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Information Literacy in the Workplace

Fri, 12/14/2012 - 10:31am
Sasha Gurke, Senior Vice President and Co-Founder, Knovel, New York, N.Y

Novice engineers can't leave learning in the dorm room.

Web SearchIn today's engineering environment, information literacy is essential for those preparing to enter the workplace. As more experienced engineers retire, incoming engineers increasingly have to solve problems without easy access to mentors and peers who may have the insight and information the beginners need. While graduates would like to ask advice from a more experienced colleague, they increasingly turn to other sources for help.

While engineering graduates enter the field with heads full of theory and equations, the most valuable skill they need to possess is how to effectively and efficiently locate reliable answers. This is not only important for entry-level roles, but also for engineers who move up the ranks quickly into leadership positions, as well as those engineers who are reassigned to other divisions of a company.

Knowledgeable engineers can best solve problems when they have access to trusted resources. In fact, many engineers already spend a considerable amount of time researching while on the job. According to engineering scholars Carol Tenopir and Donald W. King, (Communication Patterns of Engineers, Wiley Interscience, 2004), 83% of an engineer's required knowledge is acquired after graduation. Engineers spend about 25% of the business week, or approximately nine hours, working with external information. Of this number, 48% of that time is spent gathering information. These numbers are increasing as projects become more complex and demanding.

With the current economy going through rapid booms and busts, companies regularly expand or shrink as necessary. When they shrink, often the most experienced people are among those lost. Novice engineers increasingly need to depend on their own information-gathering skills to find the answers to their technical questions and to build know-how.

Information literacy is important for the engineer who desires to stay current with changes or to advance their career. Current information is also vital to help avoid costly mistakes. Readily available and authoritative information is especially critical during the innovation process. To make changes, optimizations, and improvements during the early stages of design, access to reliable and trustworthy information is necessary. If an engineer makes a critical mistake during a product's design phase due to lack of critical information, it can halt production and hurt the organization's bottom line.

Because engineers need reliable answers to technical questions, it is imperative that engineering schools and companies equip these engineers and scientists with the proper tools they need now and throughout their careers.

The source of information is critical; engineers need to trust the data much more than the average Internet surfer. While you can browse a stack of reference materials in the corporate library or conduct a Google search, Web-based knowledge management systems can deliver faster, more accurate, and more verifiable information for engineers to help them produce better results under deadlines.

The first place many people turn to for assistance is commercial search engines. But these search results often mix the bad with the good results.

Since accessible information is increasing exponentially, it has become more of a challenge to discover what is relevant. In order to interpret and evaluate the quality of the information, novice engineers and scientists need to know how to discern what is reliable and what is misleading. Workers can drown in the sea of information available today. The knowledge of how to search efficiently and look for precise information and data is an asset.

Engineers should know how to find the right solutions to their problems online, not just with Google, but with alternative electronic resources as well. The ideal information-literate engineer will access the Internet to communicate and collaborate with other engineers worldwide. But they will also rely on specialized sources with validated information that offer more precise and accurate information. More importantly, the information-literate engineer should know how to analyze and evaluate the information they find to determine whether it is appropriate to help them make a decision or finish a project.

Engineers often need trusted information including standards and codes that are offered from specialized sources with a vast database of references. These systems aggregate content from a variety of trusted sources including publishers and technical societies. Engineers save time because it's easier and faster to find the exact information they need from sources that have been properly vetted.

Other required functionality includes advanced search capabilities, Boolean searching with wildcard truncation, phrase matching, and bibliographic limit fields. Tools that let engineers incorporate tables, graphs, and equations directly into their workflow to maximize efficiency are beneficial.

From classroom to career
All engineering students should be required to take classes in informatics. Academic librarians ensure engineering students and faculty are up to date on the available electronic resources and can assist students with research and how to cite sources properly. However, this learning does not end upon graduation.

All engineering jobs, now and in the future, will involve making technical decisions, problem solving, and providing solutions. Nothing can substitute what the human brain, knowledge, and experience offers. However, knowledge management systems can act as a useful aid. Engineers need to learn how to use this technology to be successful now and later in their career.

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