Web Work:

Information Seeking and Knowledge Work on the World Wide Web

This monograph is co-written by Chun Wei Choo, Brian Detlor, and Don Turnbull. The manuscript was completed in 1999, and the book was published in September 2000 by Kluwer Academic Publishers. The volume was the first in a series on Information Science & Knowledge Management.

From the Preface

This book brings together three great motifs of the network society: the seeking and using of information by individuals and groups; the creation and application of knowledge in organizations; and the fundamental transformation of these activities as they are enacted on the Internet and the World Wide Web. Of the three, the study of how individuals and groups seek information probably has the longest history, beginning with the early "information needs and uses" studies soon after the Second World War. The study of organizations as knowledge-based social systems is much more recent, and really gained momentum only within the last decade or so. The study of the World Wide Web as information and communication media is younger still, but has generated tremendous excitement, partly because it has the potential to reconfigure the ways people seek information and use knowledge, and partly because it offers new methods of analyzing and measuring how in fact such information and knowledge work gets done. As research endeavours, these streams overlap and share conceptual constructs, perspectives, and methods of analysis. Although these overlaps and shared concerns are sometimes apparent in the published research, there have been few attempts to connect these ideas explicitly and identify cross-disciplinary themes. This book is an attempt to fill this void.

The three authors of this book possess contrasting backgrounds and thus adopt complementary vantage points to observe information seeking and knowledge work. One author (Choo) has taught and researched in organization science and information science for several years, with a particular emphasis on information management, knowledge management, and organizational learning. A second author (Detlor) has substantial experience in consulting, designing, and managing information systems and is completing his doctoral research studying a large-scale project by a major high-tech company to support knowledge work on the World Wide Web and an intranet. The third author (Turnbull) has worked in the areas of World Wide Web software architecture and application design, and Web content design. He is completing his doctoral research on data mining Web usage metrics in order to discover patterns of Web-based information seeking by employees of a large corporation.

Purpose and Approach

As a text, the book has three objectives. First, it provides a review and synthesis of the important theoretical models that have been developed to understand information seeking and knowledge work in organizations. Second, it examines the role of the intranet as an infrastructure for supporting knowledge work, and proposes a new framework for designing intranets as information spaces for collaboration, communication, and sharing knowledge. Third, the text investigates the nature of information seeking on the Web, highlighting research and measurement opportunities that are inherent in the structure and operation of the Web, and suggesting how quantitative methods may add depth and rigor to the research.

The three sections of the book reflect these objectives:

  • Section I: Information Seeking and Knowledge Work

  • Section II: Knowledge Work on Intranets

  • Section III: Information Seeking on the World Wide Web

Thus, Section I describes the theoretical foundation and the broader contexts in which information seeking and knowledge work is situated in organizations.

Section II has a much sharper focus, concentrating on the Intranet as a new kind of information infrastructure that is particularly well suited to supporting knowledge work.

Section III most directly addresses the research and application implications of the World Wide Web as an information source and channel that will dramatically alter how organizations function and how individuals access and use online information.

Overview of the Contents

The book consists of six chapters, two in each of the three sections. Section I begins with Chapter One, "Information Seeking." It sets the scene by surveying what we have learned from decades of research on how people and groups look for and process information. The unifying perspective is that information seeking is social behavior, and that this behavior is shaped by factors that operate at the cognitive, affective, and situational levels. Thus, information needs are as much felt as they are thought about (Dervin 1993, Kuhlthau 1993). Information seeking is guided by perceptions of information quality and accessibility as well as by the conditions and requirements of a particular situation (MacMullin and Taylor 1984). Information use is the least predictable of all, being influenced by a variety of factors such as cognitive styles, affective preferences, and the roles and routines that regulate information use (Bryce 1996). Beneath all this complexity, the chapter presents a framework that places the findings of past research in an overarching structure.

Chapter Two, "The Structure and Dynamics of Organizational Knowledge," examines the nature of knowledge in organizations as well as the processes by which knowledge is engaged and acted upon. Knowledge in organizations is not monolithic nor homogenous. Recent research suggests that organizational knowledge may be categorized as tacit knowledge, explicit knowledge, and cultural knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995, Boisot 1998, Choo 1998, and Spender 1998). Thus, individuals and groups possess tacit knowledge derived from experience, skillful practice, and reflection. Physical objects and procedural routines codify explicit knowledge learned or invented by the organization. Finally, cultural knowledge is embedded in the organization's beliefs about its identity and purpose, its capabilities, and its environment. Chapter Two also contains an extended discussion of the major theoretical models that have been developed to explain the dynamics of creating, diffusing, and utilizing organizational knowledge.

Having laid the conceptual groundwork, Section II begins with a focused discussion of an emerging platform for supporting information seeking and knowledge work in organizations Ð the Intranet. Chapter Three, "The Intranet as Infrastructure for Knowledge Work,"introduces the architecture and components of typical intranet implementations, and weighs the potential benefits that intranets can bring against the problems that can limit their effectiveness, drawing lessons from the research on computer-supported collaborative work (Baecker 1993). For many organizations, the first use of intranets is as a publishing medium, providing rapid and universal access to documents without incurring the costs of paper-based production. Intranets become more effective as knowledge infrastructures when they are designed and utilized as shared information work environments that act simultaneously and seamlessly as spaces for content access, communication, and collaboration. Chapter Three concludes with a number of examples of innovative companies that have adopted intranets to support knowledge work.

Chapter Four, "Designing Intranets to Support Knowledge Work," reviews theoretical models that analyze the structure of organizational information environments (Davenport 1997, Taylor 1991, Katzer and Fletcher 1992). Common elements are identified and woven into a new framework for designing intranets as knowledge work platforms. The proposed "behavioral-ecological framework" emphasizes equally the information practices of individuals and groups, and the information ecology of the organization. It allows intranets to be designed simultaneously from the bottom-up, honoring the culture and spirit of the Internet, and from the top-down, ensuring that the organization as a whole leverages the sharing of knowledge. Applications and services on the intranet are developed as value-adding processes that support the information practices of users, as well as enhance the information environment of the organization. Chapter Four is an amplification and application of the concepts presented in Section I, where we looked at information seeking and knowledge work without discussing any particular platform or infrastructure.

Section III examines information seeking in the specific context of the World Wide Web. Compared with Section I, this section analyzes at a much finer granularity the actions that people actually take when they use the Web as an information source or channel. The section begins with Chapter 5, "Models of Information Seeking on the World Wide Web." The message here is that the structure of the Web and the functionality of the Web browser facilitate as well as constrain information seeking, resulting in new modes and patterns that may be revealed through the quantitative analysis of Web browser actions and Web server events. Chapter 5 reviews and compares research in four emerging areas: information foraging models; bibliometric models of Web resource usage; informetric models of Web resource characteristics; and user models of Web browsing activity. Recent research combines concepts and approaches in all four areas, and suggests that universal "laws" of information seeking on the Web may indeed be discerned.


The book's primary audience would be faculty and students in masters and doctoral programs, in information science, information systems, library science, and management schools. The book would be an appropriate text for graduate and doctoral level courses in areas such as: management information systems, information management, information retrieval, knowledge management, library and information science, records management, digital libraries. Consultants and organizations designing and implementing Intranets would find the book useful in providing research-based insights into how information seeking and knowledge sharing may be enhanced.

May 10, 2000