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Webs of users and developers in the development process of a technical standard

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Issue: 
Spring 2010

Don Henshaw (AND)

Review: "Who are the users? Who are the developers? Webs of users and developers in the development process of a technical standard" by Florence Millerand and Karen Baker, published online in Information Systems Journal, Volume 20, Issue 2, pages 137-161, 24 July 2009, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2575.2009.00338.x

The authors describe the inherent complexity in developing technical standards for a scientific community, and highlight the development of the Ecological Metadata Language (EML) for the ecological research community as an empirical case study. Preconceived notions of the roles of the informatics specialists, site information managers, and scientists were transformed as the development process moved forward. Specifically, “the roles of user and developer emerge as dynamic webs of users and developers within the development process of a standard”. The authors dispel the simplistic view that ‘system developers’ and ‘system users’ are independent and homogeneous groups, and demonstrate how this boundary tends to blur when considering information system development. The role of the information manager is better represented through their emergent roles as both ‘co-users’ and ‘co-developers’. Three models are presented describing the development process, and the final Integrative Design Model represents “an understanding of the roles – multiple and evolving – that the actors played in practice”.

A few interesting nuggets paraphrased from the article:

The notion of local site ‘implementation’ of the standard is considered insufficient to describe the “redesign and redevelopment”, “readjusting of pre-existing practices”, or “adoption of new conventions” that actually occur. This implementation phase is termed ‘enactment’ as a process representing both “technical and organizational as well as social and political” dimensions.

The information managers “made visible and explicit the inherent difficulties in enacting the standard”. Their role in the “elaboration of the standards development process”, that is highlighted in this enactment stage, “holds potential benefit for other research communities” by contributing to “a better understanding and planning of such processes”.

“Delays and unexpected challenges” in the enactment of the EML standard “may perhaps be better understood as symptoms of collaborative work being in early phases of development”, misunderstandings of the new and multiple roles of actors, and the distribution of resources”.

And finally, “an overarching insight of this research is the benefit of interdisciplinary research bridging information systems and social science perspectives in a research action framework.”

This paper is timely in reminding the LTER and ecological community of the important lessons learned as we move forward with new standard development efforts.