Public Release: 

Study shows that workers seek information from people they already know

Familiarity breeds content

University of Washington

Even with the Internet at their fingertips, people who really need information are more likely to seek it from other people - especially people they know.

That is what University of Washington researchers discovered when they tracked, in minute detail, how 31 aerospace engineers obtained information vital to their work. The engineers usually chose human sources over written ones and were three times more likely to choose familiar people over experts they didn't know.

The study by UW Information School professor Raya Fidel and assistant professor Maurice Green will be published in the journal Information Processing and Management.

"The human side of information-seeking is so important," Fidel said. "This shows that companies would benefit from encouraging richer social connections."

That could mean offering free cafeteria lunches once a week, or installing small kitchens where employees can "bump into" colleagues. Support meetings of people who do similar jobs, known as a "community of practice," also can expand connections, the researchers said.

"But richer social connections do not result from management dictates - that doesn't work," Green said. "Provide a variety of incentives to the rank and file in order to encourage and support them as they make those connections."

The researchers analyzed more than 600 single-spaced pages of their transcribed interviews to understand the engineers' thinking and performance in doing recent work tasks:

  • Ninety-seven percent of the engineers consulted another person at least once, while 77 percent searched the Internet and intranet sites at least once.
  • Among 117 situations in which a person was the source consulted, it most often was a co-worker (31 percent of cases), followed by an outside expert (29 percent).
  • The most common reason for selecting a person as a source - by a factor of more than 3 to 1 - was that the engineer knew the person.

Fidel, who also serves as co-director of the UW's new Center for Human-Information Interaction, said the study validates the use of structured but open-ended interviews to dissect complex information-seeking processes. Larger-scale studies using the technique will lead, she said, to the design and implementation of information systems that can boost the productivity and satisfaction of workers in many fields.

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For more information, contact Fidel at 206-543-1888 or fidelr@u.washington.edu, or Green at 206-616-0988 or mauriceg@u.washington.edu.
The Center for Human-Information Interaction Web address is http://www.ischool.washington.edu/research/chii.htm.

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