Knowledge Literacy: Making Sense in the Workplace

By Joshua Salmans

Parts of this life on our little blueberry we call home can be heartbreaking. Hate, misunderstanding, and myopic systems of thinking have time and again resulted in the senseless loss of life. I want to express my heart-felt dismay and sadness at the events that precipitated on Sunday—where 49 people in the LGBT and Orlando community were tragically taken from us. May love, peace, and continued education help eradicate such hatred and violence.


“I sit in the White House and what I read…and…see is the sum total of what I hear and learn. So the more people I can see, or the wider I can expose [my mind] to different ideas, the more effective [I] can be as President.”[i]

—President John F. Kennedy

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s special counsel and primary speechwriter, once observed that Kennedy “treated us more as colleagues or associates than employees.”[ii] Sorensen further described Kennedy’s rapport with his staff as “informal without being chummy, hard-driving but easy mannered, interested in us as people without being patronizing.”[iii] Unlike previous administrations, this informal rapport with his staff gave Kennedy the ability not to rely so much on the official channels of information within the mechanisms of government.

Kennedy considered the function of the President was to serve as a stimulant, making information move with more speed without too many hindrances from codified and outmoded systems of information flow. He did not trust unanimous committee recommendations as they often presented screened decisions that appealed to the “lowest common denominator of compromise” through strict structures of seniority and protocol[iv]; consequently, he only held general Cabinet meetings as necessary for internal communication rather than a tool for decision-making.

Instead, Kennedy gathered information informally by meeting with all the Cabinet members in varied attendance. He also made himself and his ear available to lower-level officers and experts who had direct responsibility for matters and pressed for their input and criticism. This approach allowed organizational information to flow in both directions—not only from top downwards, but also from downward up. Sorensen saw Kennedy’s accessibility and his flattened approach to information management as an essential asset to ensuring relevant counsel from all levels within the organization and allowing for the capacity for the White House staff to adapt to an increasingly changing world.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the South Carolina Library Association’s (SCLA) iTeach 3: Information Literacy Workshop. Darin Freeburg, an assistant professor at my SLIS program at the University of South Carolina (USC), delivered the keynote speech on knowledge literacy for the workplace.[v]

One of the salient—and rather comical—observations that Freeburg made was that organizational information is often non-sense. Yes, he said non-sense! Have you ever felt that way? I know I have felt that way even after several years in the same job. Situations in any job that I have had tends to change as time and space progress. The learning curve is not always formulaic, and solutions are not always apparent.

Freeburg briefly juxtaposed two approaches to dealing with this phenomenon. Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management attempts to reduce the “guesswork” from the production process in an organization by “scripting” worker tasks. It relies little on worker input and more on “scientifically” pre-determined steps from management. Information flows downward in a prescribed fashion and has little opportunity for new information to be looped back to administration.

The other approach is to allow for organizational knowledge to be gained through employees “sensing” at all levels of the organization in what Freeburg refers to as knowledge literacy. According to Brenda Dervin, sensing or sense-making refers to the ability to search out information needs and construct solutions to problems they face in time and space.[vi] Freeburg suggests that Taylor’s approach does just the opposite by leaving “workers alienated from the tools of their trade” and hoards sense-making or knowledge literacy at the top levels. Not only is it boring, but it does not value worker collaboration in sensing out solutions to problems that develop over time. Like Kennedy, Freeburg sees collaborative intellectual spaces as essential for greater social legitimacy and authority. Instead of knowledge hoarding at the top levels of organizations, he recommends rewarding knowledge sharing and sensing throughout the organization.

What I enjoyed most about the presentation was its emphasis on the responsibility librarians and organizations alike have in preparing their employees and patrons  in knowledge literacy. This preparation, according to Freeburg, seeks to instill an ability to sense and create knowledge as well as an awareness self, others, and the organizational environment. Kennedy, I believe, had a similar view as he wanted to stimulate information flow and sensing in both directions so that his administration could adapt quickly to rapidly changing situations. Taken together, both Kennedy and Freeburg have offered us an alternative to autocratic nature of monopolizing knowledge at the top—rather, organizations can create an inclusive learning space that increases the organization’s collaborative capacity to change.

[i] Theodore C. Sorensen. (1965). Kennedy. New York: Harper & Row. p. 372.

[ii] ibid. p. 374.

[iii] ibid. p. 373.

[iv] ibid. p. 281.

[v] Darin Freeburg. (2016, June). iTEACH3: Preparing knowledge workers: Knowledge literacy for the workplace [PowerPoint slides]. Presentation presented at South Carolina Library Association iTeach3: Information Literacy Workshop.

[vi] Brenda Dervin. (1983, May). An overview of sense-making research: Concepts, methods, and results to date. Paper presented at the anuual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dallas, TX. Retrieved from


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camelotsecho by Joshua Salmans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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