Monday Jul 02, 2007

The effective use of 'old' technologies

In the May and June Digital Libraries & Research learning events on finding market research and finding internal Sun information, and in recent posts, we've emphasized the need to use both search and browse strategies for effectively finding information.

My general approach, which I first heard from Cindy Hill, is what Cindy calls an 'and/plus' approach rather than an 'either/or' approach. Related to the recent training, to effectively find information, you need search and browse, not just one or the other. This entry is about the 'and/plus' principle in relation to the need for effective current information management tools and the newer social media tools.

I think a lot of people - myself included, up until the last few years - think of browse as stodgy and old-fashioned. Does anyone use Yahoo!'s directory structure any longer? (They took it off the front page so long ago, I have a hard time remembering what it looked like. I couldn't even find it from their current front page - I had to type in http://directory.yahoo.com.)

Frankly, I do still use it, when the need calls for it. Recently I had a request where the person needed a list of vendors in a particular niche IT area. There was NOTHING available through the traditional sources I'd go to - OneSource, Hoover's, the market research firms or even MarketResearch.com. So what was left?

That's right - directory listings. I found two great directories through Yahoo! and through DMOZ (remember DMOZ? Wow, that seems old), which provided me 85% of the companies I needed to know about, and provided leads to the next 10%.

I've asked the hypothetical question before: could I have just conducted a search for this and found it? No way - my search NEVER would have turned up even 50% of the companies I found using these relatively authoritative directories.

In the networked information world, we're seeing an explosion of new technologies, and, even more extraordinary, widespread adoption of a number of these technologies. Social publishing and networking tools like Ning, Twitter, wikis and blogs are either in widespread use, or are quickly moving there. While this flood of new technologies does occasionally seem overwhelming, they are adding new dimensions and capabilities in creating, communicating and connecting with information, particularly the social knowledge and expertise that has been difficult to capture up to this point. This is truly an exciting time to be in information work!

The 'and/plus' approach applies to a lot of the areas and technologies you see in the information arena today. It becomes a matter of balancing the technologies and tools we already have that work well with the best features of the emerging technologies. For example, in tagging and categorizing information, folksonomies shouldn't supplant taxonomies - effective tagging systems will have elements of both.

Why? Because you need standardization in order to link stuff together, particularly to link out to other sources and make information findable across resources. But you also need the flexibility and currency of folksonomies. Folksonomies can respond much faster to new topics, buzz and trends than taxonomies can.

You also need a balance between relatively static, authoritative landing sites and social tools. It's phenomenal to have tools like wikis, because they offer the unparalleled ability to create group knowledge. Knowledge management, as a practice, has struggled for years with the idea of "tacit knowledge" - that intangible, hard-to-capture information that is in people's heads. Well, wikis and blogs have proven to be a giant step in the right direction for capturing tacit knowledge. Now you're starting to see wiki and blog search engines, because people are mining all of that tacit knowledge.

But again, the most effective solutions may be a balance of authoritative sources and portals - the central places for people to start - with social knowledge tools. When people need to know something with confidence - just to use a simple example, when they need to follow a standard or a law - they need to know THE place to go for that information.

It may not be able to reside on a wiki where it can be changed; it can't come up in a set of search results that are indistinguishable in authority from each other. People will always need THE ANSWER to many of their questions. That's why there are standards, guidelines and laws - they are the authoritative and acknowledged rules for doing something. For example, I don't want the Colorado State Driver's Handbook posted on a wiki, do you? It would make for a most interesting commute.

However, a wiki could be very effectively used as a collaboration tool linked off of a central site in order to get input, ideas, and to share experiences that relate to that topic. These authoritative sites - such as an internal competitive site or a subscription to IEEE conference proceedings - could integrate some of these social tools so users can read the trusted content and then rate, comment, share and discuss that information. These authoritative types of content could also use social tools such as blogs or microblogging tools to help keep users aware of the high value content they can access.

So, we believe that many current tools PLUS the new social media tools is what is going to be a powerful combination. It's not 'either/or' - it's 'and/plus'.

Scott Brown
Digital Libraries & Research

Wednesday May 23, 2007

The Magic of Findability

In my last entry, I talked about library as social setting. Here I get to talk about the two additional points Hal Stern brought out in his blog entry: 1) the organization and preservation of knowledge for findability, and 2) the concept of serendipity in discovering information.

In the age of Google, of information almost literally at your fingertips, Hal states that "you need libraries and the organization they impose to an even greater extent." I believe that, too. But why is that?

All of us have experienced the crush and incoherency of too much information. Say I want to find out information on outsourcing. If I do a Google search at 10am Mountain Time on May 14, 2007, I get over 58 million hits.

The first two "sponsored" links are for CapGemini (a consulting services group) and Nortel (the Google or Services folks might know why this comes up, but I sure don't). I also get image search results for outsourcing. (Why do I need images for outsourcing?)

I get the Wikipedia entry for outsourcing, which is good; Wikipedia's always a fairly reliable place to get up to speed on a topic. On this first page of results, I also get The Outsourcing Institute, a BusinessWeek article, and InformationWeek's Outsourcing center - all good.

So I'm off to a good start. But say what I really want is some definitive guides on outsourcing. Suppose I want some case studies and best practices around outsourcing. Will I find things like The outsourcing handbook: how to implement a successful outsourcing process, by Mark J. Power, Kevin C. Desouza, and Carlo Bonifazi? If this does come up in my Google search, how will I access it? Do I have to buy it? How do I know the eBook version exists from NetLibrary and do I need to buy it?

In the end, how much is it going to cost me - and how much time will I need to spend - to get knowledgable about outsourcing - without having to wade through the massive amounts of information about outsourcing out there?

It all comes down to this: how do I find what I'm looking for, even when I may not be exactly sure of what I'm looking for?

Peter Morville recently coined the word findability. Findability essentially is a word expressing the characteristic of how easy it is to, well, find something. If you need a piece of information, how easily and quickly can you get access to it?

Libraries - in whatever form, and in whatever setting, whether the function is called a "library" or not - are all about findability. That's our JOB. That's our profession - and it has been for many many years. First, we identify and find the information, and then we make it findable for others. (This is one of the driving ideas behind a lot of the Web 2.0 tools and social tools out there: finding and connecting people and information in a variety of different ways, getting your hands on the information when and where you need it.)

Because of this basic fact of our profession, we're constantly trying to improve findability - not only for you, our customer, but also for ourselves. After all, if I'm doing research and I can't find something - even something I KNOW exists - I'm stuck. I can't find it, so it might as well not exist.

But if we've done a good job, then you can lay your hands on the information you need quickly. Or we can lay our hands on it quickly and get it to you.

And that's magic. That's the opposite experience I like to think we've all had. You need that critical piece of information, right now, and, bang, all of a sudden someone hands it to you, or it pops right up for you. It's a beautiful moment. It's a gratifying moment for everyone involved.

So next time you need to find something? You know where to go - to your librarians in your corporation, university or community. Unless it's your car keys. We can't help you there. Unless you tagged them with a social tagging tool. Did you look on the couch?

Next up: Serendipity.

Scott Brown
Digital Libraries & Research
Sun Learning Services

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