Tag Archives: change

Change, technology, understanding, and the information professions

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

Not being a morning person, I was unsure whether a networking breakfast would suit me, but the recruitment agent Sue Hill’s event offered good food and interesting conversation, so I thought I would give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed – the food was excellent and the big round tables promoted lively group discussion.

We were a mix of information professionals from public and private sector, at different stages of our careers, but three key themes prompted the most debate.

Change management

Managing technology change and bridging the cultural and political divisions within organisations in order to bring about change were key concerns. Information professionals can contribute by explaining how new technologies work, how technologies can be catalysts of changes in behaviour, and how they mitigate or increase informational and archival risks. Even simply letting people know new technology is out there can be hugely valuable. Knowledge and information workers can help manage change on political and cultural levels by understanding the corporate culture they are working in and helping their organisation to understand itself and so make good decisions about systems procurement. Information professionals can also often help to break down cultural barriers, to sharing information, for example.

Social media

Social media are now being used to differing degrees within organisations – some having embraced the technologies wholeheartedly, others seeing them as a problem or a threat. There was a general concern that technology is being adopted and used faster than we can understand its impacts and devise strategies for mitigating any risks.

Personal and cultural understanding of the divisions between the public and the private seemed to be a problematic area. Young people in particular were perceived as being vulnerable to “over exposure” as they seemed not to notice that postings about them – pictures especially – would remain available for decades to come and could compromise them in their future careers. Recruitment agents use social media to find out about potential job candidates, and notice inconsistencies between a very professional image presented in a CV or at interview with a Twitter feed that paints a picture of carelessness, foolishness, or irresponsibility.

Information literacy

Awareness of how to use and abuse social media, search engines and research tools, and data and statistics was seen as an arena in which information professionals can offer advice and mentoring, to young people, but also to organisations. Information professionals should also set good examples of how to use social media tools, adopt new working practices, and evaluate new technologies. They should also be able to explain how search engines work, what the pitfalls of poorly planned or too narrow research strategies are, and how to research in a more efficient and effective manner.

A new area that information professionals also need to understand is data analytics and how statistics and algorithmic data mining can be used or abused. Information professionals need not be advanced mathematicians to contribute in this area – an understanding of how to interpret data, the political and cultural issues that can bias interpretations, how to frame questions to get mathematically and statistically significant results, and how to understand the importance of outliers and statistical anomalies are skills that are becoming more important every day.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed being woken up by such thoughtful and interesting breakfast companions and went about the rest of the day with a head full of fresh ideas.

Conversations about conversation – Gurteen knowledge café

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Estimated reading time 4–6 minutes

Last Wednesday evening I attend my first “Knowledge Café” hosted by David Gurteen. I have heard a lot about these cafés at various information events and so was pleased to finally be able to attend one in person. The idea appears to be twofold – firstly that knowledge and information professionals can find out what such cafés are for and how to run them and secondly simply to participate in them for their own sake.The “meta-ness” of the theme – conversations about conversation – appealed to me. (I’ve always like metacognition – essentially thinking about thinking, too).

We had plenty of time to get a drink and network before the event started, which is always a good thing, then David gave us a short introduction to the topic. He talked about Theodore Zeldin‘s book about Conversation: How Talk can Change our Lives and reminisced about a conversation from his own childhood that had held personal significance. He then set us three questions to discuss, about whether conversations can help us to see the world differently and how we can use them to bring about change for the better.

We then had a quick round of “speed networking” and formed groups to talk about the first question, moving on to different groups subsequently, so that we were well mixed by the end of the evening. To conclude we gathered into one large circle to talk further. This way we spiralled out from a single speaker, to speaking in pairs, then small groups, then all of us together.

Some common strands that everyone seemed to touch on at some point included discussing whether conversation was medium agnostic. Some people felt quite strongly that only a face-to-face discussion was a real conversation and that chatting via email, by text, by IM, and even by telephone were not the same. Others felt that the medium was irrelevant, it was the nature and quality of the communication that mattered. They agreed that signals, such as body language, shared environment, and instant interactivity were lost when not face to face, but that other factors, such as power imbalances between participants, could be minimised by talking remotely and unseen. Most people agreed that it was far easier to chat in highly constrained media, such as texting, with people one already knew well and had talked to frequently face to face, as that acquaintance helped smooth over misunderstandings due to lack of tone of voice or hastily chosen and ambiguous words. Clarity of vocabulary was also seen as key, especially when dealing with diverse groups or communities of practice.

Trust, power, empathy, and the ability to listen were noted as important factors in productive conversations, as was persuasion, but also that people needed to be open and receptive if change – and perhaps even communication at all – were to be achieved.

I was surprised that fewer people mentioned the physical surroundings and settings of good conversations. I remembered Plato, with Socrates sometimes in the marketplace and sometimes going off to sit in a quiet place under a tree. I find the best conversations need a calm neutral space, without interruptions, where participants can be comfortable, can hear each other clearly, can see each other easily, and have space to move about, perhaps to draw, gesture, etc. if they want to emphasise or illustrate a point. Poor acoustics in restaurants can be disastrous for dinner conversations if all you can hear is clattering chairs and clinking cutlery. Chirruping mobile phones, staff requesting answers, and children needing attention break conversational rhythm and flow, not to mention trains of thought.

Interestingly, in the group discussion, and as so often happens in all conversations, people drifted off topic and became increasingly animated by discussion of something unintended and not particularly relevant. In this case it was a purely political debate about whether the competitive nature of humans was a good or bad thing. Despite mutterings that we are becoming less politically engaged, people seem to want to wear their politics very much on their sleeves.

On the way home, I wondered whether the conversations I had participated in that evening had changed me or the world. In a small way, every experience we have changes the world. I met some interesting new people. I had some new ideas and learned a few new piece of information (apparently it is less tiring to listen to a telephone conversation using both ears – e.g. through a pair of headphones instead of a single earpiece). This blog post exists as a result of the evening. However, I took to heart the point that change has to come from within and I resolved to try to remember to stay adaptable and open to new viewpoints. I also resolved to listen more attentively and to try to facilitate better, more productive conversations while at work. I certainly hope this will change the world for the better, albeit in a very subtle way.

From Walled Garden to Amazon Jungle

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Estimated reading time 2–4 minutes

I enjoyed the LIKE dinner the other Thursday. The speaker Tim Buckley-Owen spoke on the theme “From Walled Garden to Amazon Jungle” describing the changing environment that information professionals find themselves in. He spoke of how disintermediation is often perceived as a threat in the information world, but that this is a mistake, because out in the jungle, the services of an expert guide become indispensable if you are to avoid getting completely lost and falling prey to posionous snakes and other hazards. He pointed out that at least one other profession is facing a similarly shifting environment – the legal profession. We, however, should be in a better position than lawyers because they believe they are masters of the universe, whereas we see ourselves as merely useful. The Trafigura affair showed that information can act as a force that even the lawyers can’t contain.

Although I would never have dreamt of comparing myself to a lawyer, I could see the similarity in the way that disintermediation enabled by an online world is affecting the two professions. For lawyers, distintermediation arises out of the increasing ease of self-representation – e.g. the availability of online forms so that you can manage your own simple legal processes. As Tim pointed out, going to small claims court can already be handled online by the claimant alone. Conveyancing is becoming increasingly straightforward for non-lawyers, as it is largely a question of being able to search effectively (anybody need an information specialist – cheaper than a solicitor?). Perhaps even the processing of divorces and wills can be administered via online forms. (That might not prevent family disputes, but would certainly make them cheaper!) The smart lawyers are, of course, responding by focusing on tailor-made specialised services for unusual cases or one-off situations. This is exactly what information professionals are doing too. Librarians have always offered bespoke research services and the value they add over and above trawling through millions of results on Google is their knowledge of which sources are the best and what are the best sources to answer your specific question (and figuring out the question you really want the answer to, instead of the one you actually asked, which is much harder than it sounds). In a world where information is proliferating while the quality of sources is not necessarily improving, the knowledge of where to look is increasingly rather than decreasingly valuable.

Tim described some research indicating that the people who are least likely to delegate their research are the most senior executives (middle managers are too busy and like having people do things for them). In particular, top execs like to do their own competitor research. His hot tip for the information profession was to work with software developers to produce really effective competitior research services and tools.

Virginia Henry and David Holme have also blogged about the evening.

Like 9 is on December 3rd.