How Knowledge Workers Use the Web  

This has been a busy week and I'm trying to catch up with my posting and reading, especially on work literacy topics. One of the articles that's been hanging out in my del.icio.us account is this one on how knowledge workers use the web (PDF). Even though it's several years old (2002), there's a lot of good information and fodder for thinking. A few things that caught my interest...

The authors interviewed 24 knowledge workers from a variety of disciplines to observe how they used the web. Through this process, they identified activities that fell into six categories, similar to Tony's classifications. They were:

  • Finding--Looking for something specific, such as an answer to a specific question.
  • Information gathering--Less specific than finding, this is research that's focused on a particular goal that's broader-based than simply getting a specific piece of information.
  • Browsing--Visiting personal or professional sites with no specific goal in mind other than to "stay up-to-date" or be entertained.
  • Transacting--Using the web to execute a transaction, such as banking or shopping.
  • Communicating--Participating in chat rooms or forums (remember--this was done in 2002, prior to Facebook and the explosive growth of blogs, etc.)
  • Housekeeping--Using the web to check or maintain the accuracy and functionality of web-based resources, such as looking for dead links, cleaning up outdated information, etc.

They also looked at how frequently people participated in these activities. Not surprisingly, Information Gathering (35%), Browsing (27%) and Finding (24%) were engaged in most frequently. Communication was the least frequent activity at 4%.

Participants were also asked about the relative importance of these activities to their work. Interestingly, Housekeeping and Transacting topped the list, even though they engaged in these activities less frequently (only about 5% of the time). Browsing and Communicating were considered the least important.

There's much more to dig into here, but these factoids make me wonder if things have changed since 2002 for many knowledge workers. At that time, the Web was primarily a destination for conducting solitary research, rather than a platform for ongoing conversation, information sharing and dialogue. As Kimberley McCollum would describe it, the web helped these workers connect to documents via their research, but not to other people. Yet it's the social aspect that has now become critical.

As the web has evolved, the importance of Communication as an activity has increased. Through social interactions online, we are able to accomplish the other key knowledge worker activities more efficiently and effectivley than before. For example, Housekeeping and Transactional activities (regarded as the most important by these workers) are improved via recommendations from members of trusted social networks, as we can rely on them to guide us to the best, most credible and up-to-date resources. The social web also improves our capacity to gather and find information and provides us with recommendations for the best places to do our browsing, as well. While Communication as an activity was, in 2002, considered the least important, I would argue that now, this is one of the most important aspects of using the web for knowledge work.

All of this takes me back to an issue that Tony raised earlier in the week--the need to develop these work literacies in not only an individual context, but also in a social one. That is, knowledge workers need to figure out how to leverage the social aspects of the web to make their traditionally solitary online activities more effective and useful. As Tony points out, this will be a big challenge because people are not necessarily aware of the extent to which these social changes impact how they do their work. We first have to make them aware of this changed context and then help the develop the skills to be successful in this new world.