Doing more with less

During the first two weeks in my new job, something that has amazed me is just how many more information resources I have access to compared to my old firm. Given that I’ve moved to a larger firm I probably should have expected this, but it somehow still took me by surprise. I don’t mean to knock my old library, or imply that we were completely understocked – we did have all the usual resources you’d expect in a mid-sized law firm, and although our budget was probably pretty low for the corporate sector, I’m willing to bet it was higher than the budgets my public sector colleagues manage on. I must say though, it is nice suddenly to have access to all the shiny, expensive databases that were so tantalisingly out of reach before!

It’s got me thinking though – has having to make do with fewer resources made me a better researcher? To give an example, a regular request in both my old and new jobs was for a report on a specific company, usually someone we were pitching for business from. In my old job, I’d produce a 3-6 page document on the company’s background, key personnel and their biographies, any recent news, trends for the sector, and financial data. Or that was the idea anyway – unless the company in question was very large and well known, most of that information was locked away in paid for databases which we didn’t have access to, so I’d have to cobble together what I could from the free web.

In my new job, when I get that sort of request I’ve got almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to sources to choose from. In a way, this almost makes it harder – it’s much easier to be certain that you’ve found everything you can within your budget when you’ve only got a finite amount of places to look for information! I find that the most time consuming aspect of producing these reports now is choosing what not to include – I want the report to be comprehensive, but I don’t want to overwhelm the client with information, so I spent more of my time filtering through what I’ve found.

The issue of selection and exhausting your resources aside, it is much easier to produce this kind of report when all the information I need is at my fingertips. Perhaps this is slightly perverse of me though, but I wonder if this will make me a bit lazy. I’d got used to having to think my way creatively around a subject when I had limited resources to hand: to think about what kind of information might be useful, why it would have been produced and therefore where I might find it. I’ll still need to do that if I’ve been asked to research a particularly obscure company, of course, but for the most part the information I need will be pretty readily available. Will that eventually cause me to forget how to think around corners when I do have to research something more difficult and obscure?

To extrapolate these musings to a broader context – does having fewer resources in general make you better at your job? If you have less access to all the things that make your job easier, it must force you to be more creative with what you do have. I’m sure most people reading this have been asked to do ever more with ever less over the last few years, as indeed I did before moving jobs. Has anyone else found that the lack of resources improved their lateral thinking?


8 comments on “Doing more with less

  1. In my case, it’s not so much the lack of resources as the lack of easy searching that makes my research get creative – I miss having the law databases and knowing that if I’m looking for something, there’s probably a database (that I may or may not have access to!) that covers it or will be a starting point – health and social care policy does not have that, esp. when we could be asked anything by our users, so I def. have to approach research from a different angle than I’m used too.

    There are also, of course, budget restraints – we can’t bill research back, so frequently, if it’s not free or I can’t find a way to get hold of it for free, we can’t provide it, which sucks but again, as you said, does make you think more about the ‘how’ of the research!

  2. So often less is more.

    Sounds like time to bring out that everlasting debate of Precision vs Recall.

    When I’m using the 10,000+ sources in Factiva, I cut down to what I consider to be the best sources. For company info it would be the Financial Times. For a good grounding in current affairs topics I would go for the Economist.

    • That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought of it that way, but possibly part of the difficulty I’m finding at the moment is that I’ve got used to using high-recall search strategies, so as not to miss anything. With fewer resources available, higher recall is preferable as there’s not so much material to wade through that low precision becomes a problem. I guess as I get used to having more material to filter, I’ll adapt to using high-precision searches instead.

      Of course, the issue isn’t just narrowing down searches within one database, it’s knowing which database to search in the first place!

  3. I think what you have touched on is good old information overload in the original sense, i.e. having too much relevant information and then, as you suggest, the problem of what not to include. Information overload seems to have lost this meaning and is used by many (particularly the media) just to mean “too much information”. Presumably this is less of a problem as not all of this information is relevant and can be ignored! The question is how to deal with too much relevant information and one, as suggested above, filtering by authority – which lawyers love.

    And I agree that skills can be lost when this kind of work is done for you, e.g. searching, evaluating, repackaging, etc. You could argue that these skills are not required if the work is done for you, but as we all know most information is not available in neat little reports and so these skills are fundamental.

  4. Just to say briefly, as a drummer, it is considered A Truth that the smaller your drum kit, the more creative and innovative you need to be. Guys (or gals) with huge, huge kits are often sneered at a bit by the drummerati, as needing more stuff to compensate for lack of ability.

    I think it is one of those things a bit like, you need to know the rules to break them. Having fewer resources makes you more creative and possibly a better researcher, but ultimately you want to have gone through that experience and THEN get access to more resources too, to become an uber-researcher. i.e like you did, nice one. 🙂

    • Good analogies and I couldn’t agree more!

    • That’s a great analogy! Totally agree. Actually reminds me a bit of my days as a photographer, where if you could do all sorts of snazzy things with Photoshop that was great, but the proper photographers would sneer at you if you couldn’t get the same effects using film, in-camera or in the darkroom. At least, that was the case at the time – this was a few years ago, so attitudes may have changed since!

  5. […] access to all the shiny databases arguably makes you a better librarian. I’ve touched on this before: having moved from a smaller law firm library to a larger one with many more resources available to […]

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