Workplace Information Literacy: It’s Different

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

August 17, 2017

There are plenty of articles and studies on information literacy in our professional literature. However, these almost always address the issue of information literacy in public, K-12 and academic libraries, and focus on end users. But what about workplace literacy?

I believe we need more discussion and study of the unique needs and challenges of increasing information literacy skills in the workplace.

To that end, I wrote a chapter for a book from Emerald that was published in 2013. The title is “Developing people’s information capabilities: fostering information literacy in educational, workplace and community contexts” – editors: Dr. Mark Hepworth & Dr. Geoff Walton.

In this post, I’ll share with you some of the ideas and concepts that I explored.

I take the broader view of information literacy and subscribe to the discussion about ‘transliteracy’. I believe that these skills are essential in the 21st Century.

Here’s the definition of transliteracy from Wikipedia:

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks. The modern meaning of the term combines literacy with the prefix trans-, which means “across; through”, so a transliterate person is one who is literate across multiple media.”

Transliteracy can comprise any and all of the following skills and competencies in an enterprise environment:

  • Reading literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Critical literacy
  • Learning system and collaboration literacy
  • Social literacy
  • Search literacy
  • Computer literacy
  • Intranet literacy
  • Web literacy
  • Content literacy
  • Written literacy
  • News literacy
  • Technology literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Competition literacy
  • Media literacy
  • Adaptive literacy
  • Research literacy
  • Academic literacy
  • Confidentiality, privacy, corporate policy
  • Legal and regulatory literacy
  • Reputation management, etc.
  • Cultural literacy (i.e. Corporate culture or global initiatives)

Each of these must be viewed in the context of the enterprise mission, as opposed to a community, learning or societal research goal. Understanding that difference is critical to overcoming the challenges of developing workplace literacy.

This definition nicely frames the challenge of workplace literacy, where search, retrieve, and usage are rarely all that’s required to be a competent and successful employee. Success in the workplace requires the integration of specific software and network environments, plus collaboration tools, learning tools, multiple content formats and more. And it is incumbent on both the employer and the employee to keep up to date with changes in the technical and content environment, not just their profession, sector and industry. The need for continuous learning is more than just a personal value; it’s a matter of competitive advantage and survival. Sometimes lives depend on progress being made and adaptations being spread throughout the enterprise.

Similar but different…

In the chapter I referenced above, my intent is to frame key issues in workplace information literacy. I am basing it on my personal experience and observations from over 35 years with multiple workplaces, intranets, content development, training and development strategy, corporate libraries, and product development. Unlike general consumers, K-12 students, and undergraduate scholars, the workplace is not a single or uniform population. Traditional literacy markets differ in one key aspect: in the case of education, they are under the rigor of an institutional strategy and agenda, or they make compromises (as in the consumer space) to acquire information at no charge from places like Google or public library services, or at the behest and rules of, for example, a retailer. Workplaces are populated by workers in both not-for-profit and for-profit sectors who are tasked with running the organization, delivering value to others, and delivering services to end users like learners, customers, clients, patients, etc. I want to explore these issues and frameworks through key target audiences in commercial and institutional workplace environments such as:

  • Teachers (as opposed to students)
  • Professors (as opposed to young scholars)
  • Corporate administrators and business decision-makers, professionals, consultants
  • Medical Professionals such as Doctors, Nurses, Pharmacists
  • Lawyers (in both private practice and internal corporate and government work)
  • Engineers, Architects
  • Financial professionals (accountants, auditors, MBAs, etc.)
  • Creative professionals (advertising, marketers, artists, etc.)

Librarians in public library, school, college and university sectors focus on the broad information literacy needs of their end user populations. Workplace audiences require librarians to focus on different and more granular areas. These can broadly be thought of in several key buckets:

  • Adult learning and education have very different aspects, in that there are more solidified learning styles and expectations, competing priorities for time, and compensation and performance considerations as well as demographic issues related to age and adoption strategies
  • There is a wider range of (and need for) partnerships with other stakeholder groups in the host organization such as human resources professionals, training departments, executive champions, quality leaders, financial leaders
  • There are stronger and more clearly defined strategic goals that are managed, targeted and measured—such as improvements in productivity, efficiency and effectiveness, revenue growth, cost control, process and technological change, etc. that are built into position performance contracts and compensation. There may also be cultural and environmental issues related to unionization, professional standards, enterprise culture and values, etc.
  • There are key measurements that predominate decision-making in this sector that include return on investment, return on effort, revenue growth/cost savings, and strategic alignment with long term and operational goals
  • There may be tough legal requirements and deadlines such as, for example Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) training, medical regulations, audit recommendations, etc.
  • There are strong institutional and cultural considerations around how “things are done here” and alignment with the cultural and learning values of the dominant profession or industry and commercial norms
  • There are often cultural differences between public sector and private sector value systems and the articulation of benefits. Communication of these in the language of the workplace audience is key
  • Training and development opportunities provided by an employer may not be voluntary and not all target audiences will choose to attend, engage, learn or adopt. In order to be successful there is an aspect of building engagement and balancing influence and control in order to ‘move the needle’.

So, in your workplace literacy planning, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are my target audiences?
  2. Who am I developing these skills for and what is the planned impact of my initiatives?
  3. Am I depending upon shoulder-to-shoulder training too much or is that our style?
  4. How can I have the greatest impact while making the most effective use of time for the learner and myself?
  5. How will I measure this kind of training?
  6. Is there an opportunity for meta-learning skills training where we teach overviews of process and services as an orientation to the scope of research and decision making with information?
  7. Can/should I market this as a program instead of a single event?
  8. Is some of this literacy building better handled with e-learning initiatives?
  9. Do I have an executive champion?


<a href="" target="_self">Stephen Abram</a>

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for his new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians, coming in autumn 2017!

Similar Posts

  • Canada: +1 604 278 6717
  • United States: +1 781 938 4444
  • Europe: +44 115 955 5936
  • Australia: +61 3 8526 0143

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This