Meeting the Information Needs of Professional Staff

By Jeanne H. Yamamura and Yvonne Stedham

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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 staff.

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.

Information Needs

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 trained intuition.”

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 process.

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 being made.

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 conversation.

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.

Research Study

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 sharing.

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 satisfaction.
  • 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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