Understanding Information Behavior in Your Organization
Although I claim to be an information scientist, in reality I am an information practitioner.
Like many intranet, search and knowledge managers, my work entails closely observing a client’s particular challenges and then finding the generic approach that might offer the solution to their specific problems.
My original training as a chemist leads me to ask why certain approaches to information management seem to work when others fail: Could information have a Grand Unified Theory along the lines of current research in particle physics?
A Unified Theory of Information
It does, though the person who uncovered it may not claim so.
For some years now Professor Chun Wei Choo at the University of Toronto has studied how organizations manage information and knowledge.
An engineer by training, Choo has combined his experience as a senior manager with his expertise in information science in a new book, “The Inquiring Organization – How Organizations Acquire Knowledge and Seek Information.”
Choo devotes part two of the book to organizational information behavior. Of the many models of information behavior, Choo selected those by Carol Kuhlthau, Brenda Dervin and Tom Wilson to examine in considerable detail.
He also considers Robert Taylor’s 1991 work on a taxonomy of eight categories of information use, an approach I’ve found very useful in building use cases for intranets and search applications. That Taylor identifies eight categories for information use — some of which overlap with others — is a good indicator of the challenges organizations face in delivering the optimum blend of search and information architecture (browse).
None of this work is especially new, but as far as I am aware Choo brings it together for the first time (though a Nigel Ford book provides a good introduction to information behaviors).
Melding Information Management and Knowledge Management
The book also integrates information management and knowledge management.
Historically, people viewed these as independent of each other, if only because of the DIKW triangle in which knowledge is placed above information. Choo looks at knowledge from the viewpoint of organizational learning, which calls into question how we determine what is meant by ‘expertise.’
This topic is usually relegated to a technology issue (especially in the case of Microsoft), when in reality we all face important issues about how to evaluate expertise. The book also offers insights into how web search engines, Wikipedia, blogs, big data and online communities support information and knowledge exchange within an organization.
Search Managers: Read This Book
A diagram towards the end of the book shows three interlinked triangles which set out the components of information needs, information seeking and information use. Together they represent a coherent model of organizational information behavior.
Information seeking is more than just “search,” but search is a very important component.
Search managers often reduce search to the user experience — the information seeking — from the point of entering a query to presenting a list of relevant documents. Rarely do we consider the context within which the user is searching for information and knowledge — the information needs — and perhaps even more importantly, what actions the user will take after the search session — the information use.
Search managers would do well to use this powerful model when making a business case for investment not just into search technology, but the team to support information seeking in the wider sense.
Challenging Information and Knowledge Assumptions
Choo also makes the point that information behavior is rooted in the attitudes, assumptions and values the organization holds about the role and contribution of information to organizational effectiveness. These are never documented and will vary widely across the organization.
This is why the search team needs the mandate and resources to wander around the organization to judge to what extent result, compliance, relationship and risk taking cultures influence information seeking behaviors.
Choo’s book isn’t an easy read. It will challenge many of the perceptions you have about information and knowledge, and how they should be managed. A number of extended case studies offer invaluable insight into how the principles included in the book work in practice.
I recommend search managers buy three copies of this book, and give one to the knowledge team and one to the intranet team. The outcomes of a meeting with all three teams could transform your organization.
DIKW Pyramid CC BY SA 4.0 by longlivetheux
Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus, Ltd. and is based in Horsham, UK. An information scientist by profession, he has been involved in information retrieval and search for nearly four decades as a consultant, author and columnist.