Watching the workers: keynote presentation at #siguse16 #asist2016

ASIST 2016 logoToday I’m giving the opening keynote presentation in Copenhagen at the SIG USE Information Behavior in Workplaces. This is one of a series of workshops taking place as part of the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIST2016). It has been organised by the SIG/USE Symposium Chairs:

The title of my presentation is ‘Watching the workers: researching information behaviours in, and for, workplaces‘. The slides are available on SlideShare and below.

Until I discussed the kind invitation to present at the workshop with the organisers I had not appreciated just how much of my career has been spent investigating information behaviours and use in the workplace. Indeed it was only when I started to prepare my presentation that I realised that all three of my postgraduate qualifications depended on the completion of a project executed in a workplace environment:

Research staff and students within the Centre for Social Informatics are currently (or have recently been) engaged in a number of projects that consider information behaviours and use in, and for, workplaces. Of particular note is the work related to:

Although not specifically about the workplace, Frances Ryan (also at ASIST2016 this week) has found that participants in her study of online information and personal reputation management take account how online information behaviours influence perceptions of individuals as employees and colleagues. Many of our projects also cover issues related to information literacy, both in the workplace and in other settings.

Like other researchers in the domain, when we undertake this kind of work we are seeking explanation in order to develop insight that can add to extant theoretical perspectives. We do this by referencing existing frameworks, selecting appropriate research methods for our own empirical work, collecting and analysing data, making our own contributions, and anticipating that this work will – in turn – be extended in the future. At a superficial level this all sounds quite straightforward. However, those who study information behaviours in the workplace face numerous challenges.

In the early stages of such work, for example, it can be difficult to ‘locate’ it with reference to existing frameworks, not least because research in Information Science (in general) has a tradition of borrowing from other disciplines. In such circumstances further borrowing ensues, or a compromise might be reached where a ‘loose’ theoretical framework is developed through an analysis of a varied body of extant literature as preparation for the main study. This issue is also pertinent when the extent of the contribution of such research is considered, both within and beyond the domain. (Dr Diane Pennington of the University of Strathclyde gave an excellent presentation entitled ‘Frameworks for studies of information behaviour and use‘ at a two-day training event for PhD students in Information Science that I organised with the supported of ESRC funding in April 2016. The slides, which include useful references, are available on SlideShare.)

Then there is the question of (too much) choice of methods for implementing a study of this kind. I most recently wrote about this in a paper (currently in press) co-authored with Iris Buunk and Colin F Smith with reference to the empirical work for Iris’ PhD. The main content of this can be seen in the associated slides that Iris delivered at ISIC 2016 last month. Here we highlight how the difficulties of researching intangible concepts (such as knowledge) have introduced bias into the treatment of such concepts (such as making claims for studies that supposedly consider one concept when, in fact, they focus on the assets or outputs of the concept in question), and this then risks research validity. A further issue is a tendency for researchers to depend heavily on a ‘basket’ of commonly used research methods (surveys, interviews and focus groups), exhibiting a reluctance to try more novel approaches. Moves to address this were taken in the provision of workshop sessions on ‘new’ techniques in the AHRC-funded Developing Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) project that I led in 2011/12.

Collecting data for analysis can be particularly problematic for researchers who wish to investigate information behaviours in the workplace. This is due to the need for access to a live setting. Over the course of my career I have witnessed how negotiating such access has become increasingly more and more difficult, especially with reference to private sector companies. Potential sites for data collection might be ruled out at first approach due to ethical or legal concerns. Even when access is granted so much can go wrong. For example: it’s impossible to reach the desired sample of workers within the selected workplace environment; the scheduling of the work for the researcher does not match the availability of the data subjects; participants expect some kind of return for their contribution and mistakenly start treating the academic researcher as some kind of consultant working on a project that will deliver according to the clients’ terms.

Further issues related to the relevance and impact of the output of this type of research. In contrast with much scientific research, it is difficult to know when the ‘experiment’ has been concluded and, as a consequence, whether or not a study can really be considered ‘complete’. Indeed, we often have to admit that such work can never be complete, largely due to the multiple variables that would need to be taken into account to achieve this.

My presentation today ends with some thoughts on future workplace environments. Over the past few weeks I have started to think more seriously about the continued automation of human tasks, roles and jobs and the impact of this on employment. Are we on the brink of a huge loss of employment opportunity amongst the white collar workers who are so frequently the subjects of research into information behaviour and use in the workplace? Will this be compared to the shift of the labour force in the UK and US away from agriculture and fishing in the 19th and 20th centuries as more human roles, tasks and jobs are automated? These are questions that have been discussed in the business press (see, for example, The rise of the robots by Martin Ford) and are now on the agenda of policy-makers and research funders (see the report from the robotics and artificial intelligence inquiry from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee). My presentation ends by questioning the contribution that information scientists can make to this current debate, and how existing knowledge and techniques of this research community might be applied to new and changing forms of employment and employment environment(s).


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