I watch my 14yo son with some bemusement when he expertly uses Google to search for information for school projects or simply to find out about something that intrigues him. He is reluctant to use my favourite source of information – books. There is a massive paradigm shift that is occurring at present where people are using search engines from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to secure the knowledge, information and data they require by simply typing a request into a search engine. Know-how all available at your fingertips – or fingertip knowledge.

Elliot Masie, a learning futurist, indicated his astonishment 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 from consulting your peers or locating the information in a book – either online or in a library.

Engineering 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 travelling 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 iPhones, iPads or smart phones.

However – with this deluge of information it is vital to use the information wisely.

So how can we improve our searching for know-how on the web?

  • 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 rather than the boring old searches we do on a daily basis.
  • 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.
  • Ensure that that this ability to search quickly and effectively is available to you wherever you are. For work efficiency, the use of smartphones or iPads and quick access to notebook computers, whilst on site or travelling, is becoming essential for the busy engineering professional.
  • You need to work out mechanisms to make your engineering knowledge within an organization easily accessible by your colleagues and even by yourself for later retrieval. 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. Be systematic about how you save details of web sites and information sources so that you can quickly go back to them without engaging in another arduous search from scratch.

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?’

And remember when looking for that very hard-to-find item of information, Abraham Lincoln's comment: 'Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing'.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve