Automating human service expertise : the validation of knowledge-based expert systems in social work practice

Millea, Susan Elizabeth, 1956-
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This dissertation project addresses the question of whether the practice knowledge of social work can be effectively represented in a knowledge-based (expert system) computer application to assist in the direct delivery of services. It centers on the validation of formally represented practice knowledge in a computer. It involves a transfer of technology from computer science to professional social work practice. Not only is the application of this technology to social work practice new, but the methods for validating such systems are still emerging in computer science. Framed within a paradigm of developmental research, the study is exploratory in nature. It addresses the means by which such systems are tested and validated in practice. The theoretical tradition from which this study draws, and to which it contributes, is quite interdisciplinary. Its elements include such diverse areas of literature as social work, computer science, organizational behavior, business management and information services, the processes of technology transfer, and communication theory. A model for the validation-in-practice of complex innovations is developed which integrates these various elements. That model is then tested through its application to a case study in which an expert system is evaluated in the setting for which it was designed. The use of replicated small-scale studies integrating qualitative and quantitative measures of effectiveness has been found to be a very useful approach for establishing the validity of social work practice innovations. Applying this approach to the validation of a computer program suggests that the application is perceived as an innovation in social helping. Because the expert system captures both policy rules and knowledge about the processes of helping which can guide non-expert practitioners, this is fitting. Advances in information technology are providing new ways and opportunities for professional social workers to develop, scrutinize and critique practice knowledge, including additional means to monitor service outcomes. Effective use of the tool requires practitioners to be open to alternative analytical approaches to inquiry, and the development of some new skills to thoughtfully apply the technology to practice