Steve Borley, former SLA Europe Information Professional Award winner, answers our questions on transferable information skills and marketing.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I’m from Pimlico right in the middle of central London and you could say I’m an information professional by accident. I have a degree in Philosophy from Lancaster University and as a teenager saw myself as a bit of an academic. However, much though I enjoyed the lifestyle on campus I really didn’t have any dedication to a specific field of enquiry.
Consequently, I finished my degree with no real idea what I was going to do with myself. I moved back to London and was lucky to get an interview with the British Library and was given a position in the business collection. Back in the pre-St Pancras days we were based in the patent library, just off High Holborn. It had charm, history and labyrinthine corridors.
How did you first become involved in the information profession?
Working with the business collection was a great grounding and allowed me to move on the private sector pretty quickly. I spent almost five years at Lehman Brothers, followed by stints at both Clifford Chance and Goldman Sachs.
During my time at Lehman, I got myself involved with the City Information Group. It was really vibrant and active at the time, with around a thousand members at one point. I really enjoyed the networking and the democratising of insight – as a pretty junior member of staff I got to attend seminars and hear some of the leading lights of the day talk about what was really going on in the industry. Plus, not forgetting, we used to have simply legendary Christmas parties.
You were named SLA Europe’s Information Professional of the Year in 2005. How has your career developed since then?
I still feel incredibly fortunate to have been recognised by my peers in this way. By this stage of my career I had moved to Scotland and was working at the Royal Bank of Scotland – initially in the research team in the Economics department. Just after receiving my award, I moved into the retail bank to look after the internal management information for the branch network in Scotland.
I took a conscious decision to move into this different kind of role – away from the synthesising of externally-sourced information and into a data-driven environment. This asked more of me from a software/IT perspective and was almost entirely related to data and information that emanated from the business itself. My background did allow me add more in the way of analysis and interpretation to the role and I managed to develop my team away from fairly mundane ‘spreadsheet jockeying’ and into providing something all-round more valuable to the business.
From this role, I joined SQA – the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Initially as head of Business Intelligence Services (i.e. research and statistics). This has been a fascinating challenge: we have the challenge of being a public body that has to earn our keep through commercial activity. Balancing our raison d’etre of providing access to the skills and knowledge required by the people and businesses of Scotland with the commercial imperative of earning most of our own income is actually a brilliant business challenge.
I understand you have recently taken on a new role, as head of marketing. How did this come about?
Last autumn, I was asked to take over the management of the Marketing department alongside the research function. It means I’m involved right the way through the product development process – turning research ideas into business cases and overseeing the governance process for making good decisions about what to progress to production. As new qualifications and services are being developed, the rest of the team look after the classic marketing activities of promotion, PR and the website.
How would you say your background as an information professional has helped you with this?
I’m working with a team of about 30 staff – many of whom have years of direct experience in the nuts and bolts of marketing. So, let’s be honest, I’ve not ridden into town like the new sheriff!
That said, the years of translating source material into key messages and making these messages come alive to an audience is a pretty good grounding for marketing. The marketing community consider research to be a marketing discipline (there’s a warning for fellow info pros, right there!) and it is a pretty hazy distinction between that kind of research and what I’ve grown up doing.
Marketing is something that information professionals are often called on to do, with perhaps little background knowledge. What advice would you give to information professionals who are new to marketing?
One thing I have definitely learnt is that all successful marketing rests on a firm understanding of brand. By brand I don’t mean logo or strap line. I mean a firm understanding of the values that underpin the service your offer.
Think about the values that are important to your organisation. Does your service match these values? What else do you bring? Is it accuracy, speed, sector knowledge, a neutral space to work? Distil it down to the two or three values you can really demonstrate throughout the service you offer to all your colleagues and customers. And then demonstrate it. Every time.
Personally, I wouldn’t waste your time with newsletter or drop in days or presentations until you have properly understood the kernel of value you offer to your organisation. And then go on about it, relentlessly. I certainly wouldn’t bother investing in a logo or a strap line until you have your values nailed down and lived by your whole team.
What are your predictions for the coming year?
Economic hard times will probably lead to further consolidation amongst information vendors. Coupled with the growth of user generated content and more sophisticated use of personal reputation as a ‘currency’ we will see more co-created and shared content. This will be harder for the behemoth information companies to monetise. So our challenge may shift from asking ‘how much’ to asking ‘how valid’ – which will make our skills as information professionals more valuable than our ability to count beans.