vol. 19 no. 4, December, 2014

Proceedings of ISIC: the information behaviour conference, Leeds, 2-5 September, 2014: Part 1.

Conceptual modelling of workplace information practices: a literature review

Gunilla Widén
Åbo Akademi University, Finland
Jela Steinerová
Comenius University, Slovakia
Peter Voisey
Findwise Ab, Sweden

Introduction.This paper reports some of the results from a workshop organized by the European Network for Work Information (ENWI) in Malmö 12-13 June 2013, concerning theoretical frameworks for studying workplace information practices.
Method. A combination of literature review and workshop discussions was used. Before the workshop the network members defined the research area of work information in order to be able to discuss a common ground for future research projects. About 40 key concepts were identified and the aim was to find common concepts and definitions as a baseline and framework for collaborative work in the network.
Analysis. The analysis consists of two main parts. 1. The literature review put forward a set of information behavior models in professional and workplace context. 2. During the workshop the identified definitions, concepts and models were classified and analysed by eleven of the ENWI network members.
Results. A conceptual map of work information research is developed. Four main categories of concepts are identified; information use & process, components (actors & roles), context, and content. Further, a framework for empirical work information research is proposed with three focus areas; content, interactivity, and information practices.
Conclusions. This paper presents an overview of information behavior models and research in connection to workplace information. A conceptual map and a common framework for workplace information research are proposed.

Background and motivation of paper

Workplace information practices is an area with many current challenges. The amount of information is constantly increasing and we need to adjust our information handling strategies in the workplace, on individual, task, group, and organizational levels (Berryman 2008; Lloyd 2013). Information exists in different forms, has different purposes, and is handled by many different actors, with different and new tools constantly appearing (Allen & Shoard 2005). This is all affected by social elements that have deep contextual existence such as culture, climate, and community. Our information behavior and practices are changing because of the changing information arena while organizations are facing challenges with a retiring workforce where the ability to keep expertise and knowledge within the organization is demanding (Burke & Ng 2006; Virta & Widén 2011). Thus, the connections between innovative and accumulated know-how of handling information are easily lost, creating frustration and loss of efficiency at workplaces (Tawfik et al. 2014).

The European Network for Work Information (ENWI) is a network of researchers interested in information practices and activities related to the role of information in workplace context (e.g. use, storage, distribution, sharing, production, seeking, finding, evaluation, relevance, ownership) and with an aim to better understand them as part of the overall organization and development of the workplace. The network was established during a workshop in Borås, Sweden in 2011. The second workshop was organized 12-13 June 2013 in Malmö, Sweden with focus on conceptual framework and terminology, methods, and research ideas. The group experienced a need to find a common ground to be able to firmly navigate among slightly different emphasized concepts and theoretical approaches and in order to focus the research activities by the ENWI network. The workshop made an effort to map existing frameworks to study workplace information. Prior to the workshop the network members defined the research area of work information as relevant for their own research interests. The aim was to find common concepts and definitions as a baseline and framework for collaborative work in the network. This conference paper addresses these definitions and their analysis at the workshop.

During the workshop it became obvious that studying work information requires a multi-disciplinary field of research approach and is very challenging conceptually. The aim of this paper is to present an overview of this discussion, presenting existing models and frameworks for studying workplace information practices on different levels. Further, we will discuss possible gaps and contradictions in existing models to understand today's information environment, and propose a common ground for this research area. Whereas this paper emphasizes the workshop content from information behavior/practice orientation, another recent ENWI workshop report gives further information on the workshop activities from the information search/retrieval perspective (Borlund, Mandl & Womser-Hacker 2013).

Literature review

Generally on IB models
The research area that often is labeled (Human) Information Behavior (IB or HIB) is a multi-disciplinary area with many different approaches. Research is connected to information science, behavioral science, computer science, social and organizational theory. Information behavior models have been developed since early 1960s and many of them are still used when studying information behavior in different contexts such as Wilson's general IB-model (1981, 1997), Wilson's problem-solving model (1999), and Kuhlthau's (1993, 2004) and Ellis' (1989) stages of the information seeking process. Ellis' model is also one of the first classical models of professional information behavior and is based on data from empirical research of scientists. As opposed to linear sequence models we can mention the non-linear models, e.g. the Foster's model (2004) or the multi-directional model and navigation through the gap proposed by Godbold (2006). Within the information retrieval tradition the models focus naturally on the information search and retrieval process where aspects like task performance, relevance, interface and interactivity are present (Marchionini 1995; Saracevic 1996; Ingwersen 1996). Byström and Järvelin (1995) presented a work-task based framework that has gained value in both information seeking as well as information retrieval oriented research. This framework has become valuable starting point for lot of research on interactive information retrieval where the two traditionally separated research topics meet. During the last years an integrated approach of both information seeking and retrieval has been actively discussed (Ingwersen & Järvelin 2005; Järvelin & Wilson 2003) as well as a collaborative and interactive approach to information retrieval processes (Borlund, Dreier & Byström 2012; Ruthven & Kelly 2011; Toms, Toze & Kelley 2008).

Over the years information behavior research has moved from system to user approach (Dervin & Nilan 1986) and further through various approaches focusing different aspects of the information behavior process, such as the cognitive approach focusing on the individual (Pettigrew, Fidel & Bruce 2001), the social approach focusing on the context (Cool 2001, Niedzwiedzka 2003, Savolainen 2012) or practice based approach looking at activities (McKenzie 2003, 2005). While human information behavior is a complex phenomenon many researchers have also emphasized a multidimensional approach, such as Savolainen (1995, 2008) in the model of information seeking in the context of everyday life (ELIS) where he has emphasized both social and cultural factors and especially the way of life for the information seeking and behavior and Fidel, Pejtersen, Cleal & Bruce (2004) proposing a cognitive work analysis framework with a multidimensional approach to study human-information interaction and collaboration in workplaces.

Information behavior in workplaces and professionals

There is a large variety of models and approaches in human information behavior studies. In this review we concentrate on concepts and models embedded in workplaces and organizations. We also consider surveys and models of information behavior of professionals. In spite of the existence of many different interactive models of information seeking and retrieval, we do not analyse these models and concentrate especially on information behavior.

Case (2012) has summarized that information behavior models have spread from orientation on scientific information and information behavior of students and researchers into everyday places of information behavior (e.g. information grounds). Early on special attention was on the professional environment and modeling of information processes in workplace environments. From the beginning of the 1950s and 1960s, the main professionals studied were especially scientists and engineers, later scholars from social sciences and humanities. Later studies on health care providers and professionals were included, especially physicians, nurses, and health administrators. This profession was studied by Gorman and resulted in a taxonomy of information types and classification of information needs of doctors (Gorman 1995, 1999). Studies of managers of different types have lead to broader contexts of modeling of the information behavior (e.g. Choo's environmental scanning, managers in publishing and telecommunications) and to the concept of information ecology (Choo 2002).

Other professions that have attracted attention of human information behavior scholars are journalists and lawyers (especially attorneys in the U.S. and U.K.). Few studies have focused on e.g. artists, clergy, farmers. Many professions are still undiscovered from the perspective of special characteristics of information behavior. Results of some surveys lead to special models of information behavior of professionals. The model by Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996) represents a general model of the information seeking of professionals, based on the information behavior of doctors, nurses, engineers, and lawyers and others. Specific processes that take place within the world of work are focused and specifics of what people do in their jobs and how they do it. Especially impact of work roles and tasks on information needs in special contexts, sources of information and outcomes are included.

Tasks and roles

Byström and Järvelin's model concentrates on professional work-task performance and the role of information and information sources as a part of these tasks (based on a qualitative study of civil servants) (Byström 2005; Byström & Järvelin 1995). The model analyses the work environment founded on the use, which the information is put in work tasks. It depicts the relationship between task complexity and information related activities in the workplace context using iterative feedback loops and paying attention to both personal and situational elements. The authors determine connections between information necessary to acquire and different types of information sources within documentary, human or visiting places as information sources. Complex tasks, as opposed to routine work tasks, tend to lead to look for more complex information and consultation of people as information sources. Whereas factual and conceptual information (know-what) is readily available in documentary sources, experts and meetings are the most commonly used sources for task-solving information (know-how and know-why). The more types of information are necessary to obtain and the more complex tasks, the more people as information sources are used and the more sources are consulted. The model for information activities in work tasks (Byström & Järvelin 1995; Byström & Hansen 2005) has been useful for design of information systems and can be further broadened into modeling business and workplace processes. This approach bridges not only between the information seeking and retrieval research areas, but potentially connects these fields into project and business processes.

According to Leckie (2005) professionals usually act in different work roles as part of their work positions (e.g. service provider, researcher, counselor, etc.). The roles comprise different tasks that prompt information needs and seeking and intervening factors that either facilitate or inhibit the use of information, while the feedback mechanisms regulate the direction of the information seeking. The model can help understand why, how, and when information seeking may occur. Based on this model and empirical studies it has been confirmed that information practices are similar across diverse professions. Complementary research includes the theory of professions (Sundin, & Hedman 2005) based on the traditions of social sciences and study of information behavior of nurses. Workplaces and occupational groups are analysed not just in terms of concrete work tasks, but also from the perspective of professional interests, power relations, and occupational identities. It stresses not only professionals' skills and knowledge, but also accentuates norms, values, expectations and the sense of community and professional cognitive authority.

The concept of the work task has become an important contextual aspect for information seeking and retrieval (Byström & Hansen 2005; Hansen 2005). The conceptual framework of tasks of information retrieval systems which are embedded in work tasks includes task initiation, task process, and task completion. The work task is embedded in situational and organizations contexts, while different task levels are interrelated. This empirically tested framework is connected to cognitive information and the interactive information seeking and retrieval model (Ingwersen & Järvelin 2005), but has potential also in the socially and contextually oriented research (Byström 2007). These and other frameworks proved that close relationships between different types of work tasks and features of information retrieval systems and for design of special tools for information access in different domains.

Information culture and information ecology

Important contextual approaches to research workplace information research deal with cultural and ecological issues. A study of information management and information overload in UK telecommunication and financial sectors showed that the organisation climate affects information work incuding aspects of security, trust, and belief (Allen and Wilson 2003). Similarily, studies on information culture reflects information related activities, attitudes to information as a resource, and what kinds of collaborative efforts that exist (Widén-Wulff 2005 p. 32; Choo, Bergeron et al. 2008). The information culture approach has later been connected to collaborative information seeking and behavior and is modeled in contexts of information sharing (e.g. Widén & Hansen 2012).

A complex model of information environment in organizations was presented by Choo (2006). Environmental scanning means acquisition and use of information about objects and events in organizations and its external environment aimed at support of decision making of managers. Empirical studies confirm that top managers monitor information environment in higher intensity and in broader scope. Information use in organizations is explained by Choo (2007) as a dynamic, interactive social process of inquiry that may result in making of meaning or making the decisions. The study further identified categories of input, interpretation and direction as guided decision-making. Information behavior in organizations is modeled by Choo (2006) from the perspectives of cognitive, affective and situational factors (three dimensions of information use in organizations).

Additionally, the information environment has been approached through information ecology, a concept of integration of people, information technologies, and information sources in the information process aimed at multiple use of information. It is connected with information culture (values), communities, and tools. Information ecology was determined by Davenport and Prusak (1997) as making information meaningful. Information ecology as a metaphor helps manage information environment with the use of information professionals and their activities (information analysis, support of information sharing, etc.). The model of information ecology by these authors is connected with information management and supports sensitivity to context and culture. Ecological attributes include integration of diverse types of information, recognition of evolutionary changes, emphasis on observation and description, and focus on people and their information behavior/practices. It is important to notice that they identify how external and internal environments relate (especially adapting, scanning and molding in products and services). Linking social and technological contexts is the most important message of this approach aimed at managing the information environment and maintaining balance between man and information environment.

Philosophically oriented approach to information ecology is oriented towards balance between thinking and actions in communicating and use of information. Rafael Capurro (1989) determines the "information landscape" in social, historical and linguistic dimensions. Information pollution and disintegration of information systems are the most important problems of information ecology. Luciano Floridi determined the "infosphere" as part of philosophy of information in context of information ecology. The important part of his model is information ethics covering information (well) being of objects in the information environment. Information ethics is then represented by the concepts of information as a resource, information as a product, and information as target (Floridi 2010).

Another concept of information ecologies is based on relationships between information technologies and people in transforming information to knowledge (Nardi and O'Day 1999), especially in workplaces. Information ecologies represent procedures, goals, community values supported by technologies. Information ecologies are places where people use tools and in social relations help each other in information related activities. In this "model" the system, diversity and co-evolution, system-orientation, local practices and key species are considered. In the network environment (e.g Internet and web) it is present by connections between people and information, services, and resources. The information ecology approach opens the space of workplaces for people using technologies in decision-making and problem solving and is based on participatory and value-based design of digital services. The weakness of this concept is based on too much emphasis on benefits of information ecology. However, in information ecologies we can identify both positive and "negative" species, egoistic and power motivations of information behavior.

Information ecology can help better understand the notion of information and build new models, which can represent both cognition and emotions that direct information behavior. The broader view on relationships between people and information environment can explain ecology of the information lifecycle. Information ecology concept helps us identify those elements that make an impact on the information environment. Critical components are tools for eliminating information overload, redundancy and risks of information use. At micro-level we determine such components as individual cognitive, affective, sensorimotor skills as part of information behavior as well as social elements such as valid repertoires in information seeking, value/relevance of information and its sources and use. At macro-level information ecology includes management of information sources, systems, and environments. Social framework of the ecology of information work was analysed with the emphasis on knowledge organization by Huvila (2006). The model of information ecology depicts the relationships between knowledge organization and human information work, including social aspects of information interactions and social information ecology and following information work patterns (Huvila 2011).

The models of information ecology of the academic information environment and digital libraries (Steinerová 2010, 2011, 2012) is based on empirical surveys of information managers and draw on the assumption that holistic information ecology should link intellectual analyses with information behavior addressing information technologies in three dimensions - the semantic, behavioral, and visual dimensions. The semantic dimension is manifested in semantic and contextual filtering and seeking, the behavioral dimension covers collaborative filtering and seeking, and the visual dimension can include visual filtering, concept mapping and visualization of digital objects.

Analysis of definitions of network members

Generally, we can determine the system-centered, task-based, and user-centered studies embodied in models of information behavior of professionals. Much of task-based behaviour and practices include sense-making and also shared cognition (cognitive consensus) as part of information practices. Integrative perspectives are principally significant, especially for modeling of information culture. Some authors call for turning the attention from technologies alone to technologies as part of contexts and information use. The trends are also represented by emphasis on collaborative information behavior and information sharing in information practices. The models can also be categorized into holistic and general models (e.g. Wilson's information problem solving model, models of information ecology), models in professional processes in workplaces and organizations (e.g Byström and Järvelin, Hansen, Choo, Fidel), and models in contexts of everyday information (e.g. Savolainen, models of personal information management). These models emphasize different elements and relate to special contexts and types of information, (e.g. professional, scientific, everyday, managerial types of information), or concentrate on some social theories (uncertainty, risk/reward, stress coping theories, stages of information behavior, non-linearity of information processes or practice theoretical approaches). In this paper we use the term information behavior in its widest sense, i.e. encompassing the focus on tools, people, and practices, utilizing systems perspectives, individual perspectives and socially oriented perspectives. A multidimensional approach to workplace information research is not new. Among others, Fidel, Pejtersen, Cleal & Bruce (2004), proposed a multidimensional framework, Cognitive Work Analysis, to guide research on collaborative information retrieval in workplaces to enhance the understanding of human-information behavior.

This overview of models on information related activities in context of workplaces and professions, functions as a basis for the analysis of definitions and key concepts discussed at the second ENWI workshop. A key goal of the workshop was to identify novel and potential transformational research problems within the field of information practices in workplaces. The aim was to create common ground for addressing research in this conceptual space and working toward standardizing how we define and use the terminology associated with this research area. Prior to the second workshop the network members were asked to define the workplace information research area and identify common concepts and definitions. Some 40 key concepts were collected from the ENWI members and key definitions were provided with citations to the literature to formulate a glossary or taxonomy. The literature referred to is partly also included and extended in the literature review of this paper. The collected concepts were then listed, grouped and classified by the workshop participants together through a collaborative analysis. The collaborative analysis was important and with participants representing different research traditions in the area of workplace information practices (e.g. collaborative approach, cognitive approach, contextual and social approaches) we were able to reach a relatively well-represented overview of key concepts. The volume of identified concepts demonstrates the rich diversity of views and phenomena of interest for research on workplace information as well as the need of multidimensionality in this research area. At the same time it was possible to identify some key concept that were most frequently mentioned, and therefore perhaps the current focus of workplace information research, namely information sharing and collaborative and interactive information activities.

In Figure 1 below we can see that the group identified four main categories of concepts. Workplace information research is clearly defined through information use and processes where work tasks and information activities and practices are in the forefront. Sharing, collaboration, and interactivity are forms of information behavior that describes workplace information management. Connected to information activities and processes are different levels of contextual elements framing the workplace information behavior (climate, culture, social and economic) including tools that enable information seeking, sharing, and dissemination. The information activities involve different actors and systems called components and the purpose of these activities is to intermediate content that exists in different forms and types.

Conceptual map of workplace information research
Figure 1: Conceptual map of workplace information research

A holistic approach is important where components, context, process, and content are present. However, the ENWI-group identified the core being within the area of information use in context. Focus is on the activities, which seems to be in line with the current development within information science. As Kuhlthau (2008) states, we are turning our attention from technology of searching to using information for problem solving and creativity in the workplace, and a growing attention on workplace information literacy is needed (Lloyd 2013). Recent trends in modeling of information behavior and information practices are embedded in special contexts, e.g. (work) tasks, situations, everyday (work) practices, information places and spaces. Interactivity, cognition and values and information styles are drivers for this modeling. Many models are holistic, based on longitudinal empirical studies. In workplace settings the models depict links with the environmental elements and lead to perspectives of information ecology. Knowledge of these information behavior models is important for better understanding and design of digital systems and services. These systems and services can be improved if we understand social theories and contexts e.g. risk/reward, self-efficacy, collaboration, social networks. Holistic perspective of information ecology can help integrate knowledge of information behavior with design of digital services.

Introducing a framework to study workplace information

Based on previous literature and the four categories of concepts introduced in Figure 1, a framework of workplace information practices was further developed. In line with recent research, information behavior is seen as a social phenomenon recognizing that different roles and tasks are related to different information practices (Heizmann 2012). Also information ecology and cultural approaches to e.g. knowledge sharing has been underlined during last years (Choo 2013, Mueller 2014). Mueller (2014) underlines also that knowledge sharing between teams is usually not formalized but still needs enough time and structures to be realized. An open culture might give better opportunities to share between projects. It is also important to note that there are different cultural prerequisites for successful knowledge sharing between teams than between individuals.

As we can see from the literature review there exists a number of models and frameworks to study work-related information practices, both from single dimension viewpoint as well as multidimensional approach. In Figure 2 we introduce a framework to study workplace information where we contribute with an overall context where several levels are present; task, situation, team, and organizational level. Within the workplace context the actors are involved in different kinds of information activities and processes such as interaction and sharing, searching, retrieval, and creation. The actors are framed by culture, climate, traditions, and ecology and by having different levels of competencies (literacies). The activities and processes again involve other actors, information systems (and other tools), and actual information (content). The use of information technology is a critical element of information behaviour in work environments. However, theorising information behaviour and technological artefacts and materiality remains under-conceptualised area in IB research (Allen, Karanasios, & Slavova, 2011). While recent work in other fields has addressed this through the concept of sociomateriality (Orlikowski, 2010) this does have significant limitations (Faulkner & Runde, 2012). Work within the AIMTech Research Group by Allen (Allen, 2011) and Colleagues (Hassan Ibrahim & Allen, 2013; Karanasios & Allen 2013; Mervyn, Simon, & Allen, 2014; Mishra, 2014) has taken an alternative approach to this issue exploring information behaviour in a range of environments by using Activity Theory. They have used it to both understand the mediating influence of technology and to make explicit agency and structure and the relationship between the two (c.f., Allen, Brown, Karanasios, & Norman, 2013). Within this framework it is possible to focus on different parts as well as the outcomes of the workplace information practices, but still relate the studies into a joint frame for understanding workplace information. A particular contribution, which Activity Theory brings to the ENWI modes discussed below, is the concept of "tool". These are artefacts, which mediate activity and are used in a manner which acknowledges both material meaningful artefacts and non-material meaningful items as signs, symbols, and language.

Framework of Workplace Information Practices
Figure 2: Framework of Workplace Information Practices

This framework was further discussed in light of possible research opportunities. Taking a multidimensional and multilevel approach we feel that this framework suits better for asking questions about work information practices than previous models and frameworks. Possible research opportunities are divided into three focus areas; content, interactivity, and information practices. Content could mainly be studied in the context of decisions making, work tasks, and from the viewpoint of diversities such as generational and cross-cultural. Relationships between the different components identified in Figure 1 would be of interest when studying interactivity, meaning interactivity between people, systems, and sources. Information practices could be studied from various angles. Suggested perspectives were practices in connection to collaboration, change, system design, access, and strategies. Overall questions of interest would be to study what and how people perform their work and what matters for how people work, interact, and make decisions.


In this paper we have presented an overview of information behavior models and research in connection to workplace information. Based on the theoretical framework and on the outcomes of the second ENWI-workshop, a conceptual map for workplace information research was outlined. A common framework for workplace information research is proposed including contextual aspects such as information activities and practices as well as different actors and components interacting in workplaces. The aim is to better understand today's information environments at work, and propose a common ground for this research area. Two main approaches will be used; a theoretical approach including multiple levels of understanding knowledge work (individual, intra-organizational, and inter-organizational levels), and a methodological approach to enhance empirical work, which is challenging when it comes to complex processes like knowledge creation and sharing. There is a lack of longitudinal, process-oriented, and multilevel research with experimental designs to improve the understanding of various both structural and relational variables (Phelps, Heidl & Wadhwa 2012). The ENWI network aims at developing the collaborative research into these research gaps and write joint research proposals where several methodological approaches are will to facilitate truly holistic understanding of the role of information a diversity of encounters happening at workplaces. Important areas of research are connected to ongoing change in work environments both on organizational and societal levels, e.g. challenges that information work is facing because of demographic change, but also at individual and group levels, e.g. technology adoption, workarounds and global networks. The workshop also identified several research themes focusing on e.g. work tasks and activities in information ecologies, human practices, technology and tools to support knowledge work, and generally social, political, and cultural influence on work tasks and work environments (cf. Borlund, Mandl & Womser-Hacker 2013).


ENWI members present at the workshop 12-13.6.2013: David Allen (Leeds University Business School), Pia Borlund (Copenhagen University), Katriina Byström (Oslo and Akershus University College, University of Borås), Thomas Mandl (Hildesheim University), Ian Ruthven (Strathclyde University), Jela Steinerová (Comenius University), Henrik Strindberg (Findwise AB), Elaine Toms (Sheffield University), Gunilla Widén (Åbo Akademi University), Christa Womser-Hacker (Hildesheim University), Peter Voisey (Findwise AB) http://www.enwi.org
The ENWI workshops was sponsored by FAS (Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research).

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How to cite this paper

Widén, G., Steinerová, J. and Voisey, P. (2014). Conceptual modelling of workplace information practices: a literature review. In Proceedings of ISIC, the Information Behaviour Conference, Leeds, 2-5 September, 2014: Part 1, (paper isic08). Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/19-4/isic/isic08.html (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/...)

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