IT support. Communities of IT practice

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1 IT support Lecture note 7 for IT competence in organisations Jens Kaasbøll, Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, 2009 For most organisations, the IT is providing support to their core function. Correspondingly, the IT competence amongst users in an organisation would be of secondary importance to the competence needed for the core function of the organization In order to capture the competence and learning aspects when studying organisations, the concept of community of practice will be used. The introduction to this concept can be found in (Wenger, 2008). In short, a community of practice is a group of people working on a shared domain, sharing information and practice. Newcomers into the community get socialised by imitating its members, and also by getting punished or neglected if behaving in ways which are not acceptable in the community. Now and then, the members may also tell newcomers explicitly how to behave, but since parts of their practice may be of the tacit type, not talked about, members may not be able to give explicit advises in many cases. When a community of practice received a new member, it is mainly the newcomer who will have to adapt, while the community is less receptive for changing their practice. Communities of IT practice IT departments in non-it companies Larger companies or agencies often have an IT department where the staff is carrying out a mix of tasks in collaboration. Network administration and user support would normally be the two most time consuming ones, while procurement and application development could be other tasks. The idea of a community of practice is that people share a domain of interest, and we could say that the IT systems and their users in the organization is the domain of the IT department workers. They would normally share information about the technology and its users through random encounters in the corridors, lunch conversations, meetings, and documentation. Larger departments would also have a database for storing user requests and responses, where the IT department members can search for topics which they are unfamiliar with. In these ways they may develop the shared repertoire of cases, problems, software and users, implying that the large majority of such departments constitute a communities of practice. Also, we might find in larger departments that the support task is divided into a first line of user support at the front office and one or more levels at the back offices. When the front line cannot respond, they again requests specialists in the second line of support. IT companies Similar departments are found in software companies and at IT vendors. For these organisations, their customers will constitute their users. A newly established, small company might just have a flat structure, where all members do development and support, These would 1

2 function in a very similar manner as the IT department, and constitute a community of practice, where the software product constitutes the shared domain of interest. A big vendor, on the other hand, might have a call center in India with several hundred staff members, who serve customers worldwide. If they have the opportunity to communicate and exchange experience, they may also be a community of practice, where the users' requests and the corresponding responses constitute the shared domain. In between these extremes, there are many medium sized IT companies, where the user support is located in a department of a smaller size, such that the building of the community is simpler than in the huge call center case. An IT department in a non-it company would use the software and hardware vendors as their lifeline for support. Information officers Information officers are normally people of other professions than IT, but who have data management as their main responsibility. This could be accountants keeping the books, clerks doing data entry, statisticians producing reports, epidemiologists analysing data, surveyors measuring locations, or archivists storing and retrieving files. Having IT as their main tool for work, they often develop into highly skilled users. In larger organisations, there may be an accounting department, a central archive, or a management information systems group, each having a number of staff working closely together. They would then constitute communities of IS practice within their application area. However, such specialists can also be scattered around in an organization, leaving them little opportunities for developing into a community. In these cases, user forum meetings, e- mail groups, professional societies or the odd phone call may provide sufficient contact for their expertise to be shared and thrive. If they work in a place where there is also a community of IS practice in the same domain, like the accountancy department or the central archive, these communities would normally provide the support for the scattered individuals. Superusers Superusers are those people who have specific computer skills and have taken on the role of supporting their peers in an organization. Power users and local heroes are other terms for this role. Contrary to Information systems officers, superusers could have a primary domain of work completely remote from information or IT, for example nursing, driving, sales, sewing or farming They could therefore belong to two communities of practice; one on the IT side, and another on their primary domain. In order for superusers to constitute a community of IT practice, they would have to engage in activities where they meet and exchange experience specificly on their superuser activities and role. Almnes (2001) conducted a study of superusers amongst nursing home personnel in Norway, using qualitative interviews and logs of requests. The study showed that the feeling of belonging to a group is important for superusers, since their role is the only ones of its kind amongst those whom they meet daily. Further, the study concludes that in addition to meetings, lists, newsgroups and lists of frequently asked questions may also be advantageous. The organized group should also provide the necessary opportunities for the superusers to update their skills, whether new software or other updates necessitates it. 2

3 On the contents of their role, Almnes (2001) recommends that superusers should be involved in planning training. Training with examples based on the work tasks of the users make transfer from course to work more probable than context-free teaching. Superusers can provide the trainers with the necessary examples from the users daily work, and superusers should therefore be involved in planning of user training and of the support where they play the main roles themselves. In order to know what the users have learnt during their training, the superusers should also take part in ordinary user training. Communicating frequently with users, the superusers receive requests for changes of computer systems. They are in a good position to communicate these requests to the computer department or those in charge of the software and hardware. This aspect of their role should be used so that the requests from the users are taken into account. The meeting of superusers could also be an agenda for discussing and distilling such requests. The superusers could also act as communication link in the opposite direction. When systems updates occur or tools are replaced, the users need to be informed and trained in the altered functionality. The superusers could naturally take on this obligation, and provide small training sessions locally if needed. Finally, Almnes (2001) makes recommendations concerning the selection of superusers, their skills and responsibilities. The selection of people for the superuser role seems to be the most important issue for creating a well functioning support system. The superuser should be selected amongst the peers, so that she understands the problems that the users might have. She could preferably be one whom people often calls for assistance, which would guarantee that she is a caring person. Local managers should be avoided, since they are often too busy and not always available. In addition, people do not like to expose their misunderstandings to their boss. People who are unwilling to take on the role should also be avoided. They may behave hostile or less caring towards their peers, and if so, the users will soon stop consulting them. The superuser has to be more proficient in the computer system than those she is going to support. This seems self evident, but nevertheless, users with ordinary qualifications have been appointed superusers without having necessary skills or been given additional training. In addition to computer skills, the superuser also ought to have skills in guiding others. Helping others carrying out their tasks instead of pushing the buttons for them is a basic principle for guiding people who struggle with computer systems. The superuser should be given responsibility of the resources necessary for carrying out the role. The resources for sending users for training, is an obvious responsibility that should be attributed to the superuser. The superuser is the first person in the support chain. She should handle most of the normal requests dealing with use of the computer system, for which she has received special training. In addition, the superuser should be able to take care of user requests concerning the operating system and standard tools. Communities of non-it practice For the majority of IT users, the technology is a means to get work done, and not an aim in itself. They find IT problems annoying and prefer to spend their time on their primary tasks. Their shared domains of interests are therefore not IT or data, but any other work area, hence they may constitute communities of non-it practice. Correspondingly, the eventual learning 3

4 of IT use taking place in these communities will be of secondary importance to the learning of the main tasks. In a study of implementation of a company wide IT system, Boudreau and Robey (2005) found that most communities avoided the initial training programme, and when the software was implemented, the users found ways of avoiding using it. Rather than entering data, they got some groups of information officers to carry out the data entry. Later, some self-initiated superusers found out how to operate the new software, and this competence was spread in the communities as folk wisdom. In the end, most people used the system, after the communities had found workarounds and tweaks in order to get the system performing as needed. This competence was also spread throughout the relevant communities. The account of this story in Boudreau and Robey's paper is told through a theoretical lens of human agency. If we try to regard it with the ideas from communities of practice, the organisational change eventually took place due to the double role of the superusers, also being part of the non-it communities. Transient communities of IT-practice While most users are members of non-it practices, a few days IT training will have IT as its domain, and the course participants will socialise and chat with the trainers and each other on IT issues. A training session can then develop into a community of IT practice for a shorter period, so the participants can develop their competence there and then. After the training days, the participants return to their work, and this is when a couple of factors can be decisive as to whether their competence is spread in their community of non-it practice or forgotten. As with the newcomer, a single course participants has small chances of changing the practice of the rest of the community. However, if a small group of say three members have attended the training, they can keep their conversation on IT issues going, and slowly influence the other members as well. Another way in which the transient community established during the course could continue to exist, would be that more of the participants communicate through groups, meetings on IT issues or otherwise, so that they finally become members or a more stable community of IT-practice in addition to their main work, in the same was as a superuser is member of two communities. The selection of teachers in training courses could also ease the competence development in the long run. Having superusers, information officers and IT department staff co-teaching, would let the users know where the different specialty competencies are to be found, so that they could more easily know whom and where to ask when in need of support, and also the groups of expertise to stay in touch with for becoming a member of a more permanent community of IT-practice. The competence chain The general idea of the communities outlined above is that there is a chain of exchange of experience from the user to the supporters, trainers and developers, illustrated with the arrows pointing downwards in Illustration 1. 4

5 Users Training Information officers Superusers IT department IT company Illustration 1: The competence chain. Experience from users downwards, and IT competence for users upwards. References Almnes, T.C.C. (2001) Superbruker. Hvordan forbedre brukerstøtte of informasjonsflyt. Master thesis, Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, 2001 Boudreau, M.-C. and Robey, D. (2005) Enacting Integrated Information Technology: A Human Agency Perspective. Organization Science 16 (1), 3-18 Wenger, E. (2008) Communities of practice a brief introduction. Downloaded from 15 Sep

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