of the American Society for Information Science and Technology     Vol. 28, No. 3      February / March 2002


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IA Column

On Optimism, Credentials and Ethics

by Andrew Dillon

As of January 2002, Andrew Dillon is professor and dean of GSLIS at the University of Texas-Austin. He can be reached by e-mail at adillon@gslis.utextas.edu.

Against the backdrop of an economic downturn, the folks at ACIA (Argus Center for Information Architecture) conducted a survey of the IA community to determine what people were feeling about the prospects of this profession. You can read the results online at http://argus-acia.com/iask/survey010907.html (and more positive notes on the future from Lou Rosenfeld at http://www.louisrosenfeld.com), but the impression I gained is that this community is a pretty optimistic bunch. Despite the short-term problems, 62% of respondents expected the need for IAs to grow significantly within the next five years. Of course, this could be so much wishful thinking after all, don't most people believe their lives will be better in five years time?  But if you are prepared to pay for another opinion, a new Forrester report on the State of the Web makes similarly positive noises on the prospects in this area (see www.forrester.com)

Assuming these respondents and analysts are informed enough to make a reasonable estimate of future prospects (something of a leap of faith, given the evidence of most predictors' performance over the years) the question that springs to my mind is where are all these IAs going to come from? I doubt the field can survive five more years if it relies on self-identification and, to a lesser extent, job title as the basis for membership. To be seen as a genuine profession, with theories, methods and practices of its own, information architecture needs more than a loosely knit band of adherents rallying around the label.

This topic is, naturally enough, raised with some regularity on the SIG-IA list, and there appears to be no real consensus on the way forward. Current professionals seek skill-updates, advanced courses on target topics and ongoing professional development. IA-wannabes seek the most direct route to the profession and seem keen on graduate-level professional degrees, as yet thin on the ground.

By the time you read this column we are hoping to have put together a strong program for the ASIST IA Summit 02, to be held March 15-17 in Baltimore (see http://www.asist-events.org/IASummit2002/ for details). Certainly this third annual summit will be a strong test of the field's durability, but I mention it here as one of the few locations where IAs can gather and learn, though the educational component is rarely a formal goal. In a rapidly changing technological field it is somewhat disconcerting that so few skills-based programs have emerged for ongoing professional development.

University-based qualifications in IA are perhaps even more confused. LIS programs are, as I have noted before in this column, tending to revamp parts of their curriculum to reflect these needs, but such efforts vary. At the worst extreme, existing courses in standard topics are just relabeled with a hipper, architecture-oriented name. However, while IA has a strong relationship with LIS, the future of the profession cannot be based solely on a rebadged form of traditional library science. In a more positive manner, there are new degrees coming through that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of IA and which draw on strengths in diverse fields to provide the type of education that IAs will likely need. I've mentioned Kent State's new degree in IA and Knowledge Management before (see the latest details at: http://iakm.kent.edu), and IA is listed in the LIS programs at Michigan, Texas, Indiana and Washington among others, though not always very prominently. Not specifically listing the term but more in line with what I anticipate IAs needing in a graduate program is the masters in HCI offered by the new School of Informatics at Indiana University (see http://www.informatics.indiana.edu). These efforts are a start, but compare it with the more than 100 schools in North America that offer accredited degree programs in architecture and you get some idea of the limited choices.

Beyond the issues of labels and courses lurks a bigger question of just what it means to be a profession. On the IA list a pointer to an HCI (human-computer interaction) credential offered by a commercial consulting group stimulated interesting exchanges on the nature of qualification and the requirements for membership of a profession. While many people consider the arrival of an accredited program to be the real confirmation of IA, one must ask who would provide the accreditation? And beyond licensing, is there not something more to being a professional than being able to point to one's credentials?

As an undergraduate I remember a class spent pondering the nature of professional credentials. One key point that has remained with me since was the instructor's insistence that, while many fields had bodies of knowledge and specific methods, a truly distinctive aspect of a profession was its formal recognition of a code of ethics for its members. At the IA2000 conference last year the question of ethics was raised in a panel discussion. I recall in particular the silence that ensued when each panelist was asked to comment.  In a world where culture, politics and commerce impact the information spaces we inhabit as designers and users, it seems to me that the role of ethics in IA is one we overlook at our peril. If this is true, I am less concerned with the accreditation of formal degree programs in IA. As Ruskin noted, "architecture is an art for all to learn because all are concerned with it." More than credentials, ethics will be a major determinant of what this art (or science) provides society in the years to come. Are we even ready to start discussing this now?

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