Are You Informationally Fit?


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Back when I was in elementary and high school, physical education classes were mandatory. We spent an hour a day, five days a week, sweating and attempting to develop some semblance of hand-eye coordination and aerobic fitness. It wasn't always fun—I still break out in hives at the thought of kickball—but it did ensure that we all had at least a minimal level of conditioning. Now, PE has become a once- or twice-a-week experience in many elementary schools, and simply an optional course in high school, and I have to believe that this at least partially explains the rising rate of childhood obesity. And, heaven help us, there are even rumors that computer gaming may be proposed as a "demonstration sport" at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Another feature of my K-12 education was regular library assignments. At age six, I knew I'd arrived, because I got my very own library card. In school, we learned about Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, we all knew how to use the card catalog, and we knew our way around the stacks. Fast-forward (mumble) decades. While traveling a couple of months ago, I was having trouble finding a local restaurant and finally wandered into a store and asked the barely-past-his-teens clerk if he could look up the restaurant in the phone book and tell me the address. He hauled out the Yellow Pages but, instead of just paging through to Restaurants, he went to the index in the back, carefully looked down the list of Rs, found the page number, went back to that section of the directory (which, of course, is organized alphabetically by subject anyway), and then slowly looked through the listings for the restaurant name. It occurred to me that this poor lad probably hadn't used a print resource in years. Why would he? He can Google all he needs to know, obviating the need to understand linear organization of information. I figured that he just didn't want to shock granny here by whipping out his Treo—that I'd appreciate the quaint old-fashioned approach.

This got me thinking about the skills that are no longer taught to the next generation of workers (and, I might add, contributors to my Social Security payments). Information-seeking literacy seems to be up there at the top of the list. With the increase in deployment of information to the desktop, and with the arrival of a generation of workers who have always had the Web as an information resource, there is a growing need to raise the dissatisfaction level of information users. Why? First, most information workers have very little idea of the breadth and depth of the information they have available on their desktop. Introduce them to 10 or 15 different resources, and their reaction will often be, "What's the difference? Why can't I Google this? Why can't I search them all at once? What's this one good for?" Knowledge workers gravitate to the few information tools that they find useful, and assume that those are good enough for most of their information-seeking needs. If info pros can teach users to routinely use a wide number of resources, or at least to expect that they will need to try several sources and several tacks, then we can expand users' understanding and appreciation of what is available and when each resource is appropriate for their specific information needs.

The second reason to cultivate dissatisfaction is to counteract the impression of most folks under the age of 40 that, yeah, they're pretty darned good at Web research; they've been using the Web since high school and it's how they got their senior thesis written in college. Outsell reports that the vast majority of information users view themselves as "skilled" or "adept" searchers, which always reminds me of the children of Lake Wobegon, all of whom are above average. But I still marvel at how often I give a workshop for knowledge workers, cover the advanced search features of a few search engines, show them how to search for blog postings, and show them a few Web-based databases that aren't spidered by search engines, and watch their jaws drop.

The challenge is in how to build dissatisfaction without undermining the perception of the value of intranet content and other Web-based information. It doesn't really work to announce, "The information's right there—you just don't have the skills to find it!" Rather, we need technological tools to help us ping knowledge workers when they seem to be having difficulty. What about developing a pop-up message if they get zero (or some minimal number of) results when searching an intranet database, providing some simple trouble-shooting tips and a reminder that an info pro is on call should they want one-on-one help? An internal Turbo-searching blog that profiles a different resource every week? Maybe simply including the message "Expect More" on every search results page would inspire searchers to get a move on.