Interview with SLA Europe’s President Don Roll

Our new SLA Europe President Don Roll introduces himself and tells us what he is most looking forward to as SLA Europe’s President in the coming year.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you first become involved in the information profession?

As with many things in life, you sometimes fall into an industry without any planning.  Steve Goldstein and Mike Angle, who were my colleagues at Knight-Ridder, decided to raise money for a start up and I became a friend and family investor in 1996.  Though they had a business plan, I had absolutely no knowledge about the target market for the product which was librarians and business information departments.  I invested purely on the fact that I knew both Steve and Mike were smart and had a track record of creating great products.   At the time I invested they said at some point they wanted me to start up the Europe operation in London.  It was more of a throw away comment and I thought at the time that will probably never happen.  After Knight-Ridder Financial was sold to Bridge Information Systems later that year, I found myself looking for a new opportunity in 1997.  As I had always wanted to be involved in a start up, I plunged in and joined Alacra in July 1997.

Don RollMy previous industry experience was in the real time information business working with financial and commodity traders, so I started at Alacra with no knowledge of the information profession.  I spent the first year working from my dining room table meeting with potential customers, content providers and attending industry conferences like EBIC and On-Line Information.

Most of what I have learned in both this industry and previous industries I have worked in has come by getting out, meeting with people, and asking them to educate me on their profession and expertise. Though I would never consider myself an expert in Information Management or Knowledge Management, I was able to gain an amazing amount of knowledge from our clients, content partners and industry experts.  I also became actively involved in the industry organisations and events. I attended TFPL’s EBIC conference (can someone bring that back please), Perfect Information’s Learning Conference, became involved in SLA Europe’s event committee and was a founder of the 200 Club where we replicated the EBIC sessions on a monthly basis in London.

I would say it took me five years before I fully felt I was a fully fledged member of the IM and KM community.  Two of my firm beliefs are you do not learn anything sitting behind your desk and if you don’t understand something ask someone who is knowledgeable to explain it to you. It is amazing how much you can learn following those two simple rules. I would like to thank many of you who are reading this to contributing to my education.

Can you give some examples of where you have worked, and in what sorts of roles?

I started in the accounting profession as I had a desire from an early age to run a business at some point in my career. After graduation from Rider University, I worked in two public accounting firms for four years before going to work for one of my clients who was starting up a new manufacturing division and asked me to be their CFO.  The three years there was my real-time MBA as we quickly built a business, watched revenue plummet due to a quality control problem, rebuilt the business and then sold it to a major conglomerate.

I then joined a small company called TradeCenter in NYC in 1983.  It was my first exposure to the financial services industry. In 1985 Knight-Ridder purchased the company and Steve Goldstein and I ended up running TradeCenter for the next four years.  I moved to Chicago in 1989 to run the Commodities division then transferred to London in 1990 on a three to five year expat assignment to run Knight-Ridder Financials international business.

It still amazes me I have lived in London for 23 years. Despite my Philadelphia accent, I am now more English than American.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as the Europe Managing Director of Alacra?

As a “” company, all the focus was on building revenue in the late 1990’s. Our board did not care how much we spent, it was all about growing revenue. So we hired lots of people and aggressively sold and marketed our products.  During this phase we were growing rapidly but also running up big losses.  So when the music stopped in early 2001 with the crash and it was no longer cheap to raise money, we had to radically resize the business to survive.

At that time, we were in the process of launching Alacra Book with JP Morgan in London and Lehman Brothers in NY.  This was our first foray into workflow solutions which has grown over the years to become our primary focus as a business.

Between downsizing the company and moving into the workflow business, we were able to successfully survive the crash. There are very few companies who were start ups in the late 90’s that are still around. They have either gone out of business or have been consumed by bigger companies.  I am proud that Alacra in 2014 is thriving, growing and continues to work with our customers and content partners to provide workflow solutions for front office and risk oriented applications.

How did you first get involved with SLA Europe, and what do you find interesting or useful to you about the SLA Europe chapter?

I firmly believe that if you are in an industry, you should participate in the relevant industry organisations in some capacity.  It helps you build your network, your knowledge base and you can give back to the industry by contributing your personal knowledge and experiences to the benefit of the group.  I joined the SLA in the late 1990’s. Darren Chapman at TFPL asked me to join the Europe Events Committee around 2004 and I participated in that capacity for several years.

Alacra decided to enter the KYC vetting workflow industry in 2009 and developed our Alacra Compliance application.  So I needed to learn a completely new part of the industry and started getting involved in compliance industry organisations and conferences to get an understanding of that business.  In 2013, we decided I should re-focus more of my time on Alacra’s front office strategy so it was great timing when I was asked if I would become President for 2014. I am thoroughly enjoying re-engaging more proactively with the SLA and look forward to the year ahead working with the Europe members, committees and board.

In order to remain relevant in the future, what should SLA and its members start doing? Stop doing? Do more of?

Seventeen years ago when I entered this business information professionals were primarily used to retrieve information and to do research for their internal customers.  There was something called the internet that was starting to be rolled out to desktops.  Today with the self-serve, internet savvy community of users, most people want to do their own information retrieval and research. This means the Information Profession is much more focused on enabling, training and consulting.

My personal advice is the SLA needs to think of Information Management in the broadest possible terms and proactively seek ways to evolve the skill sets of its members.   Staying on top of new emerging trends like Big Data and thinking about how the Information Management profession may be able to add value.  Look to see where else in the organisation information provision expertise and knowledge could potentially be leveraged.

I will provide you two examples from my experiences at Alacra working within the banking sector.

Until very recently, most recently information professionals were part of a homogeneous group based in “The Library”.  One trend I see is the information professionals developing sector expertise and actually re-locating to sitting with the business unit.  They are no longer seen as an information professional, they are thought of as a valued team member providing critical research which is leveraged by the team to help make the business money.  That is a massive difference in a client’s perspective of the information professionals’ value to the business.  But at the core, they are still an information professional.

A second example is looking beyond the library to where else in the organization can information professions expertise could be applied.  As I mentioned earlier, Alacra moved into the KYC workflow business a few years ago with our Alacra Compliance product.  Customer due diligence checks are typically done by Operations personnel, none of which have any information profession training.  Needless to say, how they went about gathering critical information to vet a client is primitive compared to their front office colleagues. In the current regulatory environment, there is much more focus by banks on ensuring all aspects of Compliance are done correctly. We are seeing some of our clients move information professionals over to run the KYC teams with a goal of transforming how they go about gathering and processing the information required to evaluate the AML risk of potential clients.   This is an entirely new area outside of the library that is growing rapidly where the information knowledge and management skills needs to be applied.

My interactions at Alacra are within the banking and professional services sectors. I am sure there are countless other examples where information professionals could add value in what is not thought of as an information profession field.  I think the challenge for the SLA and its members is to how to develop the industry in conjunction with other fields of expertise.   I see the growth opportunities for the SLA and its members is figuring out where else we can be of value outside the library by developing new divisions and caucuses focused in these emerging areas.

What are you most looking forward to as President of SLA Europe for 2014?

I would like to get to know some of the other SLA Divisions better.  I think the international divisions of the SLA are uniquely positioned to help put into practice the SLA Conference Theme this year of Working Across Borders.  We have a rich set of international multi-sector expertise and it would be great if we can leverage our international members’ knowledge and experience more as we continue the globalisation of the SLA.

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