Air Time: Informationalist for Hire

A new breed of professional, informationalists are tech-savvy and focused on helping individuals and organizations function more effectively in an information-driven society.

March 1, 2007

3 Min Read
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After logging 15 years in enterprise IT, carving a career path from front-line support to managing network and system organizations, I had the good fortune several years ago to shift my focus and join the faculty of the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, what we now call the I-School at Syracuse. While engineering and computer science education has been of great value in fostering the development of innovative products and services, it has also helped to perpetuate a common malady found in many IT organizations: too much T and not enough I.

Clearly, not all IT organizations are guilty of being overly technology-driven. In fact, the mantra of "business-technology alignment" chanted in many an enterprise executive suite has stimulated a bit of an anti-technology bias in some organizations. Far too many senior executives have concluded that IT is a commodity that provides no competitive value, a necessary business service that is easily outsourced, like janitorial services.

The I-Schools have a noble goal: refocusing the boundaries of technology, information and people, and educating a new generation of "informationists."

An informationist is a new breed of professional, technically savvy, but also keenly focused on helping individuals and organizations function more effectively in an information-driven society. In boardrooms and on the street, the toughest problems are often viewed as information problems. An informationist may focus on the individual, searching for ways to help people deal with the real complexities of personal information management. Or the focus may be on complex societal issues, sifting through information haystacks in search of the needles that might prevent an impending act of terrorism.Every academic discipline and profession has a foundation of knowledge and skills that provide it with an identity. We have an intuitive sense of what a lawyer does, or a doctor, teacher or engineer. While IT as a profession is probably most closely associated with computer science as an academic discipline in overall public perception, the skills needed to be an effective information manager require a multidisciplinary orientation. Yes, students must have a grounding in technology, but also in management and social science. Effective IT professionals understand the competitive value of technology, and they constantly strive to understand how people can more effectively use information as a tool.

Many I-Schools grew out of library and information science programs, where a number of standards for information management were developed way before the first bit hit the wire and the term service-oriented had a different meaning than it does today. Other I-Schools have different academic origins, often an effort to embrace and institutionalize interdisciplinary approaches to information challenges. Like any emerging academic discipline, it's a work in progress.

IT professionals have long understood that mastering technology, while often elusive, is only one element that defines IT success. Execution is a bigger problem, and often hinges on planning and management, politics and budget--not typical elements of a computer science education. Still, deciding what specific technologies to teach to an aspiring informationist, and in what portions, is the subject of debate. Keeping pace with the IT innovation curve is a serious challenge for universities, where frequent curriculum changes are disruptive. Fortunately, even a diverse group of academics can agree to foundation technologies that are likely to have staying power: databases, networks, system management, security, application development.

The I-School approach isn't the only potential solution to projected shortages of IT workers. But it's an approach that's worth a serious look.

Dave Molta is a Network Computing senior technology editor. He is also assistant dean for technology at the School of Information Studies and director of the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected]1022

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