INTERCONNECTEDNESS AND CONTINGENCIES: A STUDY OF CONTEXT IN COLLABORATIVE INFORMATION SEEKING

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INTERCONNECTEDNESS AND CONTINGENCIES: A STUDY OF CONTEXT IN COLLABORATIVE INFORMATION SEEKING

ABSTRACT

Collaborative information seeking (CIS) is an important aspect of work in organizational settings. Researchers are developing a more detailed understanding of CIS activities and the tools to support them; however, most studies of CIS focus on how people find and retrieve information collaboratively, while overlooking the important question of how context affects CIS activities. This dissertation focuses on unpacking the concept of context to understand how contextual factors affect CIS.

Although context is an important topic in numerous disciplines, a common definition in the research is difficult to identify. Broadly, context includes the circumstances and conditions that surround and affect a phenomenon. These circumstances and conditions may be tangible or intangible and could include location, position, people, objects, function, purpose, meaning, or time.

In this dissertation, I address two important gaps in current research on CIS as related to context. First, there is limited research on the contextual factors that can affect collaborative information seeking activities. Second, there is a lack of understanding on how contextual factors influence collaborative information seeking activities.

To address these research gaps I conducted an ethnographic field study of the CIS activities of information technology teams in two hospitals. In this field study, I used qualitative methods including interviews, observations, shadowing, and artifact collection to examine the contextual factors impacting CIS activities and how these contextual factors impacted CIS practices.

Through this investigation, I contribute to the research field by offering a conceptual understanding of the contextual factors affecting collaborative information seeking activities in organizational settings. Specifically, this study (i) identifies categories of contextual factors impacting CIS activities, (ii) explains how the contextual factors impacted those CIS activities, and (iii) develops a framework of contextual factors and their impact on collaborative information seeking in organizations.

The research presented in this dissertation helps us extend our conceptual understanding of context and collaborative information seeking and also highlights the importance of studying context as an aspect of CIS.

Chapter 1. Introduction

This chapter introduces the central problems addressed in the dissertation and lays out the research objectives and related questions answered herein. Additionally, I describe the approach used to fulfill the research objectives. Finally, I present an outline of the dissertation.

1.1.      Problem Motivation

Information technology departments are very dynamic in nature, characterized by a constant need for information, time-pressured decision making, distributed work activities, and functionally diverse teams. The vignette below illustrates how collaborative information seeking activities are central to the IT issue resolution processes used to address clients’ problems and how contextual factors can impact these activities.

Location: IT Department, Regional Health System (pseudonym)

Richard, the on-call analyst on the Clinical Software Services team, is assigned a client issue. Although Richard is able to determine the cause of the problem, he does not know how to resolve it. Therefore, he decides to ask other people to help him find the needed information to tackle the problem. Richard has several people from which to choose, so he considers each person’s availability, reputation, and the quality of information they can provide before pulling together his ad hoc team. Once together, the team works together to find and share information until they can resolve the issue. (Field notes)

Research in collaborative information seeking (CIS) has traditionally focused on how people find and retrieve information collaboratively, while overlooking the important question of how context affects CIS activities. However, in recent years researchers (Dervin, 1998; Hyldegård, 2009; Zach, 2005) have explicitly considered how context impacts CIS activities and processes, while other researchers (Chen & Huang, 2007; Greer et al., 1998; Yang, 2007) have done so only implicitly. As the vignette illustrates, contextual factors, such as a person’s availability, reputation, and the quality of information they can provide, can impact collaborative information seeking activities. Further these contextual factors are interconnected such that several factors can play a part in impacting CIS activities, in this case the creation of an ad hoc team.

Gaining a conceptual understanding of these various contextual factors and how they impact CIS activities is important. Such an understanding can help organizations to develop more effective organizational policies and systems to support CIS practices. To gain this understanding, this dissertation looks to (i) identify categories of contextual factors impacting CIS activities, (ii) explain how the contextual factors impacted those CIS activities, and (iii) develop a framework of contextual factors and their impact on collaborative information seeking in organizations.

Overall, if we are to understand how effective collaborative information can be facilitated in an organization, we must first understand the impact that contextual factors have on  the collaborative information seeking practices of team members (Reddy, 2003).

1.2.      Research Motivation

Historically, researchers have looked at several aspects of information seeking from models of the individual information seeker to the information seeking activities itself (Ellis & Haugan, 1997; Kuhlthau, 1988). However, as organizational work has to become more collaborative, we are not only seeing individuals seeking information, but there is a rise in collaborative information seeking in groups. For example, healthcare providers might collaboratively search for information to diagnose and treat patients in a hospital (Reddy & Spence, 2008), while engineering design teams might collaboratively search for information to uncover design constraints (Poltrock et al., 2003). With this shift from individual- to team-based work, researchers have followed suit by moving away from studying information seeking where the work itself is de-emphasized to studying information seeking in context where the work activities are central to the research.

Collaborative information seeking has broadly been defined as “activities that a group or team of people undertakes to identify and resolve a shared information need” (Poltrock et al., 2003, p. 239). More specifically collaborative information seeking includes elements such as “information access activities related to a specific problem solving activity that  involves people interacting with each other directly or indirectly” (P. Hansen & Järvelin, 2005, p. 1102), or as Sonnenwald and Pierce suggest, CIS is a dynamic activity in which “individuals must work together to seek, synthesize and disseminate information” (2000, p. 462). CIS is more than asking questions and receiving answers. It starts with an information need and is a dynamic and engaging process where two or more people together look for and communicate information to solve a shared information need.

There are numerous studies on collaborative information seeking. These studies of CIS focus on how people search for information collaboratively—from both an organizational work perspective and from a technical perspective (Reddy & Spence, 2008; Shah & Gonzalez-Ibanez, 2010).

Researchers in the organizational stream conduct detailed ethnographic studies aimed at uncovering the everyday work practices associated with collaboration and information seeking. Researchers in the technical stream conduct user studies and design, build, and evaluate systems aimed at better supporting collaboration and information-seeking activities. Both streams of research are interested in the “collaborative information seeker”; however, the distinction between them is the nature of the phenomena being studied. Researchers with a technical focus examine how, whether, and the extent to which technologies support the CIS activities studied (Fu, Goh, Foo, & Supangat, 2004; Golovchinsky, Qvarfordt, & Pickens, 2009). On the other hand, organizational researchers focus on how CIS occurs in organizational settings, explicating the activities and processes that take place during collaborative information seeking (Bruce et al., 2003; Hyldegård, 2006; Paul & Reddy, 2010). Studies from both streams have taken place in various domains including military, educational, engineering, and healthcare contexts.

Organizational studies focus on a wide variety of collaborative information seeking practices in organizational settings (Hertzum, 2008; Hyldegård, 2009; Poltrock et al., 2003; Sarcevic, 2009; Spence & Reddy, 2007). Several studies highlight how information is used and reused (Cabitza & Simone, 2009; Lutters & Ackerman, 2007; White & Lutters, 2007), whereas others emphasize expertise location during CIS activities (Ackerman, 1994; Ackerman &

Malone, 1990; Dörner, Pipek, & Won, 2007; Ehrlich, Lin, & Griffiths-Fisher, 2007; Greer et al., 1998; McDonald & Ackerman, 1998). Still others have identified typical tasks and activities performed during collaborative information seeking (Saleh & Large, 2011; Shelby & Capra, 2011).

Some researchers in information seeking have discussed the importance of context. For example, in a study of sensemaking, knowledge seeking, and use, Dervin (1998) explains that the application of sensemaking to the design of information communication technologies (ICTs) must not only be responsive, iterative, and open, but it must also conceptualize “knowledge making and using” in a way that “unleashes sensemaking for the realities of human situation-facing” (p.44-45). Further, Zach (2005) uses a contextual approach to the study of the informationseeking practices of senior arts administrators. What these and others studies have in common is “a move away from research that does not account for the here and the now (i.e., time and space) to research that does” (Dervin, 2003, p. 114). In essence, they take into account the situation or context of the information seeking activities and make it a central “actor” in the study.

However, many studies and models have implicitly included contextual factors affecting the collaborative information seeking activities of knowledge workers (Ju & Pawlowski, 2011), this has not been their focus (Goggins & Lewis, 2010). Instead, these studies underscore how individuals in a collaborative setting seek, retrieve, and share information, rather than how contextual structures and policies might affect these activities. This is acutely problematic in settings where teamwork is an essential aspect of the work and thus the success of an organization, such as it is in IT teams in healthcare, clinical healthcare teams, and military command and control environments.

Therefore, it is important that we not only study CIS processes and activities but also the context in which the activities take place. This understanding can help lead to the better design of processes, policies, and technologies that enable collaborative information seeking.

I have identified two important gaps in the current research on collaborative information seeking that motivate the research presented in this dissertation:

  1. Limited research on the contextual factors that can affect collaborative information seeking. There is currently little research on the contextual factors affecting collaborative information seeking. This lack of research has far-reaching negative consequences for team success in domains in which teamwork and collaboration are required in order to ensure the delivery of safe and reliable services, such as in healthcare and in the military. ii.          Lack of understanding regarding how contextual factors influence collaborative information seeking.  Though it is important to know about the contextual structures in and of themselves, we must also understand how these structures, alone and in combination with each other, influence CIS activities. Before we can design policies and procedures, we must first understand the organizational contexts in which teams work together to seek, share, and manage information.

1.3.      Research Objectives and Questions

The two main research objectives of this dissertation study are (i) to identify contextual factors that can affect collaborative information seeking activities and (ii) to understand how these contextual factors affect collaborative information seeking activities. Thus, I investigated the following research questions about contextual factors with regard to collaborative information seeking in order to address the research objectives of the study:

RQ1: What contextual factors impact CIS practices?

RQ2: How do these contextual factors impact CIS practices?

Answering RQ1 will help achieve the first research objective (i) of the study, whereas the second research objective (ii) will be addressed by answering RQ2. Table 1-1 provides a mapping of the research gaps to the research objectives and questions.

Table 1-1. Map of Research Gaps to Research Objectives and Research Questions.

Research Gap Research Objective Research Question
Limited research on the contextual factors that can affect collaborative information seeking To identify contextual factors that can affect CIS activities What contextual factors impact CIS practices?
Lack of understanding on how contextual factors influence collaborative information seeking To understand how contextual factors affect CIS activities How do these contextual factors impact CIS practices?

 

By answering these research questions, this investigation contributes to the research field by offering a conceptual understanding of the contextual factors affecting collaborative information seeking activities in organizational settings. Specifically, this study (i) identifies the key factors likely to influence collaborative information seeking activities, (ii) explains how the contextual factors impact those CIS activities, and (iii) develops a framework of contextual factors and their impact on collaborative information seeking in organizations. In order to answer these research questions, I conducted a qualitative study employing ethnographic methods (Strauss & Corbin, 1998)  including observations, formal and informal interviews, and artifact collection. The next section describes my approach to answering the research questions.

1.4.      Research Approach

To answer my research questions, I examined collaborative information seeking in the rich and information-intensive environment in which hospital IT teams operate through a qualitative research study.

1.4.1. Healthcare Teams

Healthcare IT teams work in a setting that is ideal for the study of collaborative information seeking in an organizational environment.  First and foremost, such teams work in information-rich environments in which they must collaborate to carry out their work activities.

Further, these IT teams are composed of IT professionals from a number of disciplines (e.g. enterprise architecture, network systems, applications development, etc.); such that each team member brings his/her own particular expertise, experience, and perspective to the team. Moreover, these teams perform a common task, software and technology support and implementation, in a somewhat similar fashion; therefore, by studying them, I can generalize across these teams. Finally, nearly every business organization has an IT team because such a team “houses critical data, drives the analytical capabilities of other departments and [thus] plays a crucial role in the communication network of the company” (Bart, 2007).

IT teams in healthcare play an even more important role in the organization than in other contexts because they are essentially the front-line information workers. Hospitals are information-intensive, safety-critical, high-reliability organizations, and the growth of IT in this setting is such that the technology and information systems are pervasive in patient care (Bates, 2002). Information gaps and errors can lead to inappropriate patient care decisions. Therefore, IT teams play an important role in ensuring the safety of patients because their work in supporting all hospital IT systems and ensuring their availability has a direct impact on patient care.

Given these characteristics of healthcare IT departments, IT team members with varying experience, skills, and roles often collaborate in order to find and share information. Using ethnographic methods such as observations, interviews, and artifact collection, I examined IT team members’ interactions as they collaboratively found, retrieved, and shared information during their daily organizational work. This study provides insight into the occasions and characteristics of collaborative information-seeking activities in organizational contexts. This study also lays the foundations for a conceptual understanding of which contextual factors affect CIS work activities and how they do so and how collaborative information seeking can be supported in organizational settings using information technology.

1.4.2. Research Settings

For this ethnographic field study, I collected data at one primary site and later collected data at a second site to confirm my findings from the first site. Collecting data at the first site allowed me to study the CIS activities of teams working in the information technology (IT) department of the Regional Health System (pseudonym). Using interviews, observations, and artifact collection, I examined how teams collaboratively find, retrieve, and share information “in the wild.” The findings provide a conceptual understanding of why and how contextual factors affect collaborative information seeking.

Drawing on the findings and design implications that arose from the primary data collection site, I then collected data at a second site in order to confirm the findings from the first site and to further examine collaborative information seeking and contextual factors as well as CIS-enhancing design features in organizational information systems. I once again selected an IT department, this time at the Teaching Medical Center (pseudonym). Again, through observations and artifact collection, I examined how people find, retrieve, and share information during collaborative organizational work and the challenges faced during such tasks.

Thus, through this comprehensive field study, I examined collaborative information seeking in the organizational context of healthcare IT teams from both a conceptual and a design perspective. This research approach was helpful in providing a holistic understanding of the contextual factors that affect collaborative information seeking.

1.5.      Dissertation Roadmap

The remainder of this dissertation is organized as follows:

  • Chapter 2 Background: provides a review of relevant research studies of collaborative information seeking and knowledge sharing.
  • Chapter 3 Study Design and Methodology: describes the processes and methods used in the research project, focusing on the data collection and analysis methods used in the study.
  • Chapter 4 Research Setting: provides an overview of the research settings and the participants.
  • Chapter 5 Findings: presents the main findings regarding the contextual factors impacting collaborative information seeking.
  • Chapter 6 Discussion: describes the implications of the results of the study.
  • Chapter 7 Conclusion: briefly summarizes the findings as they relate to the goals of this research and offers directions for future work.

 

INTERCONNECTEDNESS AND CONTINGENCIES: A STUDY OF CONTEXT IN COLLABORATIVE INFORMATION SEEKING

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