Our thanks to Katharine Schopflin for kindly reviewing an SLA event exploring a study on the evolving value of information management. Katharine is a knowledge and information manager and can be found on Twitter as @Schopflin and on LinkedIn. Photos from the evening can be found on SLA Europe’s Flickr account.
‘The evolving value of information management’ was a research study commissioned by SLA and the Financial Times to gain a picture of the information needs of the modern workplace and how far we as information professionals are meeting them. Last night’s panel discussion was based around the ‘12 tasks for information professionals’ that emerged from the research. The panelists, moderated by SLA President Kate Arnold, Stephen Phillips, Sarah Fahy and Janice LaChance, offered their take on the suggested actions.
The overall conclusions of the report were that while CEOs are increasingly recognizing the value of information, they are not necessarily looking to information professionals as their source for it. This suggests that we should make sure our activities are aligned with the needs of our employers – the ‘efficacy’ identified by the FT’s parent company themselves as essential to remain customer-focused. Many of the observations made by the speakers – and in the report – called for us to ensure we understand our organizations and the motivation of the people using your service.
Janice La Chance called for us to be more commercially minded as service providers, to act as though our information service is a business and our users are our customers. We should give them a reason to come back to us with return business. We also need to make sure those at the top – influencers and decision-makers as well as the Chief Executive – understand what we do and why it matters. Lets make sure we have our elevator speeches ready.
Sarah Fahy later brought up the importance of the feedback loop in aligning our services. It’s rare that information services actually ask their users what they did with the information that was provided for them and how useful it was. We may receive some surprises if we ask them, but such questions can help us focus our services and the level at which we pitch our work. There is no point in providing, for example, research briefs which users find too dense to read.
It’s vitally important that we understand the business we work in. We don’t just need to know the sector, but also the threats and opportunities our organizations are facing. It’s a good way of understanding the perspective of our users. Attending internal and external events helps us achieve this. Knowing what our users know enables us to ensure our solutions match their needs. It also helps us be seen as a peer, rather than as a service-provider. Keeping up to date with trends also helps us predict what might be coming in the future. We need to be ready for organizational change and be prepared to drop services if they aren’t of value to organizational ambitions.
It’s important to know stakeholders, sponsors and advocates as well as day-to-day users. They are ultimately the people who make decisions about the information services future and we should know when we can, for example, ask them for money. Stephen Phillips advocated not merely being a service within the business, but being a corporate partner, putting services at the heart of corporate strategy. We should think about how the information service can help the business as a whole and meet its customers’ needs. We can demonstrate corporate responsibility and ownership by ensuring that purchasing budgets and staff time are spent on behalf of the business as a whole, rather than the information service as an entity. And we should be transparent and accountable to users, managers and staff.
Library services have traditionally suffered from being seen as an overhead. Part of understanding our businesses is linking our activities to savings and profits. At Morgan Stanley their metrics measure not just performance, but their cost per hour in relation to other departments. This helps demonstrate value as well as providing a perspective on the real costs of our products. Getting to know the finance department is a useful tool to this end, as they can help develop better metrics and imaginative means of reporting. They are likely to be supporting if user departments are pressurizing us to buy new information products. Unlike us, they are likely to know if the department can afford it or not.
One of the report’s recommendations was for information services to be part of the solution to stretched organizational resources. Stephen advised us to ‘sweat our assets’, reuse information products when necessary and use our internal expertise, as well as those of colleagues. He advocated embracing ways of doing things cost-effectively, even where this might involve ceasing to carry out a service in-house.
As well as generally being the answer to your organisation’s problems, the speakers raised specific things the information service could do to demonstrate value. Being the organisation’s ‘technical mastermind’ was one recommendation of the report. It’s essential we make sure our customers don’t surpass us in technical know-how. But if we keep ahead of the trends, the information service can gain a reputation for being the go-to place for up-to-date tech knowledge. Joining groups like SLA and taking advantage of the training and information they offer helps with this.
One important role an information service can take is risk mitigation. Many information services benefit from being able to take a step back from organizational politics and put governance first, ensuring users are compliant, guaranteeing the quality of the information and supplying the evidence upon which decisions are made. For this to be valued by users, it is important to communicate what could happen if advice is not followed. A challenge for many information departments is to avoid being seen as the barriers to achievement and instead being the guarantors of quality and compliance.
Janice raised the issue of how far information professionals should add analytical value to their offering, rather than simply aiming to be as objective as possible in answering user requests. She suggested that we should offer more than the simple facts. Our advice to users should be ‘decision-ready’ and packaged so that it is easy to consume and easy to understand. It isn’t always straightforward to know where to draw the line between reporting and offering opinion and there are risks, for example, when interpreting the law. But information professionals should be able to make a judgement call as to the risk involved and know when it’s important to add this value. We can also learn when we need to say ‘No’ and direct the enquirer towards a more appropriate department.
Although the focus for many of the speakers’ examples appeared to be reactive research, Sarah Fahy also highlighted the importance of creating proactive solutions. There can be limits to what can be pre-packaged, particularly in the context of the high-end analytical research that has become the domain of the modern information service. Some user-needs are too unpredictable or nuanced and require a bespoke solution. But simple-looking summaries, regularly published to support the work of your primary users can be effective and memorable, although it is important to communicate how much work has gone into them. You don’t want it to look too easy.
Communication was a key part of the report’s findings and how you frame your research can be crucial to how your services are valued. Telling a user that the item of information they are looking for doesn’t exist is reassuring, telling them you could not find it puts doubt on your expertise. Knowing when there is no answer is part of our skillset as information experts. Ironically, the economic model favoured by most businesses today is to put the least expert users in the front line, when actually it takes experience to know whether or not a question can be answered.
What came out most clearly from the speakers was that corporate information services have to make themselves an indispensible part of the value of the business, ensuring that whatever its core activity is, it is better because it uses high quality information in a compliant manner. However creative we are in providing it, our key offering is information. Our expertise is answering queries, finding, analyzing and organizing information and locating and using sources. It is our unique selling point. And what could be more useful to today’s knowledge-hungry organizations?