I watch my 12yo daughter with some bemusement when she expertly uses Google to search for information for her school projects. She is reluctant to use my favourite source of information – books from the local library. There is a massive paradigm shift that is occurring at present where people are using search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to secure the knowledge, information and data they require by simply typing a request into a search engine. This is called fingertip knowledge.
Elliot Masie, a learning futurist, indicated his astonishment this year after presenting to a group of 200 learning professionals. He asked them a simple question: ‘If tomorrow you needed to learn something new, what would be your first step?’ He expected a range of typical responses including books, e-learning, classroom-based learning and asking a colleague. But more than 90% of those present indicated that they would simply do a Google search. This is a profound change.
Engineers and other technical professionals want information immediately - available at their fingertips. Most organizations do have information available, but most storage systems are hierarchical menu-based systems that require one to memorise key navigational paths or key steps. What makes search engines such as Google so incredibly powerful is their simplicity and ease of access. Whether at home, in an office or traveling through an airport, access to Google is easy. Furthermore, when searching, the engine facilitates even fairly loosely defined strings and some misspellings - there is a lot of ‘forgiveness, including typo’s and formats’ (Masie 2006).
Fingertip knowledge is also now diversifying. Knowledge is being secured using devices such as mobile phones and PDA’s.
What does all this mean for us as engineering professionals?
1. You need to learn the rules and tricks for searching to understand how you can effectively get information. For example, using quotations around key words will allow you to search for a fixed combination of terms. In Google, have a look at the advanced search facilities. These allow you to exclude words and do other nifty searches.
2.You have to learn the tips and tricks to identify good information from bad such as articles which are well written and are from reputable sources such as universities and companies with good track records.
3. Ensure that that this ability to search quickly and effectively is available to you wherever you are. For work efficiency, the use of PDA’s and quick access to notebook computers, whilst on site or traveling, is becoming essential for the busy engineering professional.
4. You need to work out mechanisms to make your engineering knowledge within an organization easily accessible by your colleagues. For example, tags containing information such as the author, the key words describing the document and perhaps an expiry date (after which the information is no longer usable) should be created. This would allow any one else in the organization to search for the stored information using a Google type search.
In conclusion, Elliot Masie (2006) makes the point that ‘…we need to start to develop the ability to be very good at Fingertip Knowledge: both very good at finding resources and also very good at the critical thinking that goes to figure out: are they true, are they relevant, are they biased or unbiased?’