Making Knowledge Work

February 8, 2010

Insights into information behaviours

Filed under: Uncategorized — virginiahenry @ 8:20 pm

We called LIKE 10 “Knowing me, knowing you: information behaviour & culture change”.  We wanted to get to know two very different professionals and see how their backgrounds, experiences and environments influenced their behaviours when accessing information and accruing knowledge.

Carol is the Director of Metataxis, which specialises in information management and architecture.  During her career she’s worked in the civil service and with local government. She’d started out as a Social Worker and for the evening, backed up by some current research (egs: / ), she slipped back into that role.

Liz was, until the end of last year, the Head of Information Management at Tube Lines.  While there she’d learned a lot about the Engineers and their information behaviours – and she drew on that knowledge (and some of the available research – eg:  in her adopted role of Engineer.

There were many differences between these individuals – Carol was motivated by a passion for social justice and a desire to help people, Liz had an affinity with things: fixing them, figuring out how they worked, coming up with ways to make them work better…..   Liz used technical language that was, relatively, universal.  Carol dealt in terms that were, inevitably, subject to a range of interpretations.

Interestingly, when it came to finding and recording information, they had a lot in common.  In short – the systems purportedly designed to assist them were more hindrance than help.

Liz explained that plans and drawing were supposed to be available through the ECM system.  But vast, full-colour CAD files were almost impossible to download.  So lots of important engineering documents were kept, by individuals, in more readily-accessible places.

Carol’s database was sometimes useful for finding case files, but more often that not additional, essential, paper records were kept off-site, and it took a couple of days to get hold of them.  In some cases a mass of records had been scanned into the system as one file – when it finally downloaded and was on the screen in front of you, it was impossible to make head or tail of it.

Both cited examples of searching for, and locating, records on their systems only to discover that the documents were out of date, or too long-winded, or too ‘general’ to be of any use.

Liz felt it was more important to know the author’s name than to study their drawing or manual. That way she could track the guy down and ask him what she needed to know.  Carol also preferred talking to a colleague from whom she’d inherited a case, rather than trying to decipher their handwriting or interpret unclear records.

With record-keeping it wasn’t only the systems, but the type of information, its timeliness, and the language in which it should be recorded that caused problems.   Both the Social Worker and the Engineer were keeping hand-written notes, and getting them transferred to their online systems was pretty hit-and-miss.

The underground work environment doesn’t lend itself to data entry.  There’s no connectivity, and a trial of the Toughbook had been abandoned, because Engineers felt vulnerable when they emerged from underground stations at 4.30am carrying such desirable pieces of kit.  So that left “scrawled notes on scruffy bits of paper” being handed over to the office staff, who’re then supposed to enter it into the database.
Noting work that had been done, and keeping plans and drawings up to date made sense to Liz, but it wasn’t a priority.   A sense of loyalty to her employers wasn’t going to influence her, as she didn’t trust their motives in asking for data.  For example, reporting “time on task” would give the bosses an idea of how long each job might take.  But they could be demanding that information because they wanted to cut her hours, or make her redundant.

Carol wasn’t reluctant to keep records – she recognised their importance – but how to keep them was an issue.  In the field, she relied on her notebook: she’d return to her car after visiting a client and write the visit up in her book.  The notes would go into the database as soon as feasible.  She tried to keep to the guidelines that “entries should be made no later than 5 working days from the contact, correspondence or meeting”, but memory can fade, and notes become less easy to decipher, during that time.  Experience and trial-and-error had taught her which terms to use and what to avoid in her note-taking.  She had been trained to use the new database, and much emphasis had been put on issues such as data protection, but she’d never been trained in methods for recording interviews and observations.

When she did update case files she felt that, too often, she was writing in coded, veiled language – trying to soften the meaning because she was thinking of her audience.

Carol wondered if other means of recording could be considered – whether audio, video, an amanuensis to accompany the social worker….  This prompted Liz to suggest Mission Impossible glasses.

The discussion broadened to include ideas and experiences from other LIKE members.  Karen Drury said it was inevitable that perceptions and explanations would differ among individuals, so it was important to have an agreed ‘norm’ against which things could be measured.  She suggested to Carol that a tool such as the Likert Scale might help to reflect degrees of subtlety and enable more focused discussion.

Matthew Rees thought KM 1.0 had failed because of the rush to write everything down – mistaking that for knowledge-sharing.  He shared Simon Carswell’s  view that web 2.0 and enterprise 2.0 got much closer to real knowledge-transfer: not just repositories of information, but people having conversations around that information, bringing it alive.

Noeleen Schenk had found that the person most likely to trust their organisation’s records or knowledge system was the individual who’d sponsored it!  In most of the places she’d worked the infrastructure didn’t support information exchange – largely because the costly and tedious groundwork of interfaces and pipelines had been neglected.

Geraldine Clement-Stoneham worked in an organisation that relied on the oral transfer of information, because they had no other systems in place.  During her first weeks there meetings had been set up for her with lots of people.  It worked well, particularly because she was able to revisit them a few months later when she was more familiar with the ‘local language’ and better able to make sense of what they told her.

Lucy Reid said in teams it was fine to ask, and to glean information that way.  But there were risks in not being able to record information – effectively being cut off from the flow of knowledge because you don’t know who to ask, or because those who know aren’t around to ask.

Culture came into the discussion – organisational culture (Karen referred to studies of oil platform workers – eg and peoples’ cultural backgrounds – common understanding and international standards are achievable in engineering, but in social work?

Liz’s mention of the ‘spycamera’ glasses reminded me of Vannevar Bush’s brilliant Memex device (though I think he’d envisaged stills rather than video recordings).  He outlined it, in 1945, in an essay called “As We May Think
At the end of the piece, he hopes that man(kind) can “reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.”

Our information behaviours show we haven’t quite cracked that one yet.  But maybe taxonomies can help create the common ground we need?  Next month, for LIKE’s first birthday, Fran Alexander will guide us through the landscape of the semantic web and explain how taxonomies can be our flexible friends.

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