Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Vivisimo, Google, and Yahoo… Oh my!

A stack of papers is clustered around me, scratching my monitor’s chin. In order to gain some insight on what they actually say I’ve decided to break them on the rack of personal experience.

The other day I was talking to my brother on the phone. As part of the conversation he asked me: “What search engine do you use?” I use several different engines depending of the issue I’m researching. I realized, however, that the unasked question was: “What search engine should one use?” Perhaps my recent readings can cast some light on this question.

In addressing the question of search engine use we have an interesting question. In perhaps few other information seeking activities can we find such a clear example of “information-as-thing” (Buckland, 1991) that adhere to the Shannon-Weaver model of information transfer. Cognitive models of information use should certainly apply. Frohmann’s (Frohmann, 1992) analysis of our field’s conception of information as a commodity, however, lurks in the back of my mind. In the example of my brother searching the web, where are the institutions and power structures?

Although my brother isn’t incarcerated, I’m reminded of Chatman’s work on the information practices of prisoners (Chatman, 1999). In her study, she discerned four factors that govern information practices: small world, social norms, worldview, and social types. Do these same characteristics exist in larger communities “in the open” such as Wenger’s notion of Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998)? In some ways, my brother is beholden to particular views, language, and stereotypes of his profession and environment. As Dervin indicates, our information practices come out of our social practices (Dervin, 1992; Dervin & Nilan, 1986) yet these issues are patently ignored by most search engines.

Google presents a world where anyone can search for anything. Most people, however, won’t search for anything but rather what they know and will explicitly ignore those things that disrupt their “Way of Life” (Savolainen, 1995). Perhaps tools like Teoma or Vivisimo, which utilize clustering technology, help people to better understand the information space that are presented by search engines. The cluster names themselves, however, are mere products of our semantically unstable language so the user is likely to encounter a “spin-out stop” (Dervin, 1992) when the choices presented don’t match their personal mental models of the information space.

Although the web may be a difficult tool to use and few information professionals actually use it (Bates, 1999), it is still very popular. Perhaps one reason for this popularity is the density of forage and prey (see Sandstrom, 1994 for discussion). Optimal foraging models, however, reveal some real limitations to search engines as information seeking tools. One aspect of foraging models is the marginal utility functions between search times and handling times. Although the web provides the user with very quick search times that reveal abundant information, the user is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time processing this information to find valuable or useful documents. Another aspect of the models involves between-patch travel time and within-patch foraging time. Although the web appears to be one very big patch, it is actually a collection of disparate patches broken out across various domains, sites, and document types. Furthermore, these patches remain unbroken by the domesticity of controlled vocabulary to improve the ease of searching within particular patches (see discussion of controlled vocabulary in Star, 1998).

Although I’ve gained some understanding of the difficulties presented by the web as an information source, I’m still not any closer to answering my brother’s question. Falling back to the cognitive paradigm I can analyze particular aspects of search engines in relation to the existing models of information seeking (Wilson, 1999). Using Kuhlthau’s stage process model we see that all search engines are very good at starting searches and extracting information but are quite ineffective at chaining searches together or allowing users to truly differentiate between documents. Wilson’s 1996 model is based largely on psychological or internal user factors that search engines are completely indifferent to. Other models apparently closely mimic search engine functionality e.g., Saracevic’s and Spink’s. It should be noted, however, that these are inherently IR models and subject to all of the shortcomings of the cognitive approach (Frohmann, 1992). In none of these models can I find the guidance I need to decide between Google, AllTheWeb, Teoma, Altavista, or Vivisimo.

In my analysis of search engines, I have complete ignored one aspect: passive information seeking and the process of monitoring information (Chatman, 1999; Savolainen, 1995; Williamson, 1998). In this regard, search engines truly suck. I have often decided to surf the web as a means of procrastination only to find that I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read. As a passive medium, Google only offered some bright bubble letters to look at rather than a source of potentially useful information. Indeed, I typically rely on public radio for news and general information rather than the web. Certain exceptions do exist. I have relied on Yahoo! for a number of years to provide my personal email. Although their mail client is terribly designed I find that regular visits to the customized myYahoo! portal home page a wonderful source of news that I may otherwise miss. In this regard it seems unfortunate that web portals are out of vogue.

After all of this, I still don’t have any solid recommendations for my brother. Perhaps in the Darwinian web environment we will see new technology to support information seeking emerge from the primordial muck. Hopefully one of them will finally validate one of our information seeking models.


Bates, M. E. (1999). Super searchers do business : the online secrets of top business researchers. Medford, NJ: Information Today.
Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351-360.
Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(3), 207-217.
Dervin, B. (1992). From the mind's eye of the user: The sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In J. D. Glazier & R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative research in information management (pp. xiv, 238 p.). Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.
Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. (1986). Information Needs and Uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21.
Frohmann, B. (1992). The power of images: A discourse analysis of the cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Documentation, 48, 365-386.
Sandstrom, P. E. (1994). An optimal foraging approach to information seeking and use. Library Quarterly, 64(4), 414-449.
Savolainen, R. (1995). Everyday Life Information-Seeking - Approaching Information-Seeking in the Context of Way of Life. Library & Information Science Research, 17(3), 259-294.
Star, S. L. (1998). Grounded Classifications: Grounded Theory and Faceted Classifications. Library Trends, 47, 218-252.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Williamson, K. (1998). Discovered by chance: The role of incidental information acquisition in an ecological model of information use. Library & Information Science Research, 20(1), 23-40.
Wilson, T. D. (1999). Models in information behaviour research. Journal of Documentation, 55(3), 249-270.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Fishing for Constructed Answers


Knowledge Management as Fad: Lessons from the Construction Industry (see Creswell, 1994 for discussion on naming research projects)

Everyday I walk through the Grad Club on my way to the PhD office. As I open the door I look over my shoulder and see a wonderful sight: a new building rising from the dust; I hear the cries of the construction workers and recognize the choreography of a construction site.

And I notice something else. My experience as a Civil Engineer has given me the vocabulary I need to see the fish.

Over the past few months I have been involved in a number of online discussions about Knowledge Mangement (KM). Many of these conversations concerned KM in construction. It seems that the construction world is turning to KM with great hopes that it will solve many of their problems. Upon reflection, I have to wonder how.


The KM literature has generally established a dichotomy of knowledge: explicit and tacit (see Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Polanyi, 1967). Unlike many industries that have embraced KM, however, construction has incredibly well developed mechanisms for exchanging exactly the kind of information that is embodied by this dichotomous definition. Construction is supported by a rich pantheon of official documents such as proposals, investigations, reports, GANTT charts, blue prints, receipts, catalogues, contracts, RFIs, progress reports, etc. (see Usenet: Goodall, 2003). These documents have been developed over the past 1300 years and represent an incredibly articulate demonstration of explicit knowledge. Similarly, the construction industry has robust means of exchanging tacit knowledge. Construction projects typically involve three different professions—engineers, architects, and planners—each of which has a professional association that mandates several years of experience and indoctrination in the profession before granting full membership. Likewise, labour is generally conducted by—or is at least supervised by—tradesmen who have spent many years honing their craft. While professional associations are relatively modern, the construction trade unions were established to facilitate the construction of cathedrals during the middle ages.

The construction industry should be the model of KM as indicated by the explicit/tacit dichotomy. But it’s not. There is considerable call to incorporate KM practices into construction (Rezgui, 2001).

I propose that the issue is not that construction needs KM but rather that the intellectual premise of KM is completely unfounded as demonstrated by the construction industry.

Research Approach

As I walk across the Western campus I can see my shimmering fish. UWO is in the midst of the largest expansion program since the sixties (Haynes, 2002). The question is how to actually conduct the research.

Considerably ink has been spilt on the issue of KM in the construction industry (see bibliographies provided by George Goodall at and Unfortunately, much of this literature is rooted firmly in the existing process-focussed and technology-based KM paradigm. For the purposes of my research, this literature is valuable only for discursive reasons.

The undergraduate Civil Engineering cannon currently sitting on my bookshelf aptly represents the explicit dimension of KM in construction. The tacit dimension, however, is considerably more difficult to tease from the literature. Architecture tomes, for example, provide plenty of discussion regarding the interaction of people and buildings but generally cast little light on the interactions required to construct a building. Histories and biographies also provide interesting details of the construction industry. Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York (1928), for example, pays considerable attention to the role that tenements such as The Old Brewery played in the formation of the famous gangs of the Five Points and the Bowery. Again, the actual interactions of the workers are largely missing. A better choice for textual analysis may be a book such as Gay Talese’s The Bridge (2003) which details the construction of New York’s Verazanno Bridge. It should be noted, however, that these books lie far from the typical vade mecum of both KM and construction.

I realize that determining one specific research method may be difficult. While I’m unsure of what approach will actually appear in my proposal, I can mention several works that seem to be calling to me. The first is Wenger’s Communities of Practice (1998). Although I feel that Wenger’s conclusions may be unfounded, he does provide insight into the role of the observer-participant in collecting qualitative data for organizational research. Similarly, Mintzberg’s The nature of managerial work (1973) contains a very valuable appendix with descriptions of strategies for organizational research. While both Wenger and Mintzberg maintain a focus on artefacts, I suspect that the tacit dimension of construction that is crucial to my investigation will be invisible to official artefacts. To address this concern, I feel myself drawn to Yiannis Gabriel’s Storytelling in organizations (2000) and Karin Knorr Cetina’s Epistemic cultures (Knorr Cetina, 1999). Both Knorr Cetina and Gabriel describe the research methods they used to investigate the communication practices of particular organizations.


Asbury, H. (1928). The gangs of New York. New York & London,: A. A. Knopf.
Creswell, J. W. (1994). A Framework for the Study. In Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (pp. 1-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davenport, T. H., & Prusak, L. (1998). Working Knowledge : How organizations manage what they know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in organizations : facts, fictions, and fantasies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Goodall, G. (2003). Re: Knowledge management and sharing in construction idustry. Retrieved September 22, 2003, from
Haynes, J. (2002). Winds of Change. Western Alumni Gazette.
Knorr Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mintzberg, H. (1973). The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper & Row.
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company : How Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Polanyi, M. (1967). The tacit dimension. London,: Routledge & K. Paul.
Rezgui, Y. (2001). Review of information and the state of the art of knowledge management practices in the construction industry. Knowledge Engineering Review, 16(3), 241-254.
Talese, G. (2003). The bridge. New York: Walker & Company.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

Cavarly Hill: Judging the Paradigms

OBJECTIVE: Take hill 433-42 by 1200 09/22/2003

MISSION: Without aerial support, lone researcher to scale hill unaided and rest control from the occupying quals. Once taken, researcher to introduce hypotheses to purge hill of ethnographic contamination. If enemy fire encountered, government funding artillery barrage is available.

The world of research is a battlefield. The positivist Union has drawn together against the upstart Confederation of qualitative researchers. These two will fight to determine the future of research.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that there are only two paradigms within research: qualitative and quantitative(Singleton, Straits, & Straits, 1988). Furthermore, I find it difficult to support the notion that one is either a “qual” or a “quant” (Frohmann, 1992). The current state of research needs both approaches—in addition to many others—to maintain stability.

The sociologist Peter Galison has explored several battlefields of natural science. His favourite is the high energy physics lab (Galison, 1999). In studying the environs of particle accelerators, Galison detected three kinds of physicists: experimenters, theorists, and instrumentalists. Each community is essential for the overall project of high-energy physics. Each field, however, has seen considerable innovation in the last 15-years. In essence there have been miniature paradigm shifts (Kuhn, 1962) in each. The shifts, however, don’t occur simultaneously across the fields. Galison maintains that these shifts _can’t_ occur simultaneously since the shift still requires some kind of empirical support. A paradigm shift in theory, for example, must be validated by the stable science of the experimenters and instrumentalists. Qualitative research and quantitative research seem to lead a similar symbiotic relationship.

We have, however, seen a qualitative Reformation and must choose our methodology:

“Pragmatically, to use both paradigms adequately and accurately consumes more pages than journal editors are willing to allow and extends dissertation studies beyond normal limits of size and scope.” (Creswell, 1994 pg. 7)

I have to wonder how much “truth” remains in the tacit intertext of our methodologies. To use an LIS metaphor: How much of what we need to know will be suspended forever between LCSH and MeSH in the all-consuming OPAC that is research?

Both qualitative and quantitative research provides us with an ample number of methods. In Potter’s review of qualitative methods (Potter, 1996), we learn that many of them are quite involved and come complete with a strict dogma. In adhering blindly to the Word, how many researchers merely renew their vows by rediscovering the tenets of their faith?

Etienne Wenger, for example, used several qualitative methodologies (ethnography, symbolic interactionism) to investigate insurance claims processors (Wenger, 1998). One of his key observations is that “communities of practice” involve both social practice and the reification of concepts or objects to form stable artefacts. It seems to me that Wenger has merely found the basis of his research methods in the subjects that he studied… regardless of whether or not they were called “subjects” or “collaborators”!

I’m not sure where this leaves me as I mount my horse and ride off to win my own research battles. Should I trust the near sightedness of the quant Union or give in to the zealotry of the qual Confederacy? How do I choose between two enemies who so clearly need each other?

Rubin seems to provide a battle cry. Hopefully, I’ll eventually learn what she means:

"The quest then should not be for the fool's gold of objectivity but for the real goal of self-awareness. For it is not our subjectivity that entraps us, but our belief that somehow we can be free of it." (Rubin, 1981 pg. 103)


Creswell, J. W. (1994). A Framework for the Study. In Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (pp. 1-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Frohmann, B. (1992). The power of images: A discourse analysis of the cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Documentation, 48, 365-386.
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Potter, W. J. (1996). An analysis of thinking and research about qualitative methods. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Rubin, L. B. (1981). Sociological Research: The Subjective Dimension. Symbolic Interaction, 4(1), 97-112.
Singleton, R. A. J., Straits, B. C., & Straits, M. M. (1988). Chapter 4: Elements of Research Design. In Approaches to Social Research (pp. 67-96). New York: Oxford University Press.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.