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Work-Related Use of an Electronic Network
Work-Related Use of an Electronic Network
Researcher: Leena LintiläDepartment of Information Studies, University of TampereE-mail: email@example.com
The aim of my research is to explore the use of an electronic network for information seeking and communication in intellectual work. The study approaches this question from two theoretical points of view. The first and foremost point of view focuses on the users of electronic networks and the ways in which this use supports their work. In addition, this study attempts to map the most important contextual factors which are assumed to influence the utilisation of networks. These contextual factors are categorised as system factors, professional and personal factors and institutional factors. System factors are the characteristics of the information channel or source. Professional and personal factors include the basic nature and tasks of a given profession and other individual traits such as individual likes and dislikes. Institutional factors are, in this case, limited to the information culture of an organisation. The information culture is further divided into practical (technology, equipment), strategic (rules, information policies) and social (different conventions and traditions, personal relationships, status thinking, etc.) (Abels et al., 1996).
The background philosophy of this research is mainly teleological. Most information seeking is assumed to take place because the user (or "the doer", if the activity of an individual is emphasised) wants to accomplish something. He/she is assumed to act rather rationally in an information environment where there may be several possibilities between which to choose. However, the reasons which choices stem from are not always strictly rational or even clear. Many choices also involve more than one contextual factor. One of the objectives of this study is, therefore, to weigh the impact of different factors and their relative importance.
This research assumes a delicate two-way relationship between context and use. The study attempts to ascertain whether the use of electronic networks is different in different contexts, as well as how this use changes the context itself. The former is a rather common approach when researching the use of various information sources. For example, it is popular to explore what kind of information seeking is typical of certain professions (e.g. McKinnon and Bruns, 1992). The notion that use may change the context is included in the research because of the special nature and relative novelty of network communication. Our understanding of the role which electronic networks play in information cultures is still in transition. We do not know as much about the impact of networks as we might about the effect of older sources and channels on information use. Plausible changes that electronic networks might cause in the context feature are imposing a different pacing for work, a new attitude towards organisational communication, the reduced importance of other information channels, and so on.
The second theoretical point of view of this thesis deals with the role of an electronic network in the information culture of an organisation. This frame of reference is mainly derived from information management research: an electronic network is seen as an information resource (McGee and Prusak, 1993). This can also be considered as a more extensive exploration of the impact of institutional factors. However, the importance of an individual does not get lost even in this frame. One of the objectives of this study is to uncover the relationship between individual information seeking and corporate information resources. The theoretical challenge of this approach is to look at the strategic aspects of information culture and their real consequences, both through the eyes of those who are responsible for creating and maintaining that part of information culture, and those who mainly experience it in their everyday work.
The empirical part of the research is a case study inside one organisation. The scrutinised case is a Finnish company and its intranet. The company is rather large (it had over 14,000 employees in 1996) and it consists of several semi-independent units which are located both in Finland and abroad. However, the intranet used by the company offers a means for standardised communication and information-sharing throughout all these units. Thus, the challenges described above as theoretical ones appear very real in this company, surfacing as questions like Does the intranet make a difference in employees' daily work? How is the Net used and how is its utility perceived in different parts of the company? How well does the information manager's vision match users' reality?
The most important general problems which the research attempts to answer are formulated in the following way:
How is this particular network utilised in knowledge work? How does this intranet and its services support such work and especially the information seeking and communication characteristic of it? How does the network relate to other information seeking and communication methods?
What is the exact nature of the two-way relationship between knowledge work and electronic networks? How do they change each other?
What part does the intranet play in the information culture of the organisation?
How does the role of electronic networks in the information culture affect the users? How aware is an individual of the information policies of the organisation?
Answering the above questions naturally requires a moderate amount of background information about the nature of the organisation, the information culture prevalent in the organisation, the characteristics of an individual's work, information seeking and communication (Mintzberg,1980; Stibic 1982) and the special features of the intranet. For example, in order to avoid an overly-simplistic view of the intranet, its properties will be reviewed from the user's point of view, as well as its place among other information channels (Nass and Mason, 1990).
The study is largely qualitative and the empirical data will be gathered by interviews in Finland during the spring and summer of 1998 and later by e-mail questionnaires to foreign users. The four main problems above have been elaborated and semi-structured interviews have been designed to explore them from the most fruitful perspectives. Some other data-gathering methods may also be used, depending on whether the interviews produce enough data to work with and on other practical issues.
Funding sources and expected outcomes
The study belongs to an interdisciplinary project which is funded by the Academy of Finland in 1998-1999. The project analyses the present state and future prospects of information society in Finland. So far this study has mainly consisted of the exploration of relevant theories, earlier literature and a minor preliminary research on a related area, the use of laptop computers by managers (Lintilä, 1997). The empirical part of the study will be launched in 1998.
Abels, E.G., Liebscher P. and Denman, D.W. (1996), "Factors that influence the use of electronic networks by science and engineering faculty at small institutions. Part I. Queries", Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 47 No. 2, pp. 146-58.
Lintilä, L. (1997), Kannettava tietokone johtamisen apuvälineenä, Loppuraportti LifeBook-käyttötutkimuksesta, How Managers Use Laptop Computers: the Conclusive Report of the LifeBook Usage Study, University of Tampere, Information Society Research Centre, Working Papers 3/1997, Tampere, Finland.
McGee, J.V. and Prusak, L. (1993), Managing Information Strategically, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY.
McKinnon, S.M. and Bruns, W.J. Jr (1992), The information Mosaic, Boston, MA.
Mintzberg, H. (1980), The Nature of Managerial Work, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Nass, C. and Mason, L. (1990), "On the study of technology and task: a variable-based approach", in Fulk, J. (Ed.), Organizations and Communication Technology, Charles Steinfield, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 46-67.
Stibic, V. (1982), Tools of the Mind: Techniques and Methods for Intellectual Work, Amsterdam.