Obtaining Information within Organizations LO28903

From: HJRobles@aol.com
Date: 07/26/02

Replying to LO28864 --

Dear Craig,

Your e-mail hit home. I don't know that I have an answer but in my
organization, a community college of 12,000 students and about 500
fulltime employees, we struggle with the same problem. We are awash in
data. We have a lot of information, more than we can get our hands
around, and most of it not in any one place. And since we are a "people"
business with more than 85% of our operating budget invested in faculty
and staff, the amount of knowledge they individually and collectively
possess is undoubtedly staggering. Our issue is the same as yours -- how
to access what we need to know when we need to know it. How to draw on
the collective knowledge and wisdom of several hundred professionals to
move the college forward in its primary mission, to educate those 12,000
students to achieve their 12,000 goals.

To begin to address the problem (or "opportunity" as we wryly refer to the
near-impossible), I formed a kind of skunk works with a few of the best
systems thinkers on campus, one of whom is the chief technology officer
because technology is maybe the best tool we have to disseminate
information (second only to the rumor mill). And then the fates were kind
enough to send me a graduate student looking for a research project on
communities of practice in education and he happens to have experience in
the computer engineering industry developing taxonomies, etc. I added him
to the team because he also provided an external perspective.

We started real small. We picked a process that no one knew anything
about and tried to see how we would access information to help solve a
problem. We chose something as seemingly insignificant as how to get a
replacement bulb for an overhead projector in the middle of giving a
lecture. How would an instructor get a bulb? Well, by the time we mapped
out that process, it was clear that the instructor was not likely to get a
replacement bulb. That information was not truly accessible. So, that's
where we started, -- building some ideas about how to make one piece of
useful information accessible. That exercise has led us to look at all the
various ways information can be distributed and not all of them are
high-tech, e.g., tape an extra bulb to the projector cart. (Of course,
then you have to have a system to acquire the bulbs, tape the bulbs,
replace them, etc., so that wasn't a final answer.)

It's a small start, but we're beginning to get a picture of how we have to
study processes and people and understand what information they want/need
and how they intuitively try to find out things. Then we try to see if we
can construct systems that respond. It's a huge challenge because
classroom teaching is a pretty isolated activity and teachers have a hard
time exchanging this kind of information. It's easier with support staff.

It's not a huge effort; in fact, we are deliberately staying under the
institutional radar screen because that's how things actually get done in
my environment. But we think that bit by bit we will be able to improve
information sharing and even if the outcomes are small at first, we'll
learn enough to tackle larger ones. And in the meantime, some poor
instructor might be saved the aggravation of having her carefully planned
presentation fall apart for lack of a bulb.

Harriett J. Robles



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