Event report: The Changing Landscape of the Information Profession

On the 25th November, SLA Europe hosted a panel discussion on the future of the information profession. On the panel were:

  • Sue Hill, Chair and information industry champion;
  • Sara Batts, new entrant to profession and winner of a 2009 SLA Europe Early
    Career Conference Award;
  • Liz Blankson-Hemans, recently elected Director to the main SLA Board;
  • Mark Jewell, a senior-level professional who has moved sectors during his career; and
  • Laura Vosper, representing the vendor view (and LexisNexis gold sponsor)

The session began with a presentation from Liz Blankson-Hemans on the work SLA does and the benefits of membership, such as the opportunities for professional development and networking. She also spent some time discussing the alignment project, and the name change currently being voted on by members.

After Liz’s presentation the panel discussion got underway.

How important are business, leadership and communication skills compared to subject knowledge? Is enough done by employers to nurture and encourage the development of the former?

There was broad agreement from the panel on the importance of “soft” skills in business, leadership and communication, and also the necessity of taking personal responsibility for developing those skills: you shouldn’t rely on your employer to manage your personal development. There was a little disagreement on which set of skills was more important: some thought that the subject knowledge and information handling skills had to come first, as this is our core purpose as information professionals; while others pointed out that you are unlikely to progress in your career without being able to demonstrate soft skills. One panellist suggested that you could manage an information team without having any subject knowledge, but couldn’t if you didn’t have business, leadership and communication skills.

What new roles are opening up for information professionals as a result of new digital media and mobile technologies?

An interesting variety of responses to this one! One panellist mentioned the influence that personal recommendations on social media can have on purchasing – this is making it difficult for companies to ignore social media. This in itself could provide opportunities for information professionals: we have skills in finding, organising and monitoring information that PR and media types may not have. The future of information professionals in developing mobile content was also discussed: it was suggested that we have a role in experimenting with new technologies, finding out what people are actually using, and what works/doesn’t work.

On the other hand, there was also a feeling from the panel that it was a mistake to go leaping on the social media bandwagon just because it was there – it is important to know what our users actually want, rather than just creating new online products and services and assuming that they’ll be useful and used. One panellist also raised concerns over the erosion of authority in an age where everyone can express themselves online – is expertise being replaced by chatter?

With the availability of e-books, is there still a place for paper books?

The panel mainly agreed that there will always be paper books, although one panellist insisted that in ten years, the vast majority of books will be e-books. The main argument seemed to be that paper books are “just nicer” – hard to disagree with, but I do wonder if there might be a better argument than that somewhere!

You say that one of the benefits of SLA membership is that they will advocate on behalf of librarians, but they are an international organisation. Would they be able to assist me if I was in danger of losing my job here in the UK?

Liz Blankson-Hemans fielded this question, as the representative of the SLA board. She answered that of course, SLA will advocate on behalf of all of its members, regardless of where they live – this has happened recently, with a UK member who turned to SLA for help when his employer was drastically reducing his CPD opportunities.

In ten years time, will all information services be online only and/or outsourced?

Some interesting points were raised here about the possible hidden benefits of outsourcing: one panellist pointed out that only routine work can be outsourced, so the jobs that remain will have more interesting tasks involved. The panel also emphasised that we as information professionals need to get better at demonstrating our value within our organisations, if we want to avoid being replaced by outsourced services and search engines.

Which is playing the biggest part in changing the information profession: policy, technology, money or attitudes?

All five panellists gave slightly different answers to this, but the most common one was technology. One panellist argued that technology and money have always been the main drivers for change, because they affect policy and attitudes. Technology in particular certainly changes attitudes: another panellist pointed out that once someone has got used to having access to all the information they need at their desktop, they will a) forget about the people who have actually made this information available from their desktop, and b) come to expect all information to be available in this way (and free!).

What do the panel think of mentoring?

Interestingly, most of the panel had never had (or been) an official mentor, but all had people that they considered to be unofficial mentors. All agreed that finding a good mentor, officially or unofficially, was an excellent way to develop your own skills – it was also pointed out that it can be equally beneficial for the mentors themselves. One panellist suggested that making use of online networking tools can be a good way to develop that kind of relationship: SLA has a network of blogs, wikis and some very active discussion lists which can be an excellent way of connecting with people you can learn from.

Is membership of a professional body necessary in order to be recognised as a professional?

The chair restricted the panel to one word answers on this – two people said no, three said yes (although in all cases, the answer was more likely “no, but…” or “yes, but…”!). Rather a shame there wasn’t time for fuller answers really, that could have been an interesting debate. Sadly we only had time for one further question:

As SLA is a global organisation, do they offer any opportunities similar to the CILIP LIBEX scheme?

Not at the moment, but apparently it has been suggested to the board already, so watch this space!

The questions were followed by the usual networking over wine and nibbles; an excellent way to round off the evening, as always. Many thanks to our generous sponsors, LexisNexis, ICC and 7Side for making such an interesting evening possible.

Sara has posted her impressions of being a panellist at uncookeddata; and there’s a Linked In discussion underway on this topic from Suzanne Wheatley in the Sue Hill Recruitment Network.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.