Nardi & O’Day – Information Ecology & Homegrown Experts

In Nardi and O’Day’s (1999/2000) Chapter 9 discussion, they discuss cultivating “gardeners”. I can’t help but immediately comment that while I may not have seen metaphorical fireworks when the authors used “system” in Chapter 3, their use of “gardener” was quite the metaphor.  A term borrowed from Computer Aided Designer (CAD), “gardener” serves as an exemplar metaphor for those “homegrown” experts in a workplace (p. 139). The experts who can “…translate concepts and mechanisms back and forth between the domain of the work and technology itself” (p. 141).

The authors discuss several studies including the spreadsheet study and the CAD study looking at the emergence of experts who function as the consultants, fixers, and troubleshooters, each having a different expertise and/or a different skill level. The experts or “gardeners” are involved naturally in the workflow training and (in my view) serving as a mesh of sorts that holds it all together. The exception are those individuals who have the skill to help others with technological software/hardware problems, but they are not naturally drawn toward helping co-workers (p. 150).

In one of the interviews in this chapter, a coworker names another coworker as a person who “would be good for this” (p. 144) meaning that he was the “gardener” or expert in that specific area of need. This same phenomenon takes place in the local community college. Helping to connect others (in this case, co-workers) successfully to a tool is just one important part of a workplace ecology and an important one. 

Chapter 9 hits close to home. About a year ago, one of the head IT people asked for volunteers to assist other co-workers with a variety of software tools ranging from online textbooks to setting up Blackboard courses at the college. The list has 30 + names on it, and each person had a skill in the assigned area. I’m on the list for ADA compliance as I have a knack for being able to set up ADA compliant documents and can find errors in documents when it may be difficult for someone else to find the problem. Before other instructors at the college were required to build ADA compliant documents, I began learning and using them in my courses. I am able and willing to help others set the documents up and help them find any issues. Since compliance is required, it’s a handy skill to have.

If, however, you came to me and told me that you needed help with the Cengage Mindtap online textbook software (i.e. resetting due dates, counting the highest score, or changing points), I would strain to find the answer and probably would not ever find the ideal answer. Instead, I would say, “(fill in the name) can help with that.” I might also check the handy-dandy list of “gardeners” to get just the right one for you.

I only need look around to find experts at the school I currently work for; the “gardeners” that help us all function and grow. They are all around me and usually eager to assist. In essence, the “gardeners” are the mesh that holds us together. Our college uses Blackboard, Peoplesoft, Cengage Mindtap, recording software, and many other technology tools. Over time, the designated experts at our college have done internal training events to assist instructors and have fixed issues (some simple like finding the knob to turn on music at registration events – it’s more difficult than it sounds). Having a great team that depends on one another for support in a wide range of areas promotes a sense of unity and ensures that not everyone has to be an expert at everything – each person has a skill to share.

References

Nardi, B., & O’Day, V. Information Ecologies: Technology with Heart, 5th Edition (1999/2000). Boston, MA: MIT Press.

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