Cognitive barriers to information seeking

by | Jul 1, 2015 | Information Management, Intranets, Search

From time to time I turn into a Visiting Professor and work my way through recent papers in academic journals. One of the core titles is the Journal of Information Science and in the Online First section I have just come across what is probably a seminal paper on cognitive barriers to information seeking. The author is Professor Reijo Savolainen from the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tampere. The School has world renown for the quality of its teaching and research.

The author addresses two challenging issues; the conceptualization the features of cognitive barriers to information seeking and the characterization of the impact of cognitive barriers on information seeking. This was undertaken by a very thorough review of the literature, and the bibliography extends to over 50 citations.

From the analysis six barriers are described.

  • Unwillingness to see needs as information needs
  • Inability to articulate information needs
  • Unawareness of relevant information sources
  • Low self-efficacy, where the user feels that it will be difficult to obtain the documents
  • Poor search skills
  • Inability to deal with information overload

From my own experience working as an enterprise search consultant none of these barriers would be recognised by what is often a technology-led enterprise search team. The objective of the team is to develop “intuitive search”,  seeking to emulate Google web search in the enterprise without understanding the futility of doing so.The issue is not one of information retrieval but of information management, and the need to train employees in how to manage their personal and professional information life-cycles. Picking up on the low self-efficacy issue, there was a paper given at the CKIM conference last year which raised the issue that relevance assessments do not take into account a user’s perception that a document is going to be difficult to obtain (the JIS paper above is behind a pay-wall) that it is ignored as a ‘relevant’ result.

The author comments in the conclusion to the paper that a limitation of the study is that it approaches the cognitive barriers from the viewpoint of an individual actor seeking access to information and there is a need for expanding the research perspective by making use of ideas framed in practice theories, for example, because they would take into account how cognitive barriers are constructed socially within work teams and communities. It is easy to focus on the obvious issues around poor search performance (primarily content/metadata quality) that we do not take into account more complex issues around cognition which require search managers to be mind-readers, or at the least have a background in cognitive psychology.

Martin White