Information in the workplace: can employees really handle it?

Information in the workplace: can employees really handle it?


Image Credit: Les Taylor, on Flickr

Back in January, I suggested in an earlier NCUB blog piece that the know-how and competences required to handle information – what is sometimes termed information literacy – are important contributors for a skilled workforce. But this sort of know-how is often taken for granted, and not always well-recognised as a distinct set of attributes. Arguably, there is a case for employers, and other players at the interface between higher education and employment, to reflect on how information literacy can contribute to the viability and success of enterprises across all sectors.

"Our work suggests that there are concerns about whether universities are really doing enough to equip graduates with the relevant information know-how."

Two new pieces of work, produced under the auspices of the InformAll initiative (which grew out of the RIDLs network described in the January blog), provide a basis for reflecting on what information literacy might mean in practice. The two reports make clear, for instance that:

  • Although information literacy is not well-known as a term or a concept, there is among employers and others an understanding of the relevance, and in many cases the vital importance of know-how associated with the handling of information;
  • Inasmuch as elements of information literacy are recognised, they tend to be scattered among attributes that are more obvious or familiar; or that are integral to or subsumed in other competencies that are widely sought after, such as analytical and problem-solving abilities, and also to digital skills and the ability to handle large volumes of data.

At the same time, major surveys of employers relating to workforce skills, such as those run by the CBI and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills cover a wide range of employment attributes, but none of these refer to information know-how. Such organisations indicate that employers themselves tend not to express a distinct need for this know-how.

But our work suggests that there are concerns about whether universities (let alone schools) are really doing enough to equip graduates with the relevant information know-how. Graduates are not always proficient in the critical analysis of information and in understanding the nature of information sources. They may even display a tendency to take information at face value, to be too trustful or unquestioning of sources that are superficial or not sufficiently evidence-based, to be insufficiently critical. And even when they attain appropriate levels of proficiency, they may not necessarily transfer to the world of employment (and also to the challenge of job-seeking and career management) the sort of information savviness that they would have acquired in academic settings.

"Graduates are not always proficient in the critical analysis of information and in understanding the nature of information sources."

So there is a tension between a belief that information know-how is addressed inherently through a range of other capabilities, and a perception that there are worrying shortcomings in the ability of graduates to handle information in a sophisticated way. There could therefore be value developing a dialogue between stakeholders with an interest in employability to:

  • Explain what information literacy itself means, in order to set out clearly the skills, competences and capabilities that it relates to; and doing so where appropriate with reference to the distinct needs of different disciplines and sectors;
  • Demonstrate how the different attributes associated with information literacy contribute to generic concepts such as employability and 'graduateness'.

This might provide a good basis for universities and employers to look at the respective and complementary roles that they must play in developing training to ensure that future and current employees have appropriate levels of information literacy. InformAll is looking to foster such a dialogue, and I would welcome any interest in taking part in this conversation from the NCUB community– please contact me at stephane.goldstein@researchinfonet.org; and look out for more information on the RIDLs initiative at www.informall.org.uk.

Stéphane Goldstein has worked as a manager in higher education and research funding, initially with the Medical Research Council and Research Councils UK, and since 2005 with the Research Information Network. He has managed numerous research projects over this period, and latterly has taken the lead in the building, development and running of the InformAll initiative – the network for the promotion of information literacy in higher education. He has undertaken research and analysis in other areas, including research data management and data publication.

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