Expert Commentary

Learning curve: How graduates solve information problems once they join the workplace

2012 report from Project Information Literacy on the mismatch between the employers' needs and the research skills and habits that young people are displaying on the job.

Young worker at computer (iStock)

As digital natives, today’s college graduates may be whizzes at social media and communications technologies. But when it comes to gathering information through more traditional methods — making phone calls, sifting through annual reports, combing databases — some employers say that their young employees fall short. The tendency to pluck the quickest nugget from Wikipedia or present the first Google entry may not serve recent college hires well in the workplace. Yet the National Association of Colleges and Employers notes that “obtaining and processing information” now ranks among the top five qualities recruiters look for in job candidates.

A 2012 report from Project Information Literacy, “Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace,” sought to better understand the needs of professional employers and the research skills and habits young people are displaying on the job. The report — sponsored by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and done in collaboration with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society — is based on interviews with 23 employers and 33 recent college graduates. Employers surveyed included a diverse set of institutions, from Microsoft and KPMG to the FBI and Marriott International.

The study’s findings include:

  • College hires tend to give the quickest answer possible when asked to find information. They do so by using Web search engines and scanning the first few pages of results.
  • Most employers were surprised that younger employees rarely use annual reports or phone calls to find answers to pressing questions.
  • When recent graduates cannot find information online, many turn to a trusted co-worker for help with a quick answer. In other situations, they develop a trial-and-error method to solve information problems.
  • Many employers sought recent college graduates who could make use of both online searches and traditional methods in information gathering, and present a synthesis of all information collected.
  • Conversations with college graduates suggest that they perceive speed as a primary virtue in terms of completing professional tasks and requests from managers. They “wanted to prove to employers they were hyper-responsive and capable of solving information problems in an instant — a response they perceived employers wanted from them, based on their interviews and how dazzled some employers were with their computer proficiencies when they first joined the workplace.”

“The findings suggest a dramatic shift is occurring in the workplace related to how information is found and used,” the researcher notes. “We found the traditional research competencies — the use of non-digitized information sources — may be disappearing with each passing year as a new batch of college hires joins the workplace.” The report proposes solutions for confronting this information-gathering gap: (1) partner recent college graduates with more seasoned employees to exchange information-obtaining techniques; (2) implement programs in the undergraduate experience that require students to solve problems by using sources beyond Google.

Tags: higher education, youth, technology

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