News That We Can Use

The Internet is full of time-wasters, and repeated studies have pointed to the Internet’s negative impact on workplace efficiency. If employees want to do their online shopping during work hours or wile away the hours on YouTube or game playing, that’s not of much concern to our profession. But when I read that professionals are wasting vast numbers of hours searching for information I think “this is a job for academic librarians”. I came across this news at the Intranet Blog.

The Center for Media Research reports that professional workers are spending more and more time searching for information. The survey, HotTopics: 2001 vs. 2005: Research Study Reveals Dramatic Changes Among Information Consumers, commissioned by Outsell, reveals that professionals on average spend 11 hours per week gathering information – up from 8 hours per week in 2001. The study further reports that today’s professionals spend 53 percent of their time seeking out information. Collectively, the time spent gathering and looking for information translates to an estimated 5.4 billion lost hours per year for US corporations. I just love this sentence by Toby Ward, author of the post:

The trend underscores a long held and regularly repeated belief that our ability to create information has outstripped our ability to accurately find and effectively use this information.

Ward goes on to point out that one of the reasons for the increase in lost time searching is that Internet search engines provide “inaccurate and irrelevant search results [that] continually defeat users performing search queries”. As someone who watches college students using search engines I’d have to add that searchers defeat themselves by relying on poorly conceived searches, failing to use more than one engine, and ignoring advanced features that could eliminate inaccurate results. In other words, isn’t this a problem that could be addressed or relieved with some good old user education. Of course, in the Age of User Experience people do not have time or refuse to bother to learn something that might help them actually save time. That’s why the study also found that “when seeking information fewer now prefer to get it themselves (51% down from 68%)”. Interesting, but probably too soon to conclude that the self-service trend is about to end.

So what can academic librarians do with this sort of data? For one thing we could use it to develop support within our institutions for better equipping our students with research skills that will enhance their workplace productivity – which in turn makes our graduates look better to their employers. We could also bring this information to the attention of students who are wondering why they should bother to learn anything about improving the quality of their search skills. Can you say “competitive workplace advantage”? One new piece of data or one more study alone won’t create earth shattering change within our user education programs. But it behooves academic librarians to find and leverage new studies that support the case we make for information literacy as a valued part of a college education. It’s not just about being a better student or more engaged in one’s own learning, but there may also be tangible benefits for our graduates if we send them into the job market with highly productive research skills.

3 thoughts on “News That We Can Use”

  1. An alternative explanation, more consistent with Herbert Simon’s concept of the importance of the cost of information, is that people are gathering and using more information than they previously did for the same decisions.

    Before the Web, information was more expensive in the economic sense. One had to accumulate and pay for one’s own archive or physically go to where the information was located. Both were costly, time consuming, and energy consuming. The tendency, therefore, was to make decisions by intuition and experience – by the seat of one’s pants. Now information is available at one’s desk in near-real-time, often free of marginal cost. It is hardly surprising that people exploit cheaper and more convenient information for decision-making, and commit more of their time to gathering information.

    There are certainly problems with poor search skills, ignorance of sources, and inability to discriminate among sources as to quality. However, the statistic cited above can be more easily explained by the change in the economics of information caused by the increasing pervasiveness of the Internet. Improved access to information improves productivity and decision-making effectiveness.

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