Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 7 — July/August 2002
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IT Report from the Field
InfoToday 2002
Context and convergence were popular topics at this New York information industry event
by Paula J. Hane

InfoToday 2002, the conference on electronic information and knowledge management (KM) held in New York on May 14­16, featured a completely revamped program. Transformed from the single National Online Meeting, which had been held for 22 years, InfoToday debuted last year in an augmented, multi-conference format. This year, the event evidenced close coordination among the conference planners to work around the theme of"Nearing Nirvana—Digital Content at the Turning Point." The three concurrent conferences really hit the mark with opening keynote speakers each day and plenary sessions in the morning for each of the conferences plus closing keynotes on the last day, on-target session tracks, high-quality presenters, and free mini-presentations in the exhibit hall theater.

While the exhibit hall seemed smaller than in previous years, it was likely a reflection of both the tough economic conditions and the inevitable consolidation within the industry. One exhibitor, WhizBang!, pulled out at the last minute and a week later closed its doors—an unfortunate victim of the times. [See p. 13.] A few high-profile vendors were conspicuous in their absence from the hall, including Factiva, Hoover's, ebrary, and LexisNexis. Overall attendance at the event was also down somewhat, perhaps reflecting some reluctance to attend an event in New York. Despite the disappointing numbers, the information quality was high, the networking possibilities abounded, and there were many opportunities for learning and sharing.

The three conferences each offered two solid tracks of programming every day. Attendees could buy a pass for one of the conferences or buy a pass that provided access to all three. My report focuses on the National Online conference and the three opening keynote sessions, while Hugh McKellar reports on KnowledgeNets (p. 36) and Elisabeth Winter and Gail Dykstra cover E-Libraries (p. 38).

The Conference

National Online continued its focus on information content and information delivery technologies. There were tracks covering practical searching, search engines, public policy issues (copyright and licensing), competitive intelligence, preparing content for electronic publication (XML, DOI, linking, and aggregation), and Web design for info pros—more than enough to pack the 3 days with meaty choices. I enjoyed many of the presentations and managed to come away with a number of insights and useful resources.

KnowledgeNets provided coverage of knowledge management and its enterprise applications. Tracks addressed interesting topics like e-learning, e-government initiatives, and content management (including knowledge architecture to add context).

E-Libraries covered the latest developments in library systems and services and included tracks on Web portals, database creation, electronic reference services, and public policy issues. I wish I could have cloned myself because a number of the tracks and presentations in the other two conferences were of definite interest to me.

As Dick Kaser, vice president of content for Information Today, Inc., said in his introductory remarks, the conferences were meant to highlight and leverage the common interests of people involved in the three fields. With the programming rightly reflecting the convergence of technologiesand interests, he noted that it was even a bithard to tell where one conference stopped and the other began. Attendees were encouraged to take advantage of cross-tracking opportunities.

A Keynote in Context

Stephen Abram, vice president of corporate development at Micromedia ProQuest, brought his usual lively and insightful comments to the opening keynote, entitled "Content is Dead! Long Live Context!" As a librarian and publishing executive,Abram posited that we do not "do information delivery." He said: "We aren't delivering things to desktops. Desktops don't know anything. People interactions are the key." We need to manage the information context and lead our customers to where they need to be, with stress on the leading. People don't value "search," they value answers in context. "What is context?" he asked. "It's about life, work, passion, and play. It's things we care about."

Abram urged the audience to focus on users' behaviors (what they actually do, not what they say they do), and find ways to reduce the barriers to information. Pushing more content out isn't the answer. "Information needs to be unfettered," he declared. Interfaces should be tuned to the value derived and desired and results must be clear and usable. Context is the new king. In closing, he invited us to ask three magic questions:

• What keeps you awake at night?

• If you could solve only one problem (at work), what would it be?

• If you could change one thing and one thing only, what would it be?

Reflections Over Coffee

Early-rising attendees were treated not only to continental breakfast on the second day, but also to insights on the information industry by Ron Dunn, CEO of Thomson Learning's Academic Group. He looked specifically at the current evolution in higher education and the impact on educational publishers. He said that we're in the midst of a migration from teaching and books within classrooms to the use of electronic courseware, anywhere, at some point in the future. After exploring some of the factors that influence the pace of change, he noted some failed projects (including the California Virtual University and NYU Online) and discussed the rise of hybrid approaches.

Dunn predicted that the gradual evolution would continue with a transition period of perhaps 5 to 10 years comprising mostly hybrid print/electronic solutions. He said that educational publishers will have to "do it all": work through the migration by continuing to produce books and develop electronic products, all while managing to keep profit margins reasonable. Books are here to stay, but will likely be shorter, more customized, and more complex (with electronic links embedded within print texts). Short print runs with fast turnaround will be essential.

KM for Decision Support

Following Dunn, the lively and entertaining David Snowden—who spoke last year at InfoToday 2001—returned to provide the second day's keynote. Snowden is a pioneer in the application of complexity concepts to foster innovation and improve the flow of knowledge within organizations.

He echoed Abram in declaring that we have had an excessive focus on content rather than context. He noted that knowledge management is returning to its roots in the support of decision makers. A basic question is how to develop conditions under which humans will create and make good decisions. Human systems are not complicated but instead are complex, where "the past is not always the best guide to the future, and the whole is never the sum of the parts." Rather than imposing a desired pattern of action on human systems, he stressed the model of first observing and recognizing people's organizational patterns and then creatively managing those patterns.

Snowden's current work is as founder and executive director of the Cynefin Centre, a newly established member network sponsored by IBM that offers help for organizational problems that require new ways of thinking to get closer to a solution. It has developed a "diverse portfolio of pragmatic sense-making methods and models that can help solve problems for which structured approaches have failed." The Centre specializes in bringing together diverse participants who can act as catalysts for devising new approaches. Snowden provided additional details of some of the Centre's research projects during a special evening session that was sponsored by the Special Libraries Association and IBM. One such project is aimed at helping libraries discover new ways to create measures that justify library and research services.

The Publishing Industry

The final day's opening keynote was given by Patricia Schroeder, former congresswoman and current president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. She discussed some of the challenges facing publishers today. The average person doesn't understand what publishers do, she said. They think publishers are printers. Publishers have a huge job ahead of them to educate young people who embrace an entertainment model for content and think that everything should be free. Attitudes like "copyright is dead" and "free downloading for all" must be countered with an understanding of the high value of educational and informational content.

Schroeder stated that the intellectual property industries make up a good portion of the U.S. economy and our exports, and yet publishers are not communicating to people just how valuable that intellectual property is. Publishers must try to grow the market for readers and counter the cultural notion thatit's not cool to be in education and learning. "Read and grow your mind" is a difficult message, she said, in a "24/7 world where everything needs batteries." The challenge is for publishers to keep producing high-quality content and still manage to stay alive.

Future of the Industry

Anthea Stratigos, president of Outsell, Inc., the research firm that focuses on the information content industry, spoke about the future of the online information industry in the plenary session that began the National Online conference. Our content distribution channels have become very complicated, she said, and it's created a fairly complex industry—one that is quite unwieldy. She termed it "content spaghetti."

Outsell's studies of both the buy and sell sides of information have revealed some interesting perspectives on the industry. Stratigos claimed that the market has been steadily shrinking during the last several years in the commercial publishing world. Outsell expects this to continue in 2002, with no change upward until 2003. One "sweet spot" she mentioned was that corporate training and learning is a hot area, growing over 10 percent.

Merger and acquisitions activity continues apace and this can be expected to persistthroughout the year. Large companies can buy pretty decent properties under the current market conditions that enable them to bolster their revenues and strategies. And the Outsell studies of 60 large public companies in the content area indicate that any underlying revenue growth is only occurring with acquisitions. Stratigos also indicated that when industries consolidate, competition increases and the industry will become market-centric (start with the market and work back) rather than product-centric.

Stratigos sees corporate and academic institutions now filling the place of the former dot-coms in providing content to users. There are many content deployment functions now emerging in enterprise organizations that offer new roles for information professionals. Within these organizations, Outsell sees unified content architectures developing, with use privileges dictating who gets the content. Behind the scenes, organizations need a common language, so taxonomies are hot because they're the unifiers that lead people to information and information to people.

The irony, however, is that with all this integration, we have end-users who have been trained by Amazon, Yahoo!, and Google to go to the Web for their information. These users are extracting information on their own, one search at a time. So there's a dichotomy in the marketplace that needs to be reconciled, and vendors are currently in a "quiet period" of developing opportunity and innovation. According to Outsell, we need to see both for-fee and free models from the vendors, and we need to see offerings for the two different buying groups: institutional buyers and end-users (content can be re-purposed for this). People and personalization are key. To bring good content to life, one must think about users and the decisions that drive value.

The Tasini Panel—Authors' Rights

The opening session on the second day consisted of a panel discussion, with representation from all sides of the issues relating to the Supreme Court decision on authors' rights. The dust hasn't settled from that decision, which ruled in favor of the writers. Publishers, aggregators, librarians, and writers all have different opinions of how the ruling affects them.

Jonathan Tasini of the National Writers Union (NWU), who filed the suit on behalf of the freelancers, said that the class-action lawsuits that followed the ruling have been consolidated into a single suit before a judge, who ordered mediation. Tasini reported there isn't yet agreement among the parties. He also mentioned that a bill has been introduced in Congress that would give freelance writers collective bargaining rights. When asked what the NWU would like to see, he said, respect for authors' works, compensation for past infringements, and the ability to negotiate future rights.

Andrew Elston of PRIMEDIA, the "number-one producer of editorial content pages in the U.S.," commented that the Supreme Court decision was correct but dealing with the effects was very complicated for a publisher of PRIMEDIA's size. The company is now working with the NWU to explore how it can push things along and is participating in the mediation. One problem it is experiencing is that there is no way for a publisher to convey which articles have not been supplied to a database because of an author's refusal to assign electronic rights.

George Plosker of Gale Group commented that of over 25 million records only one-quarter to one-third of 1 percent have been removed; for newspapers the figure is 2 percent of 12 million records. Where Gale has a hard copy available when full text can't be loaded, it creates a bibliographic record and indexing and is trying to write abstracts. However, Plosker too noted that when deletions are made by publishers, Gale has no way of knowing. Gale and its parent Thomson hope that a "business solution" can be reached and the mediation will be successful.

Mary Case of the Association of Research Libraries spoke about some of the practical issues for libraries and users. She noted that libraries should continue to collect print copies for those publications for which print is the copy of record and should work with publishers on digital preservation efforts. She also mentioned that it's important for librarians to alert users that full-text databases may not actually be full.

Wrapping Up

Marydee Ojala, the conference chair for National Online and editor of ONLINEmagazine, chaired a closing panel in which she reflected on and extrapolated from the conference presentations. She accurately, I think, summed up some key themes from the week:

  • Focus on context
  • Focus on relationships
  • t's not business as usual
  • Competitive intelligence is growing in importance
  • Copyright and other legal issues remain contentious
Barbie Keiser, an information professional on the panel, commented that change is occurring on all sides of the industry and that librarians need to work with vendors, not against them. She sees important trends in rights management and thinks the industry should work to make the whole search process less frustrating, hopefully by building intelligence into systems.

Bob Ainsbury, representing the vendor side, said, "The agent of innovation is money and the money has dried up." There is a continual decline of behemoth companies. We need to change to a better business model. ROI is very difficult to ascertain because the results of information retrieval are "soft."

Finally, I really liked Ojala's perception of the challenges we face:

  • Adding value to our professional services
  • Obtaining sufficient funding
  • Meeting the needs of non-text-based learners
  • Understanding context as others understand it and putting our knowledge in their context
Removing barriers

More ...

A number of the conference presentations are linked from the event's Web site at http://www.infotoday.com/it2002/presentations. Those interested can also purchase the Proceedings volumes, available from Information Today, Inc. (800/300-9868), or audiotapes of specific sessions, available from Audio Transcripts, Ltd. (800/338-2111).

Paula J. Hane is contributing editor of Information Today, editor of NewsBreaks, a former reference librarian, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is phane@infotoday.com.

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