1504.0 - Methodological News, Mar 2002  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 16/11/2001   
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This article reports on the activities of the Breadcrumbs Nuggets and Roadmaps (BNR) team. The BNR team's objective was to generate ideas, discussion and debate within the Methodology Division (MD), with a view to improving the way MD develops and manages individual and collective professional expertise.

Before discussing the activities of the team, it is instructive to reflect on the title for the group and the metaphors contained within.

A breadcrumb is a little piece of data or knowledge. When you are working on a project you find (and sometimes create) them scattered all around, sometimes organised usefully, but more often in bits and pieces. A key research skill is to find relevant breadcrumbs and organise them to form a useful body of knowledge. A good trail of breadcrumbs can lead you safely through the project to the end.

A nugget is a piece of treasure that you find, when someone before you has gathered all the breadcrumbs together, and drawn connections between ideas, techniques or whatever that originally might have seemed quite unrelated. Depending on what you are interested in, some breadcrumbs might be part of several different nuggets simultaneously.

A roadmap is something really valuable. It is something that people who have gone before sometimes leave for you - a picture of how to find your way along trails of breadcrumbs, what nuggets you can find along the way, and what is the quickest way to reach them. Roadmaps aren't always linear - sometimes there are different ways to get to the same place, and conversely some nuggets are on the paths to several different destinations!

The BNR team decided to pursue a number of 'focused' activities as well discussing issues in developing and maintaining professional expertise.

Rob Burnside considered better ways to document and record research and information produced in the course of work. This was based initially on interviews with ABS staff, and aimed at uncovering information storage and retrieval best practices by looking at how people actual undertake their own research and retrieval. Three interesting threads emerged;

  • Information retrieval patterns and behaviour often follow from professional skills, training, monitoring of journals, mailing lists and databases and copying articles.
  • The almost unconsciously accumulated awareness of the interests and skills of other individuals. Lack of this awareness is a problem for people new to an organisation or work area.
  • The desire, need and means of attributing some level of reliability to information uncovered, and the way to make informal assessments of sources based on a range of factors. These include the degree to which papers are circulated, associated seminars and minutes, the quality of writing, and status of the source area or author.

An implication of this is that authors and managers of knowledge should aim to explicitly support and facilitate accurate and effective warranting by readers. For example avoid leaving documents with titles that include 'final draft' or 'interim' and include clear cues as to role, responsibility and organisational information.

Craig McLaren and Sybille McKeown examined how information was stored on MD's large and expanding databases. While the current organisation of databases was useful for finding project or client specific information, it was not as effective for finding technique or method-specific information. To address this deficiency they developed a list of keywords that can be attached to important or final documents and used to search by. A set of keywords are currently being trialled on the MD databases.

Steven Kennedy with the help of Kristen Northwood and Godfrey Lubulwa explored the various methods people use to collect and disseminate the knowledge they have gained on trips and at conferences. Seminars were usually the most useful way of transmitting what people had learned to others. Also, thematic seminars as opposed to descriptions of trips were a good choice when the traveller had attended a conference or workshop. Producing a report was a useful way of clarifying and transmitting what people had learned from their travel. It appears that using a dictaphone daily while travelling to record comments and then asking for these comments to be typed up once home again was the most efficient mechanism for producing a record of the trip, from which the final report could be developed. Even so substantial effort is still needed to appropriately structure the final report.

Ken Tallis concentrated on the knowledge that arises from projects. The key question was 'What tools and practices would help ensure that such knowledge is captured, shared and remains accessible to future researchers in MD and elsewhere?' Recommendations for standard outputs from methodological projects included roadmaps to key project documents, annotated bibliographies, and narratives about research strategies (especially, what strategies worked and what didn't). Other useful tools include roadmaps of analytical techniques and software, and guides to the expertise of ABS methodologists.
Geoff Lee looked at annotated bibliographies as a method for telling others about interesting and useful papers. For each journal article, he made an entry on our Lotus Notes database which included an 'opinion'. The 'opinion' reflected what was learnt from or thought of the paper and (hopefully) added value for later researchers who came across this 'breadcrumb'. The second part of the project investigated some tools to help assemble individual library entries and opinions into a completed reading list (a nugget). A Notes folder was created, into which each library entry could be placed. The entries could be sorted into author order or chronological order and an annotated reading list (the final nugget) could be automatically generated. The annotated reading list contained the title and author of each paper, followed by a link to the corresponding library form and the 'opinion', so later readers could decide if the paper is relevant to their research interest. While not yet implemented, standard keywords would also be recorded on the annotated reading list documents.

Tala Talagaswatta and Jonathon Khoo are considering how to gather and spread intelligence about emerging analytical methods. One scheme they are experimenting with is 'gatekeepers'. The gatekeeper's role is to trawl the literature in a given field, subscribe to relevant internet sites or groups, encapsulate the emerging methods, and then bring and spread that knowledge to the Methodology Division. A trial is currently running in the Analytical Services Branch.

A poster will be distributed shortly that summarises all the BNR activities to date. People who are interested in any aspect of the BNR team's investigations should contact Geoff Lee on (02) 6252 5239

Email: geoff.lee@abs.gov.au.