Web Work
Information Seeking and Knowledge Work on the World Wide Web

(Monograph by Chun Wei Choo, Brian Detlor, and Don Turnbull, published by Kluwer Academic Publishers in 2000.)

(Excerpt from Chapter 4)

4.4 A Behavioral-Ecological Framework for Intranet Design

One of the motifs of this book is to explore how intranets may be designed as an open infrastructure that supports the creation, sharing, and use of knowledge. Our review of the research literature suggests that pursuing a dual design approach based on the information behaviors of groups and individuals as well as the information ecology of the organization as a whole may be a fruitful enterprise. This section extends a conceptual framework originally proposed by Detlor for the design of organizational intranets to facilitate information access and use. That framework combined Taylor’s value-added model with common elements of the four models of the information environment outlined above.

In the modified framework, designing an intranet to support knowledge work embraces three nested layers: information ecology; information behaviors; and value-added processes (Figure 4.2). The design activity begins with a simultaneous analysis of the organization’s information ecology and users’ information behaviors. As described earlier, information ecology refers to the information environment of an organization. The internal information environment comprises many interdependent and interacting social and cultural subsystems that influence the creation, flow, and use of information. Information behaviors refer to the practices of individuals and groups as they go about obtaining and using information to resolve their work-related problem situations.

 

 

 

Figure 4.2: A Design Framework that Integrates
Information Ecology and Information Behaviors

A detailed understanding of the general information ecology and the particular information practices will help underpin the design of intranet content and services as value-added processes (Taylor 1986) that signal and amplify the value of information. The following sections examine each of the three design layers.

4.4.1 Information Ecology

The information ecology is an organization’s information environment, and consists of the numerous interacting and interdependent social, cultural, and political subsystems that shape the creation, flow and use of information in the organization. Thus an organization’s information ecology influences what information is produced and stored, what information is made available and to whom, and what information is required and valued in task performance. Typically, an organization’s ecological subsystems coexist in a fragile balance, so that altering one component necessarily induces changes in the others.

Extending the framework proposed by Davenport (1997), we suggest that in analyzing an organization’s information ecology to guide intranet design, the following eight elements would need to be examined: the organization’s mission; the intranet’s goals; information management plans; information culture; information politics; physical setting; information staff; and information handling (Figure 4.3).

 

 

Figure 4.3: Principal Elements of the Information Ecology of the Organization

The organization's mission is described by the overarching goals and activities of the organization that define its identity and purpose. An analysis of the organization's mission should also elaborate the role that information plays, the contribution of its information resources and services, as well as the differences between actual situations and intended scenarios. This logically leads to the second element, an articulation of the intranet's goals in relation to the organizational purpose, that is, the ways in which the intranet would help the organization accomplish its mission. The third element, information management plans, are the formal plans, policies and standards that the organization has established to structure control, coordination, and roles in the management of information resources and services. Information culture is indicated by the attitudes and norms that the organization's participants hold about issues such as the ownership and sharing of information, and the amount and intensity of information gathering and analysis that is appropriate or expected in the organization. Information politics often obstruct the movement of information across departmental boundaries and can lead to unproductive information hiding and hoarding. Davenport, Eccles and Prusak (1992) identify common political structures, and assess their consequences for information sharing and management. An organization's physical setting can also impose particular constraints and requirements. For example, an organization that is dispersed over multiple locations, or whose employees spend most of their time in the field, would need to address issues such as information access, remote communications, data currency, and so on. Although information staff are clearly vital players in the information ecology, they are surprisingly often overlooked in intranet design projects. The level and modus of their participation need to be clarified: Are the information staff formally trained? What are their organizational roles (do they act as intermediaries, support staff, or as members of work teams)? What are their relationships with line staff and top management? Finally, an organization may have set in place information handling rules and routines for the management of records and archives, and the maintenance of institutional memory. These routines are important because they allow the organization to encode and transfer past learning, and to present an accountable trace of its actions. In evaluating the various elements that constitute an organization's information ecology, we are constantly asking to what extent each element is harming or helping the organization's efforts to attain its goals.

4.4.2 Information Behaviors

Human information behaviors are complex phenomena, and perhaps the best hope of gaining a fair representation of them is to observe and learn directly from users in their natural work settings. The framework takes this analysis in three steps. First, we develop a clear understanding of who the users are in terms of their information needs and information seeking characteristics. Second, we dimensionalize the structure of the work-related problem situations that they typically face. Third, we chronicle and examine the information behaviors and practices that they employ to resolve problem situations.

Information Users

Information becomes valuable when it enables actions. Information enables action only after it is given meaning and significance in the minds of human actors. Unfortunately, information does not announce its meaning or significance. It is people who endow data and information with salience and suggestion. Through their acts of social and mental construction, people transform information from bloodless artifacts into goals and reasons for action. A first step in designing an intranet as information infrastructure would therefore be to understand who the major sets of users are, what work they perform, and how they require, acquire and use information in the course of engaging this work (Figure 4.4). As presented in an earlier section, Taylor (1991) helpfully identifies demographic and non-demographic variables that affect the information use patterns of sets of users. "Non-demographic" attributes such as users’ professional or work experience, social networks, preferences for media, and attitudes towards innovation and risk taking seem likely to be important variables. We next examine how an intranet’s users perceive their information needs, look for and adjudge information, and choose to use or not use information they encounter.

Figure 4.4: Design Questions for Information Users

Problem situations

We are concerned with users’ information behaviors as they go about resolving their work-related problem situations. In particular, we seek to understand how users perceive their work problem situations; how they locate and obtain information; as well as how they then select from and make use of information to resolve their task problems. At first glance, work problem situations appear to span a limitless range that defies classification. MacMullin and Taylor (1984) propose that beneath this variety is an underlying structure which may be used to describe task-related problem situations in informational terms. They identify eleven dimensions that they believe could adequately define the information attributes of most work problem situations (Figure 4.5). These dimensions are discussed in an earlier section, and include such categories as "design/discovery," "well/ill-structured," "specific/amorphous goals." It may be helpful to recall that an analysis of problem situations serves two important purposes: (1) they provide a rich representation of users’ information needs; and (2) they establish the criteria by which users determine the value or helpfulness of the information they meet.

 

 

Figure 4.5: Problem Dimensions as Information Needs
(Adapted from MacMullin and Taylor 1982)

Information Behaviors

Based on the perceptions of their work problem situations, users seek and prefer information in ways that fit well with the specific contingencies imposed by the situational problem dimensions. Again, MacMullin and Taylor (1984) have proposed a generalized list of information traits by which information is recognized and evaluated. These traits go beyond subject relevance (what is this message about?) to situational relevance (how can this message help me in my work situation?). The traits are shown in Figure 4.6. The denouement of information seeking and selection is information use, and here, drawing upon the earlier field studies of Dervin and others, Taylor (1991) suggests eight generic ways in which individuals use information. These use categories are also shown in Figure 4.6 (and were described earlier). In summary, an analysis structured by the constructs of problem dimensions, information traits, and information use categories, could produce a fine-grained representation of the information needs, information seeking, and information use patterns of a community of intranet users.

 

 

Figure 4.6: Information Behaviors as Information Traits and Information Use Categories
(Adapted from MacMullin & Taylor 1982, Taylor 1991)

4.4.3 Value-Added Processes

Findings from the analysis of an organization’s information ecology and users’ information behaviors converge as we design intranet-based resources and services. These applications are developed as value-added processes that signal, amplify and extend the value of information to the organization and its users. Within the framework of the concepts presented in this monograph, we highlight five value-adding design approaches (Figure 4.7). First, at the task level, intranet applications may be designed so that they directly support the information behaviors of users as they resolve their work-related problem situations. This requires a reasonably accurate and complete description of these information behaviors. We propose that the constructs presented here – problem dimensions, information traits, and information use patterns – can characterize information behaviors with enough true detail to guide design. For example, field investigations may show users handling a task with problem dimensions of "discovery, ill-structure, and amorphous goals," by seeking and valuing information with traits that are high on the "qualitative, soft, and diagnostic continua," and then using the information in certain recurrent patterns or categories. Each of these sets of dimensions, traits, and categories then serve as design parameters which describe the types of information and the forms of information seeking and use practices that intranet applications can be designed to support.

Second, at the organizational level, intranet applications and services may be designed to fit or improve the organization’s information ecology. Where properties of the ecology contribute positively to the attainment of organizational goals (for example, an information-sharing culture, skilled information staff, well-developed information handling procedures), these features may be enhanced and leveraged by applications and services on the intranet. Where aspects of the ecology block or reduce organizational effectiveness (for example, geographically dispersed work units, information feudalism, and information overload), the intranet might be designed to compensate for or attenuate these negative effects.

Third, as presented in an earlier chapter, the intranet provides a unified information space in which users can move seamlessly between accessing content, engaging in communications, and collaborating with others. For content, intranets provide single points of access to internal and external information. Internal information may comprise current data that describe recent conditions, or historical data that facilitate reflection and learning from experience. For communications, intranets allow many design options in the choice of topology (one-to-one; one-to-many; and many-to-many), timing (asynchronous or synchronous), and media (text, voice, or video). For collaboration, intranets make it easier to co-locate issues, participants, and information resources and tools, and thereby promote shared problem ownership and shared problem solving.

Fourth, intranets may add value by facilitating the sharing, conversion, and combined use of the organization’s tacit, explicit, and cultural knowledge. Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge that is activated through discourse and interaction during shared problem solving. Explicit knowledge is codified knowledge where the requirement is for just the right amount of knowledge to be available just in time to the persons who need it. Cultural knowledge consists of the assumptions and beliefs that define what is important and valuable for the organization, and thus supply the context for the exercise of tacit and explicit knowledge. Intranets may facilitate the simultaneous use of all three forms of knowledge. For example, they can create shared problem-solving spaces that include: electronic communication venues for finding and sharing tacit knowledge; access tools for searching or browsing codified explicit knowledge; and news feeds about developments in the organization’s community (people, products, projects) which animate its cultural identity.

Fifth, intranet applications and services may add value by supporting the organization’s sense making, knowledge creating, and decision making processes. In sense making, intranets can constitute part of the discourse infrastructure in which participants are involved in meaning construction through enactment, dialog and negotiation. The intranet’s extended reach and multiple communication channels can give voice to a greater number and a greater diversity of information sources and points-of-view, thus enriching the sense making process. In knowledge creating, as described in an earlier chapter, work performed through the intranet allows the knowledge created or utilized in that work to be textualized and contextualized. When work-related problem situations are resolved using electronic media such as the intranet, the problem solving conversations (and inter alia, the information seeking and sharing activities) may be recorded as narrative – text that also encapsulates part of the context surrounding each task experience. In decision making, intranets can be deployed to structure choice processes according to rules and routines. This may be accomplished by applying tools as simple as online forms, or as complex as workflow and document management systems. At the same time, intranet applications can also be designed to render decision premises and assumptions more visible and therefore more discussable, to promote wider participation, to broaden information search, and to increase the amount and timeliness of feedback.

Since sense-, knowledge-, and decision-making are all linked as a network of information processes that enable feedback, innovation, and organizational adaptation, intranet designers must build in flexibility and openness into an infrastructure that is continuously evolving through the experimentation and creativity of its users.

 

 

Figure 4.7: Five Design Strategies for Value-Added Processes

4.4.4 Summary

The behavioral-ecological framework presented in this section embodies a number of beliefs and principles about the design of intranets. Our starting position is that intranets are a new breed of information systems whose design needs to be driven not just by data or flows of data, but also by a full appreciation of the organizational and human processes that are being supported. The framework maintains that information culture, politics, and ecology are all components of the design environment, and that a close analysis of these elements is an essential step in the design activity. The framework is also firmly user-centered, since it places at its core an understanding of the situated information practices by which participants recognize and characterize problem situations, experience information needs; seek and select information according to its fit and merit, and use information to respond to particular task and social contingencies. The framework proposes a dual-track design process that is simultaneously top-down and bottom-up: it is top-down because it underscores an alignment with organizational purpose and aspirations, and it is bottom-up because it is built upon the information behaviors and practices of individuals and groups whose work turn these aspirations into actuality. Ultimately, the framework is an attempt to help realize the promise that intranets hold out as a viable platform for supporting knowledge work – that the openness and flexibility of intranets can augment knowledge acquisition, creating, organizing, sharing and use to a greater extent than is possible with traditional data processing systems.

It is suggested that by using such a layered approach for design, intranets may better support the information ecology and information behaviors of organizational participants. Table 4.2: Design principles for intranets summarizes the steps intranet designers should follow.

Table 4.2: Design principles for intranets

1) Analyze the organization’s information ecology.

2) Identify the typical problems and associated problem dimensions experienced by major sets of users.

3) Analyze the information behaviors of these sets of users by concentrating on typical problem resolutions in terms of the information sources used and the information traits more likely valued.

4) Create value-added processes in the intranet design that foster and enhance the information ecology of the organization and help users resolve their typical problems.

 


(All rights reserved by Chun Wei Choo, Brian Detlor, Don Turnbull. 2000)