Social Work in the 21st Century by Dr. Nancy Smyth Part of @SWSCmedia #WSWDay Series

425d7f81351a2c0e0115a1ff0d8b2a95_biggerLast week one of our social work alums, I’ll call her Sally, described her challenges in caring for an aging parent across a distance: she and her brother (who live in different communities) went through five different social workers before they could find one who could provide them with what they needed. All of the social workers were skilled aging care managers. All of them lived in a major metropolitan area. And only one was able to provide them with what they needed: continual, up-to-date communication on their dad’s appointments, medication doses, and his ongoing treatment compliance. They weren’t asking the social workers to make moment-by-moment phone calls. They were simply asking them to put the information (that the social worker had) into a Google document, so that Sally and her brother would know what was going on and could then respond to their father’s calls knowledgeably. That’s it—that’s what they needed that most of the social workers couldn’t provide. Sally shared this example to emphasize that she didn’t think social workers could practice competently in the 21st century without also understanding how to use technology. Perron and colleagues (2011), and many more of us, would agree.

The conversation motivated me to think again about the skills that I think are needed for effective social work practice in the 21st century. Our profession has many skills which can address the challenges facing society in this century: working with diverse populations; understanding the interaction between people and their environments, including the influence of organizations, communities and social policies; and working with individuals, groups, families, organizations, communities, as well as the larger society –to name only a few. But what skills do we need in order to add technology to our tool box? It’s not enough to be able to turn these devices on. We need to be able to use them, where appropriate, in all aspects of our work.

Perron and colleagues have examined how Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) come into play in the Code of Ethics of National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the major social work professional organization in the United States. For example, they discuss that “recognition of the central importance of human relationships” requires an understanding of how technology now often mediates relationships, as well as how it is sometimes used to form relationships.

While it’s helpful to think about ICTs in terms of our ethical codes, and in terms of developing a new body of knowledge about human behavior and the impact of technology, I think it’s also helpful to take a broader view of the impact of these ICTs and the skills needed to utilize them. Howard Rheingold, coining the term “digital literacies”, has identified five that are essential for all citizens of our digital age (Rheingold, 2012):

  • Attention: how to cultivate mindfulness and maintain your focus in contexts that place multiple, competing demands on attention;
  • Crap Detection:  finding and evaluating the quality of the content that you discover;
  • Participation: using one’s online presence and online resources to accomplish a range of goals, for example, finding jobs, selling services, and curating/creating valuable content for others;
  • Collaboration: how to work with others online to create shared projects/knowledge around some common goal. I think of it as community organizing online;
  • Utilizing Networks Effectively (“Network Smarts”): establishing and maintaining robust, trustworthy connections with small and large numbers of people (depending upon the task) to stay informed (cultivate a “Personal Learning Network”) and accomplish your life/work goals;

Clearly these skills aren’t unique to online environments: I submit that social workers are especially strong in most of these skills in the offline world. But transferring these skills online requires additional knowledge and experience. Rheingold has down a wonderful job of integrating the research and practice on each of these skills as they apply to the online world—if I had a magic wand I would make this book required reading for our whole profession.

So let me end with the beginning: Sally. It seems to me that Sally’s social workers lacked digital literacy in participation, as well as “network smarts.” The beauty of having the latter is that you don’t have to know everything; you just have to have an effective network to reach out to when you don’t know what to do (note: a great example of this is illustrated in Extending Your Professional Consultation Network with Social Media: How It Saved a Life). As a result of not having these skills, these social workers were unable to meet their clients’ needs. Sally is just an example of a situation where these literacies were relevant; I could come up with many more (e.g., Top Ten Reasons For Social Workers to be Web 2.0 Literate).

As we celebrate International Social Work Day, I am holding a vision of our profession as one that can meet the challenges of the 21st century. We have most of the skills needed to do that – we just need to learn how to bring them into this century so we can respond fully to the needs of our current world, as well as help to build a future.

Dr. Nancy Smyth (@njsmyth) is Professor and Dean of School of Social Work at University at Buffalo and Affiliated Research Scientist at Research Institute on Addictions. She is also a member of @SWSCmedia Expert Panel. Join us @SWSCmedia for a live World Social Work Day Twitter Chat on Tuesday (19 March 2013) 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM DST. Hashtag #SWSCmedia

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