Thursday, November 13, 2008

Knowing when to give up

Lately, I've encountered several searches that ended badly. That is, I could not find what I was looking for. There's always the possibility that I overlooked some clue or failed to poke around somewhere else, but at some point you have to call it quits.

Knowing when to give up is a valuable search strategy in its own right.

Dispositions play a big part in this decision, not just skills. I'm patient by nature and enjoy doing a job well (intrinsically motivated). It pains me not to find what I'm looking for, especially since my search skills are in good shape and I like to succeed. Many students, on the other hand, don't care much for the work (they have to be extrinsically motivated) and because they lack skills for searching and can't think of much else to do, choose not to persist. (They may say they are bored, but in reality, they are frustrated and prefer to take it out on the task rather than themselves.)

But what if you do have sufficient skills and enjoy a challenge? How can you determine when it's time to give up?

To illustrate, here's a problem I wrestled with this week: I'm working with students at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy who want to set up a company using the Junior Achievement program. Since the Academy is a state agency and a non-profit, we can't have shareholders and shouldn't pay sales tax. The JA Company Program suggests that stock in the company be sold and tax be charged on sales. So we consulted the printed materials from JA to determine how this might work legally in our case. The materials don't shed much light on this question. That's when we thought we should check on the Internet to see if others had encountered this and how they dealt with it.

The query, junior achievement (or "junior achievement") returned information on individual JA chapters. Buried in the results was the home page of that was what I really was looking for. Searching the organization's site for information related to profit, non-profit and tax was unfruitful. So a broader Google search using "junior achievement" and each of those keywords was attempted, either to find a relevant article, lead or better keywords. None of the results in the top 20 or so seemed relevant. In case another database might produce different results, similar queries were entered into Yahoo. Again, nothing relevant--mainly information on the non-profit status of JA itself. Knowing that sometimes specialized databases are the place to look, I tried searching for "junior achievement" in a legal database, looking for tax issues, etc. Again, nothing.

I'd say at least 20 minutes had elapsed. Neither the print materials nor online materials shed any light on the question (actually they raised more questions). What do you do when you can't locate information by yourself? You ask, 'who would know the answer to this question?' A call was placed to our local JA volunteer--certainly he would know how to answer the question. As it turned out, he had to call the national program officer for clarification. As it turned out, the answer wasn't easy to find and may not have been online all along. I could have wasted much more time searching online. The answer came the old fashioned way: talking to people.

In this case, the combination of 20+ failed queries using several different search engines/databases--not really finding any clues or warm leads--and knowing a person's name to contact, led me to stop looking online. If I hadn't already known the contact person, I think I would have searched for one as my next search.

I wouldn't expect younger students to persevere as long, but I do think they should be encouraged to try at least 5-6 queries looking for different keywords or trying alternate words related to the search. At least two databases should be checked out. Finding a person (an authority) who should know the answer is the ultimate goal--it could also be the first step!

Here's a challenge I'm still working on: Finding a connection to Matthew Kohl. According to David Barr (founding director of 21cif), Matthew is our source for the "1 in 5 Rule," the claim that for every keyword, there are, on average, five other words that could be used instead. I believe Matthew once worked for or with Netscape. He mentioned the 1 in 5 Rule to David in a conversation. I'm trying to find some verification or research behind the claim. I think I need to find Matthew (other searches have come up empty-handed). To date, I've not had any luck. Perhaps what I should do is try social networking. That's where you come in.

Anyone heard of Matthew?

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