Guest post by Professor Ian Ruthven, co-editor of Information at Work: Information management in the workplace
We live in a society characterized by quick technological developments and rapid processes of change. Technological developments have automated processes that used to be done by manual labour whilst new professions and work tasks have emerged. Earlier generations were accustomed to life-long positions in the same company. Nowadays people search for work opportunities in a global market, experience more frequent career changes, must learn new skills throughout their careers and manage the increasingly fluid boundaries between work life and home life. Even our work environments have changed: as Alvin Toffler’s metaphor of the ‘paperless offices’ from 50 years ago is now being realized, we are starting to move into the state of ‘peopleless offices’ in which work is conducted in digital rather than physical spaces. Many workplaces are already now hybrid digital/physical spaces where the work activities addressed, tools utilized and information consumed are the same no matter if engaged in the office or at home.
Rapid changes to information infrastructures are also changing the nature of work forcing a reinvention of old practices and the creation of new ones. For example, bloggers and online newspapers are now as influential as traditional journalism; social media is now a key means of interacting with customers instead of direct marketing; many services such as banking, home-buying, booking travel and commerce are now primarily online activities created by experts in digital environments rather than experts in built environments; government services are increasingly online services, etc. The vast amount of Internet information means that even traditional information experts such as doctors are taking on larger roles in explaining information rather than providing information. There is hardly a discipline or area of work that is not touched by new technology.
More data, more information, more work
The relatively inexpensive information storage available now means organizations can capture massive amounts of data which can be mined to provide more robust decision-making about managing cities, predicting demographic changes, tailoring marketing campaigns or managing simple performance. How this information is stored, organized, classified, shared and secured are classic information management concerns which need new proven solutions. Many organizations are moving towards cloud services forcing hard discussions about which information to store, where it is stored, and who has access rights to this information.
This change in how we store, manage and make available information is set against a fluid background of changing legislation surrounding what organizations can and cannot do with information. Rights to access information, rights to information privacy, rights to data protection, and other assorted information laws vary locally, nationally, and internationally resulting in a complex and shifting network of laws, policies and guidelines that institutions must create systems and practices to manage. The role of information is essential in all these processes, as a resource for learning, managing change, developing and running processes and creating professional networks.
The information revolution within our workplaces calls for a new examination of information, information technology and information practices within the modern workplace. There is no single framework nor epistemological perspective that single-handedly explains the entire phenomena of workplace information, but rather the different work situations are made of aggregations where information plays in from several perspectives.
How to study the work place from an information perspective?
This richness of views on workplace information leads to different understandings of information-related activities, such as information need, information management, information sources, information sharing, information production, information storing, information retrieval, information searching/seeking, information valuing, and information use. Some of these concepts have been discussed since the beginning of workplace information studies, while others are new concepts coming from the latest trends and developments in workplace information environments. The richness of approaches and varying meanings for concepts can create deep understandings but also conceptual confusion.
One of the motivations for our new book Information at Work is that such themes and concepts are often considered separately, by distinct groupings of scholars, and appearing in venues that offer little interaction between these topics. This, in part, comes from the perspective taken by individual authors – our disciplinary backgrounds bring their own theories, models and ways of looking at the world and, hence, different ways of approaching the study of information in the workplace. These different approaches can focus on different objects of study (environments, systems, tasks, objects, practices etc.), some of which are more amenable to certain theories and ways of doing research than others. Each perspective is valuable in highlighting different aspects of what it means to study workplace information. Bringing these perspectives together in one text we hope will show the diversity in this rich area of study and promote new discussions on how we can appreciate these perspectives to create new ways of investigating and understanding different phenomena within the field of workplace information.
Our aim in this book is to present the full spectrum of workplace information research, flowing from contributions on the nature of work when viewed from an Information Science perspective, through considerations of the social and cultural environments in which we work, to issues of managing our work and the information we need to do work, to discussions of the information artefacts and properties of those artefacts that enable us to ‘work’ with information to complete our ‘work’.
As information professionals, how often do we consider whether our workplace information environments are working for us?
Ian Ruthven is a Professor of Information Seeking and Retrieval at the University of Strathclyde. He published over 100 articles in the areas of interactive information retrieval and information seeking and edited two collections: Interactive Information Seeking, Behaviour and Retrieval (with Diane Kelly) and Cultural Heritage Information Access and Management (with Gobinda Chowdhury).