The Right Questions

Last week Mary Abraham (Above and Beyond KM) asked What’s the Right Question for a Better Answer? Mary’s thought provoking post discussed an experience with preparing questions to get expert advice and realizing that the questions could shape the answer, limit the conversation, and possibly lead to an undesired or lengthy outcome.

By setting out the questions beforehand, I had limited the range of answers and set up false boundaries for our conversation.

I filter Mary’s post with my legal research goggles on. From the librarian perspective, we know to ask open ended questions, identify what the researcher has already done to answer their question, and think about sources that might have the fastest path to an answer. Some of this involves asking fairly usual and standard questions to gather this data.

More often, I find myself asking people looking for research assistance to “tell me the story”. While this may take longer than simply finding the specific thing that researchers identify as what they need, it sometimes results in a happier library client. The researcher asking for something specific brings their own tools, experience and knowledge to the problem, while the librarian set of tools, experience and knowledge may be different.

There are problems with asking researchers to “tell me the story”:

  • It works much better in person
  • If the research intake is by email, it requires a conversation follow-up
  • Conversations are often inefficient by email
  • If the researcher is working for someone else, they may not know the whole story
  • People are not comfortable telling a story unless they have a relationship with the listener

Despite the problems, I observe better research results when the asker and the responder both know the story behind the research.

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