Work-Related Use of an Electronic Network
Department of Information Studies
University of Tampere
1. Theoretical Issues
The aim of my thesis is to explore the use of an electronic network for
information seeking and communication in intellectual work. The study
approaches this question from two theoretical point of views. The first and
foremost point of view focuses on the users of an electronic network and
the ways in which this use supports their work. In addition, this study
attempts to map the most important contextual factors which are assumed to
influence the utilization of the network. These contextual factors are
categorized as system factors, professional and personal factors and
institutional factors. System factors stand for the characteristics of the
information channel. Professional and personal factors include the basic
nature and tasks of a profession and other individual traits, such as
seemingly irrational preferences. Institutional factors are in this case
limited to the information culture of an organization. The information
culture is further divided into practical (technology, equipment),
strategical (rules, information policies) and social (different conventions
and traditions, personal relationships, status thinking, etc.) parts.
(Abels, et al., 1996)
The background philosophy of this research
is mainly teleological. Most information seeking is assumed to take place
because the user wants to accomplish something. He or she is assumed to act
rather rationally in an information environment composed of several
possibilities between which to choose. However, the reasons from which
choices stem are not always strictly rational or even clear. Many choices
involve more than one contextual factor. This is why one of the objectives
of this study is to weigh the impact of different factors and their
The presuppositions of this research assume a delicate two-way relationship between the context and the use. The study
attempts to find out whether the use of an electronic network is different
in different contexts, as well as how this use changes the context itself.
The former is a typical approach when researching the use of various
information sources. For example, it is popular to explore what kind of
information seeking is typical of certain professions. (McKinnon & Bruns,
1992) Meanwhile, the latter point is included in the research because of
the special nature and relative novelty of network communication. The role
which electronic networks play in organizations is still in transition and
thus the impact of a network is not necessarily as obvious or as
predictable as the effect of older sources and channels. Plausible changes
that such a network might cause include a different pacing of work, a new
attitude towards organizational communication, the lessened importance of
other information channels, and so on.
The second theoretical point of
view of this thesis deals with the role of an electronic network in the
information culture of an organization. This frame of reference is mainly
derived from information management research: an electronic network is seen
as an information resource. (McGee & Prusak, 1993.) This can also be
considered as a more extensive exploration of institutional factors.
However, the importance of an individual is never forgotten. One of the
objectives of this study is to uncover the relationship between individual
information seeking and corporate information resources. The theoretical
challenge of this approach is to look at the strategical aspects of
information culture and their real consequences both through the eyes of
those who are responsible for creating and maintaining those strategies and
those who mainly experience their impact in their everyday work.
The concept "information culture" has been influenced by the research of
organizational culture. In this study, information culture stands for
systematic and commonly accepted ways to act regards to information in an
organization. It is a group of agreements about information and
communication, whether these are written or unwritten, conscious or
unconscious. Its function is two-fold: first, in the short run, it enables
the daily continuity of organizational activies. In the long run, it keeps
the organization together by carrying the values of the whole
organizational culture, constantly reproducing and upholding it. A common
information culture makes regular exchanges between the members of an
organization easier and faster. New members are taught to follow the ways
of the prevailing culture. The impact of information culture can be seen in
elements which are typical of all culture, such as metaphors, humour and
play, values, beliefs, rituals, heroes, informal communication networks,
myths, stories and authority. While information culture directly influences
the actions of individuals, it also forms the frame of reference inside
which they interpret their actions regarding information. Thus information
culture encompasses both ways to act and think. That is why individuals
within one information culture are unlikely to notice its whole impact on
their behavior. For example, they might notice outer pressures only when
they have to change their information seeking strategy due to them. (Kreps,
1986, 133- 157; Bolman & Deal, 1987, 148-166)
2. Proposed Work Plan
The empirical part of the study was launched in 1998. It is a case study inside one organization. The organization is a Finnish metallurgical combination, Outokumpu, and its data network, Outonet. The Outokumpu Group is rather large (it had over 13 000 employees in 1997) and it is organized into four sub-groups called business areas. The business areas consist of
several semi-independent units which are located both in Finland and abroad.
The four business areas are:
- Base Metals. Outokumpu’s base metals production involves the mining, smelting and reifining of
copper, nickel and zinc. Mining operations are carried out in several foreign countries, while metallurgical plants are located in Finland.
- Stainless Steel. The stainless steel chain encompasses the production of ferrochrome, rolled stainless steel and stainless steel tubes. The most important units of this chain are located in the Kemi-Tornio area in
- Copper Products. This business area produces wrought copper and copper alloy products. The production plants are located in several European countries, in the USA and in the future in Asia too.
- Technology. The technology products marketed by Outokumpu are plants and processes for the mining and metallurgical industry, machines, equipment and engineering services and project management.
Annual Report, 1997, 2)
The technical infrastructure of the network used in the Outokumpu Group is called Outonet. The following applications
are the most important ones:
- E-mail. A generic means of communication, it is used both inside and outside the organization.
- Operative, unit-specific raporting and monitoring systems. These systems deal with raw data in the form of
constantly changing statistics, such as production or sales figures.
- Databases and bulletin boards (unit-specific databases, phone books, news and other current information, such as open jobs).
- Connection to the Internet (WWW).
The use of applications varies both according to
units and jobs. For example, the law department of the Group has its own
database which the employees of other units cannot access. On the other
hand, the access to the Internet is decided individually for each employee.
(Corporate information management strategy, 1997)
It is presumed that
Outonet thus offers a means for standardized communication and information-
sharing throughout all the units in the Group while it also serves the
varying needs of different units. This is why the theoretical challenges
described in the first chapter appear very real in the Group, surfacing as
questions like, Does the network make a difference in employees’ daily
work? How is the net used and how is its utility perceived in different
parts of the Group? How well does information managers’ vision understand
Answering these questions naturally requires
scrutinizing the nature of the unit in question, the information culture
prevalent in the unit, the characteristics of an individual’s job,
information seeking and communication (Mintzberg, 1980; Stibic 1982) and
the special features of the network. For example, in order to avoid an
overtly simplistic view of the network, its properties are reviewed by
users from their own point of view, as well as the place of the network
among other information channels. (Nass & Mason, 1990)
data for this research has been gathered by conducting more than thirty
interviews, most of which have been completed during the spring. It is
possible that this data gathering will be complemented by e-mail surveys in
the autumn. At this point these surveys seem necessary. Many interviewees
have spontanely pointed out facts which other interviewees have not brought
up although they might have commented on them if directly asked. Thus
surveys would fill these gaps in the data, for example, by bringing more
background information on the use of other information channels such as
libraries and journals. This would naturally lessen the probability of
making false assumptions in the analysis.
Some problems have also been
caused by the differences between interviewees, especially by the different
characteristics of their jobs. Although this was expected before interviews
and belongs to the problems being addressed, it has caused some
difficulties in data gathering. Since all interviewees do not need or use
all the services of Outonet, many have talked about the network from their
own point of view only. This has made the structures and contents of
individual interviews rather heterogenous.
Another interesting data
source consists of written documents. For example, these include the
corporate information management strategy and the telecommunications
strategy (whose use is somewhat restricted because of confidentiality), the
annual report and various newsletters and magazines published in the Group.
The magazines I have obtained contain articles both about Outonet and more
general issues related to communication and information. The analysis of
these articles should show how communication and information management are
seen within different business areas and how their importance is being
conveyed to employees.
It is expected that the final analysis will answer the following questions:
- How is this particular network utilized in knowledge work; how can it and its services support such work and especially information seeking and communication? How does the network relate to other information seeking and communication methods?
- What is the exact nature of the two-way relationship between work and the network: how do they change each other?
- What part does the intranet play in the information culture of the Outokumpu Group and its many sub-groups ? How does
its role vary in different units?
- How does the role of electronic networks in the information culture affect the users? How aware is an individual of the
information policies of the organization?
3. Progress To Date
The study began with the exploration of relevant theories, earlier
literature and a minor preliminary
study on a related issue, the use of laptop computers by managers
(Lintilä, 1997). The interviews of
the actual case study have been conducted during the spring in Finnish
units of Outokumpu located in Espoo, Tornio, Kokkola and Pori.
interviews has been made in Pori which belongs to Copper Products. This is
the most international business area in the Group. That is why this branch
has been the first and most aggressive one to use advanced technology for
communication and information-seeking. Tornio, where six people were
interviewed, represents Stainless Steel. The employees interviewed held
very different jobs (e. g. management, information service, sales, computer
department). Kokkola belongs to Base Metals. Only two persons were
interviewed there, so it is probable that in the final analysis Kokkola is
either dropped or more people will be interviewed there.
interviewees in Espoo can be divided into two main categories: 1.) the
corporate management and other similar specialist jobs, and 2.) the
employees of the Technology business area. The former group includes the
information management which has had the main responsibility for developing
Outonet. Other special departments include law, environmental issues and
At the moment the transcription and analysis of interviews has just begun.
The following thoughts are preliminary observations gathered during the
The employees of Outokumpu recognize the influence of
information culture to some extent. This is especially true of those
employees who deal with more than one business area. The remarkable
differences between business areas are due to the disintegration which was
encouraged in Outokumpu in the early 90’s. This is reflected in general
activities but also in information management. Each business area and even
separate units used to have their own information systems and networks.
Outonet was intented to remove this incompability barrier. In addition, the
structure of the Group influences information culture otherwise, too.
Interviewees frequently mentioned that the large size of the organization
makes information gathering difficult, since it is often hard to know where
the needed information or person is located.
typical of the Group are conservativism and strong loyality between
employees and the Group, which causes the low turnover of employees. This
is viewed both positively and negatively. For example, many people in
Tornio praised their community spirit, "Outokumpu values" and open
communication. On the other hand, a director of finance in Espoo mentioned
that this characteristic hinders the flow of fresh ideas. Aged personnel
can also have more difficulties in adapting to new technology.
analysis of information cultures in the scrutinized units is still rather
sketchy. At this point there exists a few scattered observations mainly on
how the utility and purpose of Outonet is understood in different units. In
Tornio (Stainless Steel), Outonet is strongly understood as an operative
system which supports the practical activities of the unit by several
raporting systems (sales, production, etc). An illustrative example is the
selection of interviewees. When I arrived in Tornio, my prearranged
meetings with managers were cancelled and I was asked to interview
employees with more practical jobs. Managers themselves thought they were
not the real users of Outonet. They also showed some kind of prejudice and
skepticism against the corporate information management located in Espoo;
one manager even regarded it as a waste of resources.
Outonet was regarded more as an information-seeking and communication tool
in the corporate management in Espoo as well as in Pori (Copper Products).
Access to different databases was considered more important than managing
raw data. As expected, the least prejudiced attitudes were found in Pori,
assumedly because of their wide international connections. This unit was
very active and determined to develop its communication methods.
surprising fact was how negatively Outonet was viewed within the Technology
business area in Espoo. For example, the only persons who complained about
the cost of Outonet were managers in this area. They saw Outonet as the
decision of the highest management: they could not have turned it down
although they had not found it as necessary as other business areas had.
This is partly understandable since the activities and products of
Technology are quite different from the other areas. On the other hand,
attitudes towards the Internet seem unreasonably harsh: some units demand
that the employees who apply for an account are evaluated by the executive
director himself. The director in question saw no problems with this, while
employees who were lower in the hierarchy wished for more relaxed policies.
Which characteristics of an individual information seeking are affected
by information culture lacks a more definite analysis. A preliminary notion
of mine is that the most concrete influences can be seen when some
opportunities exist or lack (for example, the lack of the Internet
connections), Observing more delicate influences will be started when all
the interviews have been transcribed.
At this point, this study will be
continued with the evaluation of relevant literature and a more definite
analysis of interviews. When analysing the interviews in detail, I will
concentrate on the following issues:
- What symbolism and metaphors do different units associate with information seeking and Outonet? How do
they vary in jobs?
- What values can be seen in the Group and in different units?
- What kind of problems appear when the network is used for information seeking and communication? How are they handled? For example, technical problems are usually fixed fast, while strategical issues can be around for years if their use is even moderately succesful.
- What kind of problems do different employees and units notice first?
- How have different requirements in units been taken into account when Outonet has been planned?
- What rituals of the organization culture have to do with Outonet?
- Whose opinions weigh a lot? How big a difference do the managers’ attitudes make?
- What kind of stories or anecdotes deal with the network?
- What points do different units emphasize when they inform employees about Outonet?
- What kind of new ideas and wishes do different units have concerning the network?
- How does the hierarchy influence communication? How is Outonet used to circumvent hierarchical structures?
- Abels, Eileen G., Liebscher Peter & Denman, Daniel W. (1996). Factors that influence the use of electronic networks by science and engineering faculty at small institutions. Part I. Queries. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 2, 146-158.
- Bolman, Lee G. & Deal, Terrence E. (1987). Modern approaches to understanding and managing organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
- Corporate information management strategy (1997). An unpublished hand-out, written by the Information Management department of the Outokumpu Group.
- Kreps, Gary L.(1986). Organizational communication: theory and practice. New York: Longman.
- Lintilä, Leena (1997).Kannettava tietokone johtamisen apuvälineenä: Loppuraportti LifeBook-käyttötutkimuksesta. [How Managers Use Laptop Computers: The Conclusive Report of the LifeBook Usage Study.] Working Papers 3/1997.
Tampere: University of Tampere, Information Society Research Centre.
- McGee, James V. & Prusak, Laurence (1993). Managing information strategically. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- McKinnon, Sharon M. & Bruns, William J., Jr. (1992). The information mosaic. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- Mintzberg, Henry (1980). The nature of managerial work. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
- Nass, Clifford & Mason, Laurie (1996). On the study of technology and task: a variable-based approach. In Organizations and communication technology. Edited by Janet Fulk& Charles Steinfield. Newbury Park:
Sage Publications, 46-67.
- Outokumpu Annual Report (1997). Espoo: Outokumpu.
- Stibic, V. (1982). Tools of the mind: techniques and methods for intellectual work. Amsterdam: North-Holland
Information Research, Volume 4 No. 2 October 1998
Work-Related Use of an Electronic Network , by Leena Lintilä.
Location: http://InformationR.net/ir/4-2/isic/lintila.html © the author, 1998.
Last updated: 9th September 1998