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Research & Scholarship

Relevance of Information Literacy Skills for Business

January 26th, 2014 by Stephanie McReynolds

The quiet winter break has given way to familiar signs of a new spring semester at the Syracuse University Libraries. Bird Library is a buzz with activity as students drop by Pages Café for a hot tea or coffee before staking out spots to read, study, and work on group projects. Learning Commons and Department of Research and Scholarship librarians are busy once again with answering reference questions, providing student research consultations, and prepping for library instruction sessions.

The library instruction sessions taught by Syracuse University librarians are generally initiated by faculty members who would like their students to learn more about relevant library resources. Not only are library instruction sessions great opportunities to familiarize students with a select number of the vast quality resources provided for them by Syracuse University Libraries, they are also a chance to teach important information literacy skills.

Those who are not familiar with the term “information literacy” may find this American Library Association definition to be helpful: “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Although this definition has been widely cited (Katz 137), it should be noted that a standard definition of information literacy has not been uniformly adopted (Zhang 720).

The following Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, approved by the Association of College and Research Libraries (a division of the American Library Association), expand upon the ALA definition of information literacy:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

As a librarian who provides instruction sessions and research consultations to business students, it seems clear to me that information literacy is essential for the business world. How can business professionals make strategic decisions without it? For that matter, how can anyone (business major or otherwise) who lacks the ability to effectively gather and critically evaluate information make an informed decision about a controversial ballot issue or something much more mundane, such as determining which cereal or smartphone to purchase?

Although the value of information literacy may seem obvious to information professionals such as librarians, the term is not common (or even known) within the corporate world. Businesses do not appear to have a similar concept under a different name (O’Sullivan 11). Nevertheless, information literacy skills are absolutely necessary to accomplish certain business projects.

In “Environmental Scanning: An Application of Information Literacy Skills at the Workplace,” the authors make clear the connection between information literacy skills and the successful completion of an environmental scan, which is defined as “acquiring information about events and relationships in a company’s outside environment, the knowledge of which would assist senior management in the task of charting the company’s future course of action” (Zhang 720).

Along with a proposed six-step process for environmental scanning, the authors provide detailed explanations of the importance of information literacy skills to each step. Here are just a few highlights:

For the step of Information Acquisition, those collecting the information should be able to choose the most appropriate method, “with consideration of the quality of information and the cost of collection. Moreover, possessing search skills and knowledge of search operators (e.g. Boolean operator, truncation, wildcard) is essential for formulating a proper search strategy to retrieve information from databases or through online search engines. Information literate workers would be able to formulate a suitable search strategy to find more relevant and updated information. Last but not least, collectors should be aware that the methods and techniques hired should be based on legal collections of opensource or public domain information, without involving immoral, unethical or illegal activities” (Zhang 724).

This one preliminary step of the six-step environmental scanning process relies upon at least three ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards:

  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

The final step of Information Evaluation and Use requires several information literacy skills. “For example, decision makers need information evaluation skills to make judgments about the quantity and quality of the received information in terms of reliability, accuracy, timeliness and so on. If they find the information insufficient or unqualified, they may initiate a new round of scanning; with sufficient and high-quality information, they may still need to process and synthesize it based on the real-time situation and different usage” (Zhang 726).

This step of the environmental scanning process also depends upon at least three ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base

The authors conclude that a successful environmental scan “could provide early warning signals for organizations, and help companies develop and modify business strategies to meet changing external circumstances and hence improve their competitiveness and performance” (Zhang 729). This outcome of the environmental scan involves strategic decision making and heavily depends upon the following ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standard:

  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

The environmental scanning process is just one example of “a typical application of information literacy skills in the workplace, as each of its activities could only be completed effectively and efficiently with people possessing the corresponding information literacy skills” (Zhang 720). I have no doubt that there are many other instances of the practical application of information literacy skills in the business world. In short, information literacy skills are important skills for anyone who plans to get a job after graduation. After all, as Whitman Dean Ken Kavajecz recently reminded a reporter from The Daily Orange, “Frankly, it doesn’t matter what school or college you’re in, you’re going to work in a business” (Rasamny).

Unfortunately, it is not possible to teach all of ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards in one (or even two) library instruction sessions. To effectively teach all the competencies, more than just a couple instruction sessions, as well as collaboration between the faculty member and librarian to fully integrate information literacy related assignments and assessments into the course, would be required. In Conley and Gil’s article about the importance of information literacy skills for business students, the authors acknowledge the limitations of the typical instruction session and state, “If more time were allotted, librarians could give the more cognitively difficult elements the proper attention they deserve” (223). In a literature review of instructional practices for business information literacy, Fiegen highlighted an article that called for librarians “to be full partners in the course to facilitate deep learning” and another article that “invited further exploration into information literacy as its own credit-bearing disciplinary course within the business curriculum” (280).

Although it is not realistic to attempt to cover all ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards in a typical one-shot library instruction session, it is feasible to introduce one or two basic information literacy skills. As I was reminded by authors Conley and Gil, information literacy skills that are considered to be less difficult (such as effectively and efficiently accessing information) are still “critical tasks that need to be covered before one can proceed to the development of in-depth cognition” (223). With all this in mind as I prepare for some upcoming spring instruction sessions, I am encouraged by the thought that I will have the chance to introduce key information literacy skills that have the potential to not only empower students to write higher quality papers and create better business plans, but may also serve them well long after graduation.

Sources and Related Readings

American Library Association. “Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report.” 10 Jan. 1989. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Association of College and Research Libraries. “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” 18 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Conley, Theresa M, and Esther L. Gil. “Information Literacy for Undergraduate Business Students: Examining Value, Relevancy, and Implications for the New Century.” Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship. 16.3 (2011): 213-228. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Fiegen, Ann Manning. “Business Information Literacy: A Synthesis for Best Practices.” Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship. 16.4 (2011): 267-288. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Katz, Irvin R., Catherine Haras, and Carol Blaszczynski. “Does Business Writing Require Information Literacy?Business Communication Quarterly. 73.2 (2010): 135-149. EBSCO Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

O’Sullivan, Carmel. “Is Information Literacy Relevant in the Real World?Reference Services Review. 30.1 (202): 7-14. Emerald Management 120. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Rasamny, Tamara. “Kavajecz Reflects, Looks Ahead After First Semester.” The Daily Orange. The Daily Orange Corp. 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.

Sokoloff, Jason. “Information Literacy in the Workplace: Employer Expectations.” Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship. 17.1 (2012): 1-17. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Zhang, Xue, Shaheen Majid, and Schubert Foo. “Environmental Scanning: An Application of Information Literacy Skills at the Workplace.” Journal of Information Science. 36.6 (2010): 719-732. Sage Journals Online. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

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