Thursday, 12 June 2008

Fancy a game of cards?

I've been recently been conducting a card sorting exercise at work in my efforts to review and revamp our existing website.

For any information professional worth their salt, card sorting is an excellent technique to involve system users in the re-design and re-organisation of a website or database system.

The basics

Conducting a card-sorting exercise involves:

  • Careful pre-planning including a clear method and system of recording results.
  • Thought and planning into who is invited to undertake exercise and whether to conduct. individually or in a group format.
  • Clear instructions for participants.
  • Potential Reward for participants.
  • How to disseminate results.
  • Analysis and making an ultimate decision based on feedback.

In conducting card sorting exercises for the particular project I am working on, I have used open card sorts with a group. I try if possible to get 2 groups to do the exercise simultaneously so that there is the opportunity to compare results at the end. I've also used a web-based sorting tool for some of the sorts for the first time, which was out of necessity and not my first choice, as I think it is preferrable to be in the room and observe and listen to participants. Having said that, the web sort is flexible in allowing people to participate who I might not otherwise have had access to.

Pros and Cons of card sorting

From my experience, card sorting is a deceptively simple technique but as with anything in a real world situation, it is open to interpretation and there is plenty to learn from the exercise.

At worst card sorting can be biased. The initial labels you produce or your description of the session can be misleading. You can also read too much into the statistics.

Unless you are a fulltime information architectural, usability or website design firm or consultant, I think that personally, even if you have put everything into place with a validated method of conducting, recording and analysing the sort, it is difficult to draw too much out of card sorting. Maybe that is a good thing. Card sorting is at best a method of reassuring your thinking.

It is powerful because it is structured and involves users. As one of the participants who recently took part in one of the exercises said to me, he wished he had known about this technique during a previous project, since it would have avoided many arguments.

Card sorting, it should be remembered is not the only technique available and it best used alongside other techniques depending on the nature of the project.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Hollywood Librarian - A Look at Librarians through Film

"The Hollywood Librarian" documentary film has been receiving a wide range of interest and column inches worldwide since being released in the US last year. It finally had an 'official' CILIP in London screening at the London Southbank University on 22 May 2008. It weaves in interviews with librarians, footage from library events and clips from librarians in film and tackles issues such as image, pay, censorship, financial and political pressures and much more.

Okay, it is sentimental and in your face American, but it is great marketing and long overdue.

I particularly like the clips from old Hollywood films featuring some of the stereotypes and images you have when you think of a librarian.

If even my chronically non-library boyfriend can say that he enjoyed the film and didn't walk out after 10 mnutes then I think that it is great and should be shown as widely as possible.

Though it is a shame that the film itself is currently isn't been shown or made available more widely to mainstream audiences either on TV channels such as BBC4 in the UK or PBS in the United States.

To find out more about the film watch the trailer below:

or view the website:

The truth is in there!

It is often hard to step back when working and see the support and assistance of others. That's why it is great to be reminded of the work of world renowned institutions and organisations.

The National Archives is a gem for the general public, teachers, researchers, information professionals.

At heart, it is home to basic stories of humankind - a repository of our collective heritage where we can identify our place in the world and the journey we are making.

I recently attended a free seminar on "Introduction to the Public Record System" which put the National Archives in context, explaining its rationale and remit.

The National Archives is at the heart of information policy. It sets standards and supports innovation in information and records management. The National Archives is also the UK government's official archive, containing 900 years of history with records ranging from parchment and paper scrolls through to digital files and archived websites. It aims to make records open and available to all and make history tangible.

As part of our visit we had the opportunity to see behind the scenes, in particular the stacks. We saw a range of records which revealed the range of the National Archives deposits including:

  • a document about declaring war on Germany which was lost and then re-found (and helpful stored in a folder which is titled - "Political - Western Europe - Miscellaneous") Lessons for us all to record information carefully!)

  • a letter written by Lt Gonville Bromhead which detailed the valour of the soldiers who served courageously to protect the supply station at Rorke's Drift on Wednesday 22 to Thursday 23 January 1879 in the face of a force of 4000 Zulus (an event made famous by the film 'Zulu' with Michael Caine)

  • an army record of an average soldier with the detail of his health record including a noticeable distinguishing mark which remains unrepeatable!

  • A handwritten note revealing the procedure for informing the Queen in case Britain went to nuclear war - which also reveals how to be very carefully if records are destroyed.

For information professionals, and civil servants, the National Archives is a treasure trove and puts our work in context. It makes you realise why we do what we do and ultimately the value for all.

The same day I was at The National Archives, on the 14th May, the Archives released MOD files on UFO's, Britain's so called "X-Files". This was widely reported in the press. The Guardian headline about the story reads "The truth is out there: National Archives lifts lid on UFO files". I would suggest that the truth is not out there - it is rather inside the National Archives itself.

We do not need to travel to distant universes to find out more about who we are as people and a country but to look inside its walls.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Wednesday Night is Apprentice Night

"The Apprentice" is must watch TV.

Column inches have already been written in the press and in other blogs about previous series and the current Series 4 (which we are now halfway through). And I just HAVE to add my thoughts to the mix....

The beauty of "The Apprentice" is that it is entertaining, informative and educational. Above all it is about people - with all their brilliance, stupidity and flaws.

Who can forget candidates from previous series such as Tre Azam, Ruth Badger, Katy Hopkins or Saira Khan who have made their mark on the public imagination?

I would never put myself up for such humiliation but I can definitely learn some lessons about work and business including how to work in a team, how to have conviction, how to focus on the customer, how to influence and negotiate with others and importantly how not to behave in work situations.

It is perhaps not surprising that Learndirect (a leading nationwide UK supplier of learning programmes) quickly launched a DVD-Rom of training programmes based on "The Apprentice" on the themes of leadership and management, negotiating and selling, pitching and presenting. I don't have any statistics but I would presume that this learning solution is very popular.

I am not a trained HR professional and from an HR point of view there are bound to be flaws in "The Apprentice" style of recruiting - for a start it encourages the arrogant and self confident to come forward. What about people with other characteristics and skills which are not so TV friendly but vitally important to business such as loyalty and quietly achieving? Having said that, the programme does provide a window on the whole recruitment process - particularly from how candidates prepare and how they come across in their dealings with others.

So what about Series 4 speicifically?

If the series to date is anything to go by, there will still be surprises. Some candidates have a strong tendency to put the proverbial foot in it. For instance what was Jenny Celerier thinking in the greeting card task by effectively pushing the team to except her idea for an environmental card and then during the pitch, admitting that she bought less cards for green reasons. Or what about, Lindi and Jennifer's poor planning and pitching during the laundry task when they had no idea of costs and off the top of the their heads came up with the idea for a telephone hotline to the laundry!

Who will win Series 4? I am routing for Rafe and Lucinda, because they both seem to be effective leaders. Rafe, despite coming across in a very pompous manner, seems to get on well with most of the other candidates and stood up for Sara last week. Lucinda has been under-estimated in my opinion by the other candidates and I am hoping she makes her mark towards the end.

Clearly "The Apprentice" winner needs to have a strategy for applying, for being on TV, for playing their part in the tasks, being team leader, being in the boardroom and for post-Apprentice 'fame'.

Or as Tim Campbell, the winner of the Series 1 says "Being successful in business is all about the five Ps: Planning, passion, perseverance, partnership and planetary assistance - everyone needs a bit of luck. "

Wise advice!

To keep up to date with the latest on the BBC series "The Apprentice" see

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

What is all the fuss about blogs?

I think it is about time that I address the issue of blogs and blogging itself.

As an information professional, you are taught to carefully review information sources by authority, relevance. You also need skills of analysis and crititcal evaluation.

The trouble with blogging is also the essence of its popularity - it is the equivalent of writing a personal journal with a powerful sense of immediacy.

The question is how do you know who or what to trust in this sphere.

Some context here is useful and Caslon Analytics, who are an Australian research and statistical company examines the blogging phenonomen -

In particular, the article looks at the ephemerality, the audience and the demographics of blogging.

What is the value of blogging particularly for organisations?

Ingenta's Library Newsletter, "Eye to Eye " (Issue 22@ July 2007 ) - - discusses the blogging phenomenon. It identifies 10 reasons to blog:
  1. Product-based eg about a specific service or technology
  2. Role-based
  3. Activity-based
  4. Subject-based:
  5. Format-based
  6. CPD-based
  7. Tool-based
  8. Current awareness-based
  9. Observation-based
  10. Marketing and Publicity-based

For businesses, blogging is attractive in terms of reaching to a certain target, but as with method of communication and marketing, it has to be viewed in terms of the "communications mix" and a clear headed assessment of value. In some segments, blogging might be the answer. Blogging is and its value to business is examined in a Business Week article, "Social Media will change your business" - - published on 20 February 2008. There is also clearly money to be made from blogging with, for intanse, the website - - which is aimed at providing advice to businesses on blogging.

In terms of governments, blogs can be another way to reach to citizens and present a more personal view of what can be seen as bureaucratic organisations.

Currently the FCO has launched into the blogosphere with blogs from new starters, ambassadors, trade officers and the Secretary of State. It is interesting that the FCO is one of the first government departments to use blogging. I think that is partly as a counter-weight to what could be perceived as an elitist, conservative culture. If the FCO is to attract new graduates to join the organisation, then blogging is one way to reach people and present a different image.

Blogs are another way of engaging the audience and encouraging participation and that can't always be a bad thing.

Why am I blogging?

I think until blogging was developed, there was no quick and easy way or space to air your views to the world. So blogging for me is a social release, a theraputic tool and a way to actually think through my ideas.

It is as Business Week says, about power - giving power to the people. As with all other communication means, some people will take to it and others will favour other means, and some will abuse it, but that is not to knock the possibilities it affords if thought through.

I am tempted to say that I don't expect anyone to read this but that is putting down my opinions, thoughts and approach. The Blog Herald recommends Blogging for an Audience - to improve your writing and your blogging ability. I think it is a question of value and authority. My question is does publishing always have to be about reading? Maybe that should be the subject of another blog!

Monday, 5 May 2008

The Killer Instinct

Our little kitten has now graduated into a full blown cat by bringing us a dead mouse into the house.

It is said that cats bring dead prey into our homes because it is their way of bringing us a gift and showing their love and affection for us. According to one website, when giving us gifts of prey, cats see us (humans) as their kittens. In the wild, big cats present prey to others in their den as a social gesture.

I love watching and being with our cats. I think they are beautiful, intelligent creatures who love unconditionally. We can learn a lot about ourselves from our cats and other animals.

Cats are often seen as cruel and unfriendly, but I don't see them in this way. They are the distillations of millions of years of evolution and 'nature' which is all powerful.

Looking at cats and prey they are demonstrating their innate wildness. In the wild, cats are attracted by movement, which attracts the desire to attack. Playing with the prey can apparently be a sign of excitement after the stalking or killing. Simple!

Anyway whatever the explanations, I feel truly honoured!

Sunday, 4 May 2008

The Art of Interviewing - Part 2

I am pleased to say that my 2 days of interviewing went well and I actually got quite a buzz out of it all.

Whether job applicants like it or not, the recruitment interview is probably the most tried and tested way of determining whether to employ someone.

There are many advantages including:

  • Ability to assess person's verbal fluency and communication skills
  • Ability to assess person's fit with the organisation and team
  • Chance to assess job applicant's knowledge
  • Flexible situation with opportunity to ask more questions if required.

As well as some downsides:

  • Can make subjective evaluations
  • Not as reliable as tests
  • Strong likelihood that decisions tend to be taken in first few minutes

Being on the other side of the desk, I could see how much an interview is a two way process. The better candidates make an interviewer's life easier and the interview seems to flow more, compared to weaker candidates where the interviewers have to gather more evidence and probe deeper, taking more time.

Strong candidates can come from any sector, as long as they are able to demonstrate that they are competent by giving thought through evidence and examples from any are of their current or past work or from a social environment. Interviewers want to see the candidates succeed and demonstrate their skills.

There is occassionally debate in the library professional press about changing sectors. Based on my experience of being on an interview panel it can be done, if you can demonstrate and speak with confidence about your skills in your application and in the interview.

On the other side of the desk, you gain a number of valuable skills including those of listening, questionning and assessing as well as gaining a new enthusiasm.

Interviewing is also about teamwork. Everybody on an interview panel is there for a reason and has something to contribute including, for instance, HR who can bring their expertise from other recruitment rounds and knowledge of the job market overall.

All in all I loved it!!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

The art of interviewing

There are squillions of articles online and books about interviewing skills and techniques aimed at candidates with the aim of securing a new job role. Advice on everything from sample interview questions to advice on how to dress and behave.

But what about from the other side of the desk?

Interviewing is after all a two way process. As a candidate you can easily forget who the other people are in the equation.

Since I am about to sit on an interview panel, this issue is intriguing me. I wonder to myself if I will behave to type and be either an absentee, a buddy, an inquisitor, a laser beam or the shotgun interviewer or even a chatty, nosy, inexperienced, by-the-book or interrogation interviewer. Will I do a good enough job?

Interviewing is an art and a science. It involves so many variables:

Listening + Personal Connection + Focus on job and Competencies + Intuition + Skill + Situation + Verbal and Non-verbal cues

I feel a weight on my shoulders knowing that:

  • The average cost of filling a vacancy in 2007 has been calculated as being between £4333 and £7750

  • Bad recruiting decisions result in less productivity, additional training and development costs, wasted time and effort and impacts on team culture and motivation levels.

  • To pays to recruit well since it is clearly costly to business to recruit. According to Gregory Smith, research shows that those organizations that spend more time recruiting high-caliber people earn 22% higher return to shareholders than their industry peers.

Interviewing is not as easy it looks. So to help me and anyone else who is interviewing for the first time, the following resources might be useful:

As with many things in life, it comes down to preparation and planning along with a level of flexibility and openness on the day.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, 26 April 2008

"I have rarely seen a place that so attracted my fancy"

These are the words of Charles Dickens writing to his friend, the actor manager, William Charles Macready, who retired to live in Cheltenham's Wellington Square and whom Dickens visited on several occasions during the 1860s.

I could not agree with Dickens more. Cheltenham is beautiful. It is home to one of the best, most complete examples of Regency architecture in England and it personfies the image of the traditional English town. I'm not an architect and don't have much of an eye, but I defy anyone to say that Cheltenham is not in harmony with its surroundings.

The regency architecture style dates from the early 19th century when George IV was still Prince Regent. The style is typified by elegence and classical design. Think terraces and crescents, wrought iron balconies, bow windows and stucco facades.

I will be going to Cheltenham Spa on Sunday and even the thought of such a beautiful town lifts my spirit. I am minded to think about Alain de Botton and his book "The Architecture of Happiness" where he writes eloquently about architecture's potential to make us realise how full potential as human beings. Architects seek beauty but all also represent ideals, beliefs and values and this is what draws people to look at buildings and see what they represent of ourselves and the world around us - whether making us despondent or uplifted in spirit.
I was fortunate to be in Cheltenham last year for the annual Literature Festival and bought David Dimbleby's book, which accompany's the BBC TV series, "How we Built Britain" - His premise is that we are reflected in our buildings - whether fearless, herioc, innovative, industrious, eccentric, aspirational or functional. Through the book and the series we are taken on a popular history of Britain, via some well known and less well known British architecture across the centuries.

(As an aside, David Dimbleby is possibly another subject for a blog in himself representing a comforting vision of Britishness. Indeed, someone has already got there ahead of me in their "How We Built Britain Fansite").

So I'd recommend anyone if they have the chance to visit Cheltenham at least once in their lives and you can find out more about the town from