accomplish the goals of the CoP. Technology stewards are leaders who discover, invent, and share the practices through which the ICT can be used to accomplish the logistic and strategic goals of the CoP. Typically these leaders come from within the membership of a CoP, and they are deeply familiar with goals and work necessary for the community, and they seek technology that meets those goals and supports that work. Wenger, White and Smith observed, “Tech stewards attend both to what happens spontaneously and what can happen purposefully, by plan and by cultivation of insights into what actually works” (24). Further, technology stewards are empowered with more than just cursory decision-making authority; they understand the social systems of the CoP and the information technology that supports action within that social system and decision makers trust their assessments.
A key aspect of technology stewardship in curriculum and instruction is the emergence of the technology steward from the population of teachers. Cuban (1986) observed that administrators’ directives to teachers to use radio, movies, and television were not followed because those leaders did not recognize and address important barriers to implementing the technologies in classrooms. Jeyaraj and Sabherwal (2008) argued that initiatives designed to increase the use of ICT in a diverse range of organizations were more successful if the effort originated with the users and their efforts to find tools to facilitate their work. When ICT use is mandated by management, Jeyaraj and Sabherwal concluded adoption is inhibited as users adopt a passive stance and they use the ICT only as mandated and not for other useful purposes. Because of the technology steward’s knowledge of and experience within the CoP, members trust their assessments.
Functions of Stewards
Scholars and other observers recognize that technology adoption within an organization typically occurs in a linear manner, proceeding from the moment decision-makers first become aware a relevant technology exists and continuing through implementation until the technology is embedded in the day-to-day functioning of the organizations. Technology stewards play a role in each of five streams of activity.
Technology stewards must be completely familiar with the purposes and the operations of the organization; they know what the members want to do and how they do it. It is within the context of what the organization does and how it does it that a technology steward perceives and interprets the role of technology, and the usefulness and ease of use of technology. In terms used by hermeneutic researchers, the technology steward will interpret the usefulness and usability of any technology in light of his or her understanding of the community.
It has been established that in the 21st century ICT evolves rapidly as the industry pushes new devices into the market and as the market pulls new devices from the industry. Technology stewards pay attention to the evolving collection of devices on the market with an eye to discover those that meet the strategic and logistic goals of the community, and they share those discoveries with the community.
Selection and Installation
The selection of ICT can be a wicked problem for a community as the evolving collection of tools is likely to contain (at any moment) tools that may be “good enough” for the community’s purposes and others that are not yet sufficiently developed or that are too complex for a given community to be useful. Technology stewards also have the responsibility of judging which of the available technologies are sufficient to meet the needs and the skills of a particular community.
Adoption and Transition
Technology stewards help technicians to select and install ICT that will meet the needs of the CoP; these become the tools the technology steward helps members adopt. Technology stewards also help to the CoP adapts to the technology. Further the technology steward helps the CoP exapt the technology—to develop unexpected uses of technology or changes in the CoP that can be facilitated with technology that were not possible or that were unforeseen prior to the technology arriving. These are reflexive activities, and so are also continuously reinvented.
The final stream of activity of technology stewards is to facilitate the work of embedding the ICT-mediated practices into the the normal operations of the CoP. When this process is facilitated by technology stewards rather than imposed by leaders or inefficiently discovered by members, Wenger, White, and Smith (2009) suggested the ICT becomes part of the culture of the organization and the practices are more sustained. ICT becomes transparent to the members, and will be perceived as natural in the operation of the organization in the way that adolescents’ develop a sense of natural technology.
Wenger, Etienne. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Wenger, Etienne, Nancy White, and John Smith. (2009). Digital Habitats; Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.