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The promise and limitations of technology to support end-users

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As director of research for FreePint, a global research analyst group and publisher focused on supporting the value of information in the enterprise, I have the opportunity to consider big challenges that our customers face in running information services, writes Robin Neidorf

We gather information through constant dialogue with customers and other information professionals, surveys, Communities of Practice discussion groups, and consulting projects.

Over the past five years, we've observed persistent efforts to push more information products directly to end-users. Along with this trend has come concern that instead of making full use of these resources, users revert to free web-based resources to conduct research, have difficulty using the products efficiently to access valid information, and lack awareness of the full range of resources available to them.

To take a close look at these challenges, we spent January through March this year focusing our research and editorial efforts on a question that is both basic and complex: 'What makes useful information visible to end users at the point of need?'

This question touches upon a number of interrelated elements of business information management:

  • Content selection: has the organisation acquired or produced the right information to support knowledge workers?
  • Technology: is the platform through which the information is delivered serving the need?
  • User behaviour: are users interacting effectively via the technology to find and access what they need?

Three essential elements

We consider these three elements - content, technology and user behaviour - to be the 'three-legged stool' of information visibility.

A centrepiece of this effort was a survey on what makes information visible, which garnered detailed input from 145 information professionals in a range of industries about how they address content, technology and user behaviour in their organisations.

We found that in many organisations, the challenge of increasing the visibility of quality information to end users is perceived as a technology-driven effort - finding the right web-scale discovery tools; feeding content automatically into the workflow; populating workflow tools with content feeds, etc.

We also found that information professionals are often frustrated by their lack of influence over technology-related decisions, making it difficult to achieve objectives around delivering content to end users effectively.

What technology is in use?

In our survey, we asked respondents which technologies they currently use or are considering for the future to support the visibility of information. As the figure shows, respondents are divided nearly equally between satisfaction and dissatisfaction for each technology listed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

145 information professionals report if they currently use or are planning to use technologies to support visibility. From the FreePint Report: Research into Visibility 2015, http://web.freepint.com/go/sub/report/2479]

Digging into these results, we asked information professionals to tell us more about their dissatisfaction. We also investigated case studies where information professionals were satisfied, to see what common themes we might identify.

How do you quantify successful application of technology?

From these inputs, we believe the following statements characterise success in applying technology to the project of making information more visible to end users:

  • Those with direct responsibility for technology-related decisions respect the expertise of information professionals; they solicit the input of information professionals in the research and scoping phase;
  • Information professionals can clearly articulate their goals for technology, as well as the reasons they recommend or discourage certain approaches;
  • Information professionals are able to dedicate appropriate amounts of time to technology implementation, training and maintenance; and
  • All stakeholders, including the vendor(s), have realistic expectations for what technology can achieve.

Perhaps most critically, the stakeholders involved in a visibility project need to recognise that technology is only one leg of the three-legged stool of visibility. Technology on its own can only achieve so much. It will not overcome what users cannot or will not learn to do.

Contributing to success

Although information professionals and librarians rarely have full decision-making authority over technology, they can contribute to the success of collaborative projects by fully understanding the potential and limitations of said technology and partnering early in the process of of scoping the project.

We've found that completing what we call a "technology inventory" around visibility goals helps develop this understanding.

A basic technology inventory is a method for capturing what you currently know and don't know about technology with regard to information visibility. We use the format shown in Figure 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technology inventory, developed for Communities of Practice: Needs Assessment for Visibility, http://web.freepint.com/go/sub/community/2474]

Each row provides a place in the "notes" to describe in as much detail as possible your current knowledge.

  • Wish list for features and functions: What do you believe a technology for visibility should do or enable? Do you need search, indexing or taxonomy? Does it need to be accessible via mobile device? Is compatibility with single sign-on a requirement?
  • Internal influence on technology: Do those with decision-making power turn to you to involve you in decisions? Do they respect your opinion with regard to what will make visibility-related technologies successful?
  • Minimum viable resource requirements: Do you have (or need) someone in the library with administrative access to the technology? Do you need server space? Cloud permissioning? Dedicated staff hours for maintenance?
  • In-house expertise required: Does your library or organisation need to maintain specific skills in-house for implementation and maintenance of this technology to be successful?

Then, the "status rating" column is a place to rate how well you can describe that component. Are you confident in your description? Do you have the information you need to make recommendations, or do you need to do more research?

Finally, the "difficulty rating" column captures how easy or hard it would be to improve your status for a given row. It might be relatively easy to conduct additional research to add to your wish list of features, giving that row a difficulty rating of 1 or 2. On the other hand, it's probably relatively difficult to increase your influence over internal decisions about technology, giving that row a difficulty rating of 9 or 10.

With such a simple tool, it's easy to tune it to the needs of your organisation. But regardless of your adjustments, the key is to write your inventory down. Many of us tend to keep way too much information in our heads, and it's only when we get it out of our heads and onto paper that we can start to manage it effectively for progress.

The purpose of the inventory is to evaluate your current status, so that you can make decisions about where to devote your limited time and resources.

We've seen customers adapt this inventory to help their library staff become more effective project partners in technology-related components of visibility projects. They better understand what they need, what they can contribute, and their vision of success; as a result, they can communicate more effectively with other stakeholders on a project team.

Progressing towards greater visibility

Today's technology tools are more powerful and flexible than ever. Today's users increasingly expect direct access to quality content and user-friendly platforms. We may actually be at the tipping point of achieving greater visibility of quality information by end users, right at the point of need.

To get there, however, we still have a ways to go in stablising the three-legged stool. In many organisations, the "technology" leg is too long or too short. The practical attention of information professionals and librarians can help bring it into alignment.

FreePint provides content, community and consulting about information sources, technology and value. Learn more about our January - March focus on visibility here: http://web.freepint.com/go/topic/series/visible_information/

Register to receive the free twice-monthly FreePint Newsletter to stay informed about new projects and resources: http://web.freepint.com/go/newsletter/