Archive for August, 2015

Library Strategy

August 25, 2015

I’ve avoided writing about strategy for a long time. In large part that’s because the words “strategy” and “strategic” are so over-used these days. In the Special Libraries Association, where I focus a lot of my attention, it seems sometimes like they show up in every other sentence. There was even a proposal to rename the association as the Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals a few years ago. I didn’t get it — I could never figure out what was wrong with being a tactical knowledge professional. “Strategic” seems to have become synonymous with “valuable” or “worthwhile” or “successful”, and that’s wrong.

But my thinking was refreshed recently by a chain of readings that sent me back to one of the gold sources on strategy, Michael Porter’s 1996 Harvard Business Review article, “What Is Strategy?” Here’s what Porter has to say (HBR, Nov/Dec 1996, p. 68): “Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position involving a different set of activities.” And (p. 75) “Strategy is creating fit among a company’s activities. The success of a strategy depends on doing many things well — not just a few — and integrating among them.”

Those statements provide a framework for understanding the basic task for libraries and librarians today, and the role of embedded librarianship.

For decades, if not centuries, librarians had a “valuable position” based on the integration of a set of activities focused on acquiring information resources and making them available — collections and access. Our position was unique. We had no competition. Then came the revolution of the 1990s, which is still underway. Many types of information became readily and cheaply available from a variety of sources. The position of librarians that was built on collections and access was no longer unique and valuable. (Yes, there are exceptions, as well as different rates of change in different sectors.)

However, the revolution in information ubiquity brought along with it new problems, including problems of attention, analysis, and interpretation. Librarians actually have a number of competencies that can be combined with new ones to form a new set of integrated activities as the basis of a new “unique and valuable” position — a new strategy — that addresses these new problems.

I do not think that embedded librarianship is the new strategy. In some situations it could be. But in others, it is an essential component of the strategy: a subset, made up of a number of integrated activities itself and in turn integrating with other activities, to establish a new unique and valuable position for librarians.

One more thing. Porter also acknowledges that “Operational effectiveness and strategy are both necessary to superior performance”. (p. 61) So it’s okay to be tactical too.

Is Knowledge Power?

August 12, 2015

You can’t get through a course of study in librarianship without hearing the adage “knowledge is power” or its variant “information is power”. It’s often repeated but rarely examined, though a few cynics have asked why, if it’s true, librarians are not running the world.

Well, a current news story gives us a fresh opportunity to examine the validity of that old saying. The New York Times version is headlined “Nine Charged in Insider Trading Case Tied to Hackers” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/business/dealbook/insider-trading-sec-hacking-case.html?_r=0 ) According to the story, the scheme involved breaking into the computer systems of news distributors like PR Newswire and Business Wire, getting advance access to press releases, and trading on the information in advance of its becoming public. The Times says the scheme yielded over $100 million — pretty powerful.

Yet there’s nothing exotic about the information the hackers obtained — millions (billions) of us have access to the same news on the web and our favorite digital library resources. We have the same information the hackers had. But they had a few things the rest of us lacked: timing (they got it first), context (they knew what the news meant), ability to act (they had the mechanisms to trade on the information), and motivation to act (they were willing to take the risks — in this case legal — to use the information).

So I think this story is yet another reminder that knowledge, or information, alone is not power. The value of information is not inherent in the information by itself. And if librarians want to make a difference (what are power and influence after all but “making a difference”) then we cannot just deal with information in isolation — we have to be engaged in the use of the information: timing, context, ability, and motivation to act.

While you’re doing that, though, just keep your ethics with you at all times!