Community manager musings is a series of occasional posts looking at the roles and skills of community managers – usually within science.
As we’ve been exploring on this blog, community managers can exist in different types of communities within science, and their role can have a variety of names, depending on what they’re doing and what kind of organisation they’re working for. In my latest reading I’ve been learning about the role of the technology steward – a term coined by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D.Smith and described in their 2009 book, “Digital Habitats.”
Their description states that a technology steward…
“…adopts a community’s perspective to help a community choose, configure and use technologies to best serve its needs. Tech stewards attend both to what happens spontaneously and what can happen purposefully, by plan and by cultivation of insights into what actually works.”
Five activities of tech stewards
Wenger et al., outline what they call five streams of activity of tech stewards:
- Understanding the community
- What’s the community doing regularly e.g. live chats, collecting documents, authoring new materials – and what are the technical requirements to do these activities?
- Awareness of technology
- Tech stewards are likely early adopters, or at least curious about the tools landscape. They may hear about a new social media site, or learn about a new archiving tool and quickly assess whether it’s worth further investigation for their community’s needs. Or they may see how they community is evolving and recognise the need for implementation of an existing tool such as a wiki or document sharing tool to aid the community’s progress.
- Selection and installation
- This may involve gathering community feedback about various options available for a new feature or platform, or describing to technical teams possible customisation or implementation requirements.
- Adoption and transition
- This is the strategic communications part of introducing new tools or migrating platforms. The tech steward ensures community members are up-to-date with what’s coming when – providing updates, training opportunities, materials and more, depending on the community needs.
- Everyday use – including tech support
- Once a tool is part of everyday use in a community the tech steward may perform any number of tasks from installing updates, performing backups and providing tech support with lost passwords and login difficulties. In additional to some basic technical skills these require interpersonal skills such as listening and teaching.
Thinking about the role of tech stewards
Tech stewards bring an insider perspective to use of tech by a community
By contrast to an IT department or even a platform vendor, a technical community manager or community steward likely belongs to the community that’s using the technology and thus has everyday experience of how it is being used by community members. They might not have technological expertise such as the ability to code or heavily customise new products, but they do have valuable knowledge about how tools are being used within their specific domain. Furthermore, as a community member, they’ll likely have an earned legitimacy that can lead to more constructive feedback and a smoother path forward in adapting or migrating their online tools. This can be especially key for a scientific manager working for an association or halo organisation that uses an online platform for its community interactions.
Stewarding may occur within, across or outside organisations.
Within an organisation, a steward might negotiate with IT for access to resources for the community, and may take on what we consider the community management role of brokering relationships between the community and the host organisation – if the community is an external one. This could include training internal staff in how to use the community platform to interact with community members, as well as relaying user feedback.
When stewarding occurs outside of organisational boundaries – such as faculty meeting to discuss curriculum development – the steward’s role can involve selecting and shepherding the adoption of the tools and creating an appropriate community space within which interactions can happen a.k.a. “cobbling together a toolkit”. This can bring a different set of challenges to a single online platform – such as coordinating multiple logins and permissions and negotiating workflows. Depending on the nature of the community, they may also look for opportunities to connect with existing networks – such as disseminating community outputs or publicising events on social media platforms.
Further reflections for scientific community managers
A core competency of some community managers, not a role by itself?
The C3 project team of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program created a skills wheel of five core competencies shown by scientific community managers, based on analysis of the job description of these roles (manuscript in preparation). One of those five competencies covers “technical” skills and includes product management and technical support. Based on observations to date, this competency is not always included in community engagement roles – for example, where a collaboration is based primarily on in-person interactions and supplemented by email. Therefore technology stewardship may be considered part of some community professionals’ role – such as those running member engagement platforms for professional associations – but absent in others.
Addressing the product management gap
Within an organisation, a community manager with a high level of technical involvement can also be called a product manager or be performing some core product management functions. This is not without challenges. Namely, if a community professional has a scientific background they may not have any product management training and this may need to provided on the job or via short courses in-house or off-site.
Perhaps a community management certification program would include an optional module that explicitly addresses the tech stewarding requirement for some community roles. This might include some quick overviews of product management terms and practices.