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Magazines > Online > Sep/Oct 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2004
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Information, Short and Sweet
By Marydee Ojala • Editor

It might sound strange, but in these days of supersized drinks, jumbo fries, and mega blockbuster movies, when Internet search engines vie with each other to expand the number of Web pages crawled—or at least brag about the number of Web pages crawled—the real trend in information is heading towards being short. For information professionals, small is beautiful.

Do I mean we want to have fewer sources, applaud disappearing data, or restrict our research to a tiny number of bibliographic and full-text databases? Of course not. I'm thinking more in terms of information delivery. As our lives become more rushed, we seem to suffer from collective adult attention deficit disorder. Information professionals are increasingly being asked to deliver executive summaries, a few bullet points for PowerPoint slides, and research snapshots. No one seems to want to read hundreds of pages of research.

Counterbalancing the "large" of popular culture are the "small" of instant analysis, 90-second sound bites, and in-depth reports that last all of 2 minutes. Should information professionals worry about research being reduced to the bare-bones minimum? Does this concentration on the small mean that we can do less research? Paradoxically, the opposite is true. It takes a great deal of research and analysis time to pluck out the essence of what we've found so that we can condense it into the desired delivery format. As we speed through searching, fingers flying, we know that our real value lies in deciphering what we retrieve, not in the retrieval process itself. Let's ensure our organizations know that as well.

The online world is expanding rapidly, with new sources, formats, and types of information. Information overload (data glut) means it takes longer to produce less. With more research possibilities opening up, processing and distilling what really matters from the mass of information found requires more time. This also adds more accountability to the research function. If we are the analysts, the filter through which others view the world, we have the duty to fully understand the ramifications of our research findings. Depending upon the topic and the situation, that's an awesome responsibility.

When we are rushed to deliver short and sweet responses, we may lose our ability to cogitate and reflect. If our clients don't have time for reflection, are they willing to give us the time? Or are they simply looking for the data that will support the decision they've already made? Selecting facts that fit the case and ignoring those that don't? Making decisions on inadequate information?

Short and sweet is fine—in some cases. There is joy in extracting relevancy from wretched excess. It's also important, however, to understand real-world complexities and how these affect the intent of the research project. Though small may be beautiful and short may be sweet, both can also be deceptive, if adversely affecting the decision-making process. Along with our small deliverables, we need to inform clients of the extensive amount of information underlying what we delivery. We need to be rewarded for saving people time. We should demand recognition for our expertise in shrinking raw data to usable knowledge.


Marydee Ojala [marydee@xmission.com] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.

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