Helen Doyle, Treasurer of CILIP’s Cataloguing and Indexing Group (CIG) and Information Officer at Norton Rose Fulbright, tells us about her first experience of an SLA event. Photos from the evening can be found on SLA Europe’s Flickr account.
In 2012 the SLA commissioned a survey in conjunction with the FT in to the evolving value of information management in today’s society. The survey was published in 2013 and made for very interesting reading, so when the accompanying event was announced I decided I should bite the bullet and actually go.
This was my first SLA event and I have to say, I was nervous. The SLA has always seemed to me to be rather imposing (it has over 9000 members in 75 countries worldwide) and impenetrable from the outside.
I’m glad to say, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Not only was everyone very friendly, it was one of the best work-related events I have ever attended. Attendees were really interested in the survey and the conclusions it drew (more on that below) and eager to engage in a serious and professional dialogue. The evening flew by, at first in insightful and fascinating discussion, and then, at the networking event afterwards, in a flurry of friendly conversation and canapés. I met all sorts of new people including members of the various SLA committees, exchanged several business cards and came away from the event feeling thoroughly uplifted and inspired, and ready to put all my new ideas into practice.
But what of the event itself?
The SLA/FT survey examined perceptions of the information management industry from the point of view of both information providers (i.e. those who manage and provide information) and information users (i.e. the executives using this information in their organisations) and it revealed some surprising results. For example, the report found that “overall, 55% of knowledge providers say they add “a lot of value”, yet only 34% of executives are willing to say the same” (report, p.12). Users frequently cite “information overload” as their main challenge – filtering through too much information to find what’s relevant to them – whereas the main challenge identified by providers is the “Google syndrome” – the misconception amongst users that everything is on Google and freely available. The report goes to on to identify five attributes the modern information professional needs (communicate your value, understand the drivers, manage the process, keep up on technical skills, and provide decision-ready information) and 12 tasks for implementing these attributes. The event itself consisted of a panel session, chaired by Kate Arnold and comprised of Sarah Farhi (Allen & Overy), Janice LaChance (SLA) and Stephen Phillips (Morgan Stanley) who discussed these 12 tasks in more detail.
I’d like to pick out two themes which really stood out for me (for further discussion of the 12 tasks, see Marie Cannon’s recent blog post here).
Understand the drivers/Know the business
This was a theme that reoccurred throughout the evening: it is essential to understand the business and how you contribute to it, in order both to make that value known to others and also to allow you to provide the information that users want.
‘Knowing the business’ is also about more than simply knowing what the business does. It includes knowing your users and how they like to access information, so that you can tailor your response accordingly. It also includes knowing who the key stakeholders are and who will champion you to senior management – this struck a chord with me because I realised that I don’t really know many of the people in the firm. Getting to know the partners and associates would provide a good opportunity to find out if there’s anything we can do for that particular user. Finally, it’s also important to be aware of the moods and rhythms of the industry you work in, allowing you to tap into current trends and keep ahead of the curve. All of this keeps the information department relevant to the needs of the business and the users, and will lead to you anticipating the needs of the business, thus adding further value.
Provide decision-ready information
This topic was one of the most hotly-debated of the entire evening. The survey had found that there is a tendency among providers to simply forward everything they find so that all bases are covered and the user can apply their own judgement. Some information professionals would even claim that it is our job to be objective and thus actively refrain from commenting on or filtering information. In contrast, users want information that’s easy to understand, easy to read, and provides exactly what they wanted. They don’t want to have to filter through lists of results or piece together a picture from multiple resources.
There is, however, a balance to be struck here. “Decision-ready” takes time to prepare, a fact sometimes overlooked by the users, and this is hindered by staff shortages and budget constraints. There are further challenges presented in a high-risk environment, such as a law firm, where information professionals are not legally trained.
There is a clear case, though, for us to do more than simply provide information (even Google can do that) and we can add value at the point of delivery by careful application of our insight and judgement.
One way in which to do this was summed up in the phrase “provide a dialogue, not a transaction”, and I like this because it’s an easy change to make. Email makes it all too easy to view an enquiry as a single Q&A session rather than a conversation, and often a little more digging into what the user really requires will save time and effort, and produce results which are of greater use.
I would encourage you to read the survey if you haven’t already done so, and would like to thank SLA for hosting such a thought-provoking event. Here’s to the next one!