the Information Needs of Professional Staff
Jeanne H. Yamamura and Yvonne Stedham
OCTOBER 2007 - Skilled accountants are in high demand. Employers,
ranging from public accounting firms to private industry to government
entities, have found it increasingly difficult not only to attract,
but also to retain, professional staff. The shortages and related
difficulties in keeping good employees reflect a critical problem
for businesses in meeting the information needs of professional
Professional staff are “knowledge employees”
who use their expertise in solving unique problems. They differ
from other employees in their needs and expectations for the workplace.
Professionals have specific information needs that must be addressed
if the employees are to be satisfied in their jobs. Employers
must identify the information needs of professional staff and
figure out how to meet them.
The primary characteristic that differentiates professional staff
members from other employees is their position as experts. They
must command a specialized body of knowledge and display it in
the form of technical expertise. The competence of experts is
defined by technical expertise in their field. To become experts
and to maintain their expertise, professional employees must develop
and continually add to their knowledge base. Access to relevant
information is critical in that process.
Professional knowledge has been described as consisting of four
levels, in increasing order of importance: cognitive knowledge,
advanced skills, systems understanding, and self-motivated creativity.
To become and remain a successful professional, all four levels
of knowledge must be obtained.
Cognitive knowledge is the basic technical foundation typically
obtained through education, training, and certification. While
this knowledge is essential, it is only the starting point, and
it would not be sufficient by itself to be considered expertise.
Advanced skills enable a professional to apply technical learning.
Aspiring professionals must be able to apply book knowledge to
solve real-world problems to demonstrate their mastery.
Systems understanding is a deeper knowledge of how and why things
happen. It allows a professional to solve complex problems and
create unique solutions. In its ultimate form, a professional
is able to make decisions instinctively, using a “highly
The highest and most important knowledge level is self-motivated
creativity. Consisting of “will, motivation, and adaptability,”
self-motivated creativity is considered essential to success in
a rapidly changing environment, because it provides professionals
with the drive and ability to renew their knowledge and skills,
as well as to adapt to changing conditions. Most companies have
expended considerable effort in developing the first three knowledge
levels while failing to address the last level. Yet the speed
of change makes this level even more critical.
Author Albert Shapero proposed that professional employees need
two types of information: logistic and nutrient (Managing
Professional People: Understanding Creative Performance,
Free Press, 1985). Logistic needs arise from requests for information
when the kind of information is known but the content is not.
Such requests typically arise when trying to work on a specific
job or project. Nutrient needs are broader-based informational
needs. Nutrient information, which includes performance feedback
and career guidance, will be utilized by a professional in solving
as-yet-unknown future problems, as the information becomes part
of the professional’s unique store of knowledge.
To keep professionals productive and satisfied, both types of
information must be supplied. A professional’s success depends
on the development and maintenance of technical expertise. The
expertise is supported through the provision of logistic and nutrient
information. While logistic information is particularly useful
to the maintenance and expansion of cognitive knowledge, advanced
skills, and systems understanding, nutrient information is critical
to self-motivated creativity.
Meeting Information Needs
What can a company do to meet the information needs of its professionals?
First consider professionals’ logistic needs.
Educate professionals on the company’s available
resources and how to access them. Logistic information
is typically provided by an organization internally through a
central facility, such as a library or electronic information
system. To maximize the effectiveness of professionals, make sure
they know what information is available and how to retrieve it.
What training or assistance, for example, do staff members receive
to inform them of the resources available in the company library
or intranet? In an interview between the authors and several audit
managers and a staff accountant, the staff accountant knew the
library was there, but couldn’t say what information was
available in it. The audit managers, on the other hand, were bemoaning
the inability of their staff accountants to perform accounting
research. A brief training session on the resources available
would be a positive step that would help the staff accountants
and the audit managers.
Maximize the problem-solving capabilities through
technology. New technologies are enabling companies
to dramatically change the way they are providing information.
Greatly expanded capacity and speed enable massive amounts of
data to be analyzed. Wal-Mart, for example, has demonstrated the
power of data accumulation and analysis in creating one of the
most efficient inventory systems in the world.
Providing access to such data and computational ability greatly
expands the problem-solving capabilities of professional staff.
It may also have the added benefit of retaining professionals
by enabling them to accomplish more via the company’s systems
than they could on their own or for another company.
Although technology resources are not always fully used, companies
have generally been successful in meeting their employees’
logistical information needs. That is not true, however, for nutrient
needs, because of a lack of understanding of nutrient information
needs and their relationship to job satisfaction.
Provide training and opportunities that enable the
development of expertise. How can companies successfully
meet their employees’ nutrient information needs? Recall
that the aspiring professional’s job is to become an expert.
The work environment, therefore, is expected to provide the training
and opportunities necessary to develop expertise.
Employers should establish a training program for new hires that
places them as early and fully as possible into contact with real
customers and real problems. Research indicates that intensity
and repetition are critical to the development of advanced skills.
Continued exposure to the complexity of real problems pushes a
holder of cognitive knowledge into the advanced skill level.
New professionals should be paired with experienced mentors who
can provide practical guidance and support. New professionals
who are properly coached will develop faster and further than
professionals without coaching. They are better able to develop
systems understanding and self-motivated creativity because their
learning has been enhanced and guided.
The challenge in implementing these suggestions is one of prioritization
and time allocation. Experienced professionals who should be mentors
are faced with increasing time demands, combined with insufficient
emphasis placed on coaching. Companies must recognize that good
professionals will be developed only if sufficient time and resources
are provided. This means that coaching activities should be incorporated,
valued, and rewarded through an annual goal-setting and evaluation
Provide challenges and opportunities that strengthen
existing expertise. Established professionals must
continually hone their expertise. The work environment should
provide the challenges and opportunities necessary to maintain
and increase their existing expertise. An employer should increase
the challenges for established professionals by expanding job
responsibilities both horizontally and vertically. Experienced
professionals need interesting, challenging projects that offer
an opportunity to expand intellectually.
Consider the accounts-payable function. Although essential to
any company, such a position can be unglamorous and tedious. One
manufacturing company made the job of manager of accounts payable
a stepping-stone for advancement by empowering the person in the
position to recommend and implement sweeping technological changes.
These changes have eliminated much of the job’s tedium and
created opportunities for more analytical work. As a result, managers
have grown professionally and broadened their expertise.
Professionals should be pushed out of their comfort zones into
new areas that use their capabilities to the fullest and demand
strong performance. The end result can benefit the individual
and the company.
The authors know of a senior manager for a utility company (whose
background consisted primarily of audit experience) who became
part of a merger team responsible for determining how to most
effectively consolidate administrative functions being performed
by both merging organizations. Serving on the merger team required
the manager to greatly broaden her understanding of the company’s
information infrastructure and the various processes involved
in providing services. As a result, when the merger team’s
work was complete, the manager became the head of information
systems, a move that would not have been possible before serving
on the merger team.
Recognize the need to develop professionally.
Professionals are continually striving to develop and be recognized
as experts. Employers should recognize the professional’s
related information needs and strive to fulfill them.
Performance feedback is essential to a professional’s development
and advancement. Without performance feedback, professionals are
unsure about the extent to which they are becoming true experts.
Feedback has repeatedly shown up in studies as a critical element
in the job satisfaction of professionals. Looking at feedback
from an information point of view enables one to identify why
it is so important. It facilitates the development of a professional’s
expertise and enables a professional to recognize the progress
The development of expertise is a long and, at times, painful
journey. Recognition of accomplishments by other experts enables
professionals to determine that they are accepted as experts.
An employer’s interest in a professional’s career
has repeatedly been identified as important to job satisfaction.
Development of expertise is a lifelong task. Career guidance can
ensure professionals that they are getting the correct experience
to make continual progress.
Create an environment that values and supports information.
Increasing the development of self-motivated creativity is best
done through a company culture that creates an environment in
which information is valued. An information-supportive environment
is created when a company shows through its actions that acquiring
information is important.
Research indicates a strong relationship between productivity
and the number and variety of work-related conversations an individual
has with colleagues within and outside an organization. Employers
should encourage professionals to read and discuss what they find,
and make it easy for them to talk to each other.
The targets and frequency of communications are directly affected
by the physical layout of facilities. For example, a lunchroom
or coffee room with scratchpads can encourage the exchange of
information during breaks. Members of a group should work near
each other to facilitate the exchange of information. Weekly lunches
between different professionals in the organization can foster
Using scarce resources on items without a specific known use
or benefit may be difficult, if not impossible. Remember, however,
that developing the fourth level of knowledge, self-motivated
creativity, is best accomplished at higher levels within the organizational
culture. The availability of resources sends a clear message as
to what is and what is not considered important.
There are a number of ways an organization can expend resources
in support of professional development. It can support travel
to develop and maintain linkages between professionals within
and without the organization. It can encourage membership and
participation in professional and other organizations. An employer
should also fund the books, journals, and other resource materials
desired by professional staff.
The authors investigated the relationship between job satisfaction
and the provision of information in the workplace by surveying
140 accountants working for an international CPA firm. Six factors
were examined. The first two pertained to the provision of nutrient
information: performance feedback in the form of formal evaluations
and demonstrated interest in career development. The latter four
measured the extent to which the firm valued information and information
acquisition or the degree of information consciousness: encouragement
of networking; training on available resources; ease of obtaining
information; and financial support for information access and
In summary, the study’s results revealed the following:
- Job satisfaction was positively and significantly related
to the provision of nutrient information. In other words, both
performance feedback and career guidance were important to job
- Of the two types of nutrient information tested, the most
important was career guidance. Why were accountants so concerned
about career development? Presumably, it is because the discussion
of career opportunities and the recognition of achievements
confirm and support their status as experts.
- Job satisfaction was positively and significantly related
to the degree of information consciousness exhibited by the
firm. Each of the four factors tested was important to job satisfaction.
Because success on the job is dependent upon information access,
the support provided by the firm in meeting professionals’
information needs played a major role in how satisfied they
were in their jobs.
Retaining Professional Staff
Organizations seeking to cope with growing shortages of professional
staff should attempt to understand the information needs of their
“information employees” in order to more productively
manage this critical resource. Professional staff differ from
other employees because of their status as experts and the resultant
impact of such differences on the need for and utilization of
information. The companies that successfully retain professional
staff will be those that have recognized and met the information
needs of their professionals.
Jeanne H. Yamamura, CPA, MIM, PhD, is an associate
professor in the department of accounting and information systems,
and Yvonne Stedham, PhD, is a professor in the
department of managerial sciences, both at the University of Nevada–Reno.