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Rivers of knowledge

9th Specials, Health and Law Libraries Conference

Is information literacy relevant in the real world?

C O'Sullivan
Blake Dawson Waldron Lawyers, Perth, Western Australia


The discourse on information literacy has largely taken place within the education domain and among information professionals working in that sector. While there have been strong arguments put forth that both information literacy and the closely allied concept, lifelong learning, are critical for social and professional empowerment in a knowledge-based economy, very few board rooms have information literacy on the agenda. Is information literacy in fact relevant outside libraries? What does it mean for organisations? Does it already exist under other names or in different forms? How does information literacy relate to knowledge management?

The relevance of information literacy outside libraries

Plug the term 'information literacy' into a search engine or article database, exclude libraries or education from the results, and you'll end up with very little content[1]. Change the term to 'information management', again excluding libraries and educational institutions, and you'll find it very easy to buy a Palm Pilot, but not so easy to find reference to the skills of defining information needs, and finding, evaluating, creating, using and sharing information and knowledge. Mentions of information literacy or information management (apart from those relating to software), are at best sporadic outside the isolation of the library and teaching professions.

It is clear that we are not using the same dictionary or even the same language as business. However, the basic question is - does the business community even want to hear about the concept of information literacy, assuming we could overcome our communication difficulties? While the term information literacy is rarely mentioned in the popular business press, or even in knowledge management literature[2], are the concepts being considered by the business and management sectors?

The OECD has been indirectly considering these concepts for several years. The 1996 OECD report - The knowledge-based economy - discusses the increasing demand for more highly skilled workers, and the consequent need for governments to emphasise the upgrading of human capital through promoting access to a range of skills, and especially the capacity to learn[3]. While not using the term information literacy, the report includes the following observation:

'The knowledge-based economy is characterised by the need for continuous learning of both codified information and the competencies to use this information.

As access to information becomes easier and less expensive, the skills and competencies relating to the selection and efficient use of information become more crucial. ... Capabilities for selecting relevant and discarding irrelevant information, recognising patterns in information, interpreting and decoding information as well as learning new and forgetting old skills are in increasing demand.'[4]

This year, both major political parties released statements of their vision for Australia's economic future. In January we saw the government's report Backing Australia's ability: an innovation action plan for the future, and in July, the Knowledge Nation Taskforce released An agenda for the knowledge nation. Neither of these documents mention information literacy. This is not surprising given the lack of currency the term has outside the library sector. Perhaps it is more useful to ask whether either report touched on the attitudes and capabilities necessary for people to thrive in this innovative new world they envisage?

Both reports mention lifelong learning, but in the government's case it appears that lifelong learning is equated with formal postgraduate education[5], rather than 'the systematic acquisition, renewal, upgrading and completion of knowledge, skills and attitudes made necessary by the constantly changing conditions in which people now live'[6]. On the other hand, the Knowledge Nation report says:

'The 'Knowledge Nation' concept ... [has] its emphasis on cognition and understanding used in a human, social context, rather than concentrating on techniques of transmission, such as information technology, as if they were ends in themselves. ... The common element is the ability to use knowledge to transform society, the economy and the environment.'[7]

Later, the taskforce describes what the Knowledge Nation will look like, including reference to:

'A twenty-first century education system that:

  • provides all of its citizens with the opportunity to improve their skills and gain secure and well-paid jobs through properly funded lifelong learning and vocational education programs, including programs at the industry and enterprise level...'[8]

This is starting to sound more familiar to information professionals. Does it reflect action within the corporate sector?

The world's wealthiest person is a knowledge worker. Many of the big corporate players, such as KPMG, Ernst and Young, Xerox, BP, Shell, Dow Chemicals, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft are internationally recognised for their successful knowledge management programs. These companies understand the value of information and knowledge to the organisation and they maximise their use of it.

The amount spent on training in organisations is another predictor of success. A distinct relationship has been shown over several years between the amount invested in training, and companies' total shareholder return[9]. Successful businesses know the bottom line effect of investing in learning, and of fostering a knowledge sharing culture. Companies (particularly successful ones) are thinking about how they use knowledge and information within the organisation, how they encourage innovation, and how they facilitate learning. Surely this makes them interested in the same concepts that we refer to when we speak of information literacy.

A recent paper[10] (admittedly written as a sales pitch for technology 'solutions') reported on a study examining the information seeking habits of a large sample of corporate end-users in the USA. Over 6300 people were interviewed. They reported spending an average of eight hours per week obtaining, reviewing and analysing external information, with ten percent spending more than twenty hours per week on those activities. An overwhelming proportion (almost seventy per cent) found information themselves, rather than relying on current awareness material, colleagues, or librarians. And almost eighty per cent went to free information on the internet, rather than to experts, resources provided by the company, book stores, or libraries. Most interesting in this study were the reported barriers and drawbacks to looking for information. The list reads almost like a crude definition of information literacy:

  • End users don't know what information is available.
  • They have difficulty determining the quality, credibility and accuracy of the information.
  • The information they seek is too hard to find.
  • They are unable to compare across information alternatives.
  • They lack sufficient training.

It seems that employees in the corporate sector - and particularly knowledge workers - are faced with information overload, have difficulty finding what they need quickly and efficiently, and are struggling with issues of quality and credibility with the information they do find. Some corporations are addressing the bigger picture of organisation wide knowledge management, but perhaps not yet addressing the needs of the end users who must learn new skills to manage information in their daily work. If information literacy is viewed as a 'product', then, as Alan Bundy wrote in 1999, there is a virtually unlimited market for it.[11]

A rose by any other name

There is some evidence that information literacy concepts are beginning to be recognised by business and government as necessary 'new economy' skills, or at least that the move to a knowledge based economy, the currency of knowledge management theory, and investment in the facilitation of lifelong learning, has prepared the ground for interest in information literacy. There is still more evidence that business has not successfully addressed the information literacy gap at an employee level.

The standard definition of information literacy is found in the CAUL information literacy standards, released in March 2001:

'Information Literacy is an understanding and set of abilities enabling individuals to 'recognise when information is needed and have the capacity to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information'. An information literate person is able to:
  1. Recognise a need for information
  2. Determine the extent of information needed
  3. Access the needed information efficiently,
  4. Evaluate the information and its sources
  5. Incorporate selected information into their knowledge base
  6. Use information effectively to accomplish a purpose
  7. Understand economic, legal, social and cultural issues in the use of information
  8. Access and use information ethically and legally
  9. Classify, store, manipulate and redraft information collected or generated,
  10. Recognise Information Literacy as a prerequisite for lifelong learning.'[12]

An unanswered question is whether some or all of these concepts and skills are being addressed in the corporate world, but under different names. Perhaps corporations are treading a similar path to academic institutions, and concentrating on computer literacy before realising that mere technological skill doesn't adequately address how to understand, use and share information. Abell and Oxbrow note that 'a great deal of attention has been paid to the development of 'computer literacy', and computer literacy is now a core skill for many posts. The focus is on the ability to use computers and standard software applications, but stops short of being able to structure, find, evaluate and use the information to which a computer provides access'[13]. Will information literacy be the next core attribute demanded by human resources departments?

Perhaps terms like time management, information management, networking, teamwork, data mining, analysis, and even being web savvy, are how organisations describe the skills that amount, at least in part, to information literacy. Perhaps because information literacy involves 'soft' skills, it's been difficult for companies to define and therefore address those skills. Other so called 'soft skills' are seen as important to workers' roles - what is different about information literacy?

We cannot say with any confidence that information literacy is recognised as a distinct and commercially relevant concept (even under some other name) in the corporate world. There are indicators that information literacy is recognised (though not named) at some levels as an important enabler for knowledge workers, but this has not yet translated to widespread adoption of information literacy as a core competency within organisations. The conclusion is inevitable that most human resource managers and corporate executives simply do not know that information literacy exists as an holistic concept. While some parts of the concept - ability to access information, team work and knowledge sharing for instance - may be addressed in corporate strategies, role descriptions, and training, this is reasonably ad hoc, and doesn't resolve the very complex issues employees face in dealing with information in the workplace.

Knowledge management and information literacy

As stated earlier in this paper, companies are now thinking about how they use knowledge and information within the organisation, how they encourage innovation, and how they facilitate learning. Knowledge management - seen by some as a short lived fad - may lose its fad status, but it will have long term implications for the way businesses operate.

One theory is that businesses have been concentrating on implementing knowledge strategies and have not yet got past the infrastructure and management buy-in hurdles to the question of individual capability and contribution. When they do start to look more closely at how individuals are coping with life in a knowledge company, and at the employee's ability to contribute positively, the information literacy gap will be self-evident.

A group of chief knowledge officers participating in a discussion summit hosted by TFPL in October 2000 identified 7 core competencies for a knowledge management culture.

  1. Ability to learn - curious, seeks new knowledge.
  2. Self-initiation - acts like a business of one, doesn't wait to be told.
  3. Collaborative - a team player, positive regard for other people, not status driven.
  4. Intellectual linking - sees the big picture, makes connections.
  5. Humility - recognises that other people know things, learns from mistakes.
  6. Ability to think and do - with a focus on outcome.
  7. An appreciation of information management techniques.[14]

Abell and Oxbrow go on to say:

The ability to create, store, access and use information is essential to everyone working in a knowledge based environment. The concepts of information sharing, utilization and creation imply a level of information-handling skill. ... The universally acknowledged problem of information overload illustrates how poorly information management is understood or applied.[15]

They devote an entire chapter of their recent book Competing with knowledge to information literacy as a core competence, arguing that everyone should have a basic competence in managing information.[16] While the emphasis on information literacy in this particular text may not reflect a concern with these concepts in the wider knowledge management literature, the arguments are persuasive.

Information literacy focuses on interaction with information, including sharing and learning from it. The practice of information literacy, and its contribution to continuous learning, is an important part of knowledge creation. One of the issues that knowledge managers struggle with is the tension between technology based solutions (which really only address part of the picture) and wider organisational implementation. Information literacy can go some way to enabling knowledge management to move beyond software, by identifying the human processes and skills necessary for successful interaction with information, and enabling staff to take advantage of the structures and processes developed as part of a knowledge strategy. Information literate workers develop an intellectual and cultural framework that facilitates knowledge sharing.

The knowledge economy requires new skills of workers. Trans4mation Training identified 10 skills produced by knowledge management.

  1. Time management skills - to use time and energy effectively to acquire knowledge
  2. Mastery of different learning techniques - to absorb key knowledge and learn quickly
  3. Skills of advocacy and inquiry - to present knowledge and gather it from others
  4. Informal networking skills - to build influence and gain access to people with knowledge
  5. Resource investigation skills
  6. Effective IT skills - for recording and disseminating information
  7. Skills of co-operative problem-solving
  8. Open dialogue skills
  9. Flexibility and willingness to try new things and take educated risks
  10. Ability to actively review risks, opportunities and successes.[17]

Many of these - advocacy, the ability to learn, networking, resource investigation, IT skills, problem solving, and review - sit comfortably within the information literacy framework information professionals are so familiar with. David Skyrme has referred to these 'soft skills' as the foundation layer of a knowledge strategy.[18]

Future directions

Where do advocates of information literacy as a core 21st century competency go from here? Milne put out a challenge to librarians in 2000 - 'the opportunities are there, but are information professionals ready? Do they recognise too, that their attitudes must be in tune with the needs of this new order [of knowledge workers?] if they are to become strategic partners in the knowledge processes within their own organisations?'[19]

If we are using a different language from corporate managers and staff, then we need to learn a new one. School and university librarians have learned that integration and relevance are the keys to successful information literacy strategies. The same applies in the business world. For example, if human resource managers write role descriptions and appraisal forms, then information professionals must work along side them to include information literacy in those role descriptions and to have information literacy recognised as a core competency in appraisals. However, we must not merely promote our own sectorial interests. We must broaden our outlook, see ourselves as part of the business, and pursue interests that are relevant to it. In a knowledge based world, no one can afford to live in an ivory tower. Success comes from networks and alliances[20], learning from outsiders and adapting to environmental change.

It is clear that information literacy has never been more relevant to the corporate world than it is today. We have a ready market with a discernible need. Now is the time to launch a saleable product.


1. A couple of interesting results I found included a 1992 article at describing how Shell Oil executives were becoming information literate, and a 1997 article: Nancy S. Mueller, 'Missing the competitive advantage boat (literacy in computer, information and information technology' 1997 42(1) Managing Office Technology 33, that discusses how organisational training programs should incorporate these literacies to prepare employees to be lifelong learners.

2. Abell, A. and Oxbrow, N., Competing with knowledge: the information professional in the knowledge management age. London: Library Association Publishing, 2001 is a notable exception. It's a text on knowledge management directed at the library and information profession.

3. The knowledge-based economy. Paris: OECD, 1996, 7, 19. (OECD/GD (96) 102)

4. Ibid 13.

5. Backing Australia's ability: an innovation action plan for the future. Canberra: Dept. of Industry, Science and Resources, 2001, 21 : plans to encourage lifelong learning by establishing a loans scheme for postgraduate fee paying students.

6. Candy, P., Crebert, G and O'Leary, J. Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1994, 17.

7. An agenda for the knowledge nation: report of the knowledge nation taskforce. Canberra: Chifley Research Centre, 2001, 9-10.

8. Ibid 35.

9. Bassie, L., Ludwig, J, McMurrer, D, and Van Buren, M. Profiting from learning: do firms' investment in education and training pay off?: research white paper. Saba, 2000. This study of 575 publicly traded US firms showed a direct correlation between an increase in spending on training one year, and an increase in shareholder return (stock price plus dividends) the following year. It also showed that when companies with higher spending per capita on training were compared with lower spending companies, those in the first group achieved considerably higher shareholder returns - eighty-six per cent higher than the comparison group, and forty-five per cent higher than market average.

10. White paper for Moreover Technologies: managing online information to maximise corporate intranet ROI. Burlingame, CA: Outsell, 2001.

11. Bundy, A. 'Information literacy: the 21st century educational smartcard' (1999) 30(4) Australian Academic and Research Libraries 233, 242. Bundy writes of information literacy as a 'product' that has an unlimited market with absolute need of it, but recognises that the market has not yet realised that it needs the product, or even that the product exists.

12. Information literacy standards. Canberra: Council of Australian University Librarians, 2001.

13. Abell, above n 2, 131.

14. Ibid 111.

15. Ibid 132.

16. Ibid 135-141 - discusses information skills and how they apply to knowledge management.

17. 'Knowledge management: taming the information beast' (2000) 1(11) Human Resources 15, 16.

18. Skyrme, Dr. D. 'Knowledge management: making it work' (1999) 31(2) The Law Librarian 84, 87.

19. Milne, P. 'Information professionals and the knowledge-aware, intelligent organisation: skills for the furture' (2000) 49(2) Australian Library Journal 139, 140.

20. Rooney, D. and Mandeville, T. 'The knowing nation: a framework for public policy in a post-industrial knowledge economy' (1998) 16(4) Prometheus 453, 456.

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