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.