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Late Adapters? How Social Workers Acquire Knowledge and Skills About Technology Tools

Posted on:
December 12, 2019

Little is understood about the scope of information and communication technology (ICT) use in practice for agency- based social work professionals, and still less is known about how such practitioners acquire and avail themselves of opportunities to learn about ICT tools. This study asked a sample of social work field supervisors to describe their personal and professional ICT use, to rank the technological sophistication of their agency, to describe the barriers and facilitators to ICT use in their organizations and to operationalize environmental opportunities for acquiring new skills and knowledge.

The authors examine factors that may influence technology use: asking if organizational culture is related to uptake in the professional context, and if self-reported individual resistance to innovation and change can explain voluntary adoption of ICT tools. The results offer a portrait of how agency-based social workers are using technology in personal and professional life, describe how these supervisors learn about developing technologies for practice, and highlight the gaps in technology infrastructures among agencies, pointing to directions for further exploration.

Findings

The findings suggest that nearly all respondents are regularly conversant with more than one technology, refuting the narrative that social workers are techno-luddites.

These findings present a snapshot of U.S. agency-based social work practice with respect to technology usage, challenging the simple notion that social workers are inherently suspicious of technology, and that agencies are universally behind the curve on technology adoption. While social worker supervi-sors may not be informed assessors, few define themselves as resistant to using technology, most are embracing technology in a context of personal choice, and a majority (64%) define their agencies as “operating” or “leading” in the context of technology adoption.

The pattern of professional technology use by social workers described here is, at least in part, determined by the agencies in which they work: individual usage reflects an organization’s emphasis on and ability to commit resources to the project of incorporating technology. Indeed, our results document that an agency’s profile of technology uptake is highly correlated with a supervi-sor’s use of ICTs: showing a significant difference in professional technology use between social workers working in agencies which they characterize as “leading” and their counterparts who characterize their agencies as “nonleading.” This challenges hypotheses that attempt to locate resistance to technology within the individual, and supports research like that of Stam, Stanton, and Guzman (2004) and Venkatesh and colleagues (2003), which aims to add the variable of context to describing the infusion of technology into the individual routines that ultimately characterize the implementation of organizational goals.

However, the portion of the study dedicated to describing ongoing professional learning yields the finding that only a small percentage of respondents sought out opportunities to learn more about technology for professional use. Most participants received continuing education about technology only as it was provided by their agency.

f, as described here, agency-driven professional development is the primary conduit for creating awareness of the potential of technology to enhance practice, then this should become a site for the energetic infusion of information and innovation. Others have suggested elsewhere that effective introduction of technology into social service will require that new technologies be articulated in the terms of the elemental values that inspire social work: relationship, advancement of mission, and the imperative of client benefit (Kreuger & Stretch, 2000; Zhang & Gutierrez, 2007).

Ultimately, these results invite research to query the assumption that underlies the imperative to infuse technology into social work practice: that technology-enabled social work is an ethical imperative because it serves clients better. If professionals in leading technology agencies use more technology, do they offer more effective services? This question is unanswered here, and should inspire debate.

Conclusion

This research yields a snapshot of technology adoption by social work super-visors working primarily in the area of mental health in a metropolitan area of the northeastern United States. While specific in scope, the study shows that the majority of these professionals define their agency setting as technologi-cally functional, though few identify theirs as leading. They use technology in their personal lives, and use it to communicate and to enhance workflow in the workplace. Few among respondents sought to expand their relevant professional knowledge about technology. The research suggests that the areas of agency-sponsored professional development, client facing technology interventions, and the dissemination of practices out of leading technology agencies may be particularly potent locations for intervention in the service of accelerating the adoption of technology across the field of social work.

Summary

The authors examine factors that may influence technology use: asking if organizational culture is related to uptake in the professional context, and if self-reported individual resistance to innovation and change can explain voluntary adoption of ICT tools.
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