Thriving in the Age of Empowered End Users: A Panel Discussion at SLA
by Cindy Shamel
As librarians and information professionals, we have an excellent track record for adapting to the ever-changing industry landscape. Despite ongoing discussions of obsolescence, the profession carries on. With the advent of microfilm in the 1930s, one college library committee posited that the book would become as obsolete as the horse and buggy. We adapted by becoming experts in microfilm technology and the opportunities it offered. Librarians sounded the alarm in the 1960s when the telephone came to the reference desk, concerned that users would simply call in their questions and never come to the library again. People still came to libraries, and info pros adapted by increasing levels of services so that now we include phone, email, online chat, and text messages.
Today, when end users freely search the medical literature through PubMed, legal cases with FindLaw, and the internet via Google, our role again seems threatened. The professional discussion remains robust, as illustrated by a Dialog search of what I broadly defined as library literature (ERIC, INSPEC, NTIS, Social SciSearch, Dissertation Abstracts Online, Gale Group Magazine Database, British Education Index, Gale Group Trade & Industry Database, and Library Literature & Information Science). Using the terms librarian? and google ANDed with synonyms for competition, with results ranked by year, a steady increase from one hit in 1997 to about 80 per year over the last 6 years appears. So, what’s the info pro to do? How can we thrive in the environment of the empowered user?
PROQUEST ASSEMBLES A PANEL
At the 2012 SLA conference, ProQuest brought together a powerful panel of information industry practitioners and thought leaders to discuss the issues. Panelists included Mary Ellen Bates, president and founder of Bates Info Services, Inc. and an expert in customized information research; Blanca Chou, associate director of the Information Resource Center at Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.; Betty Edwards, senior research analyst in information resources and management at The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc.; and Roger Summit, founder of Dialog, who foresaw the paradigm shift that would be created by the development of online information services. Libby Trudell, a longtime member of the Dialog, and now ProQuest, management team, moderated the panel.
Trudell led the discussion, posing questions related to how information professionals can redefine their service offering and their value proposition, whether the industry is on the right track with discovery tools, and where the gaps or opportunities lie today. Panelists drew from their work experience and industry knowledge to offer wisdom and strategies for thriving in the age of empowered users, revealing several common threads and a few unique insights.
REDEFINING SERVICE OFFERINGS
The panelists’ answers to the question about how information professionals can redefine their service offerings and their value proposition yielded a wealth of advice. Make it useful, make it convenient, be proactive, and stay relevant.
Bates began by pointing out that information is a commodity; it’s no longer scarce. Although users expect free access, they will place a premium on information if it is “particularly useful.” Here’s her example. Words With Friends is a Scrabble-like app for online word gaming. The app is free, but players will buy in-apps such as tokens to enable certain game features. Users pay money for in-apps because they are useful. The analogy for information professionals? To make research deliverables more useful, add insights derived from the data points. Bates suggested we add value by making products and services more useful than Google.
Summit asserted that convenience is king. “Information will be used in direct proportion to how easy it is to get.” Info pros need to establish themselves in the organization as the experts in delivering necessary information, making it convenient to the user.
Edwards emphasized the need to “be proactive in meeting users’ needs.” Most information centers have tools and skills not available to the end user. In response to observed user needs, The Draper Laboratory information resources and management team added some strategic tools to their IRaM toolkit. These included Thomson Innovation for patent analysis and DACIS, a competitive intelligence subscription that resembles “FedBizOpps on steroids.” These subscriptions enable valuable research and insights not available to the end user.
Chou also highlighted the need to stay relevant. She offered four pointers on how to do that:
1. Be proactive in expanding your capabilities. “Don’t wait for permission.”
2. Understand and support the company direction and objectives.
3. Reach out to customers to understand their needs, their priorities, and what they value. “Don’t assume that they value what you value.”
4. Communicate your success stories.
COMMUNICATION AS RECURRING THEME
Communication emerged as a recurring theme as the panelists answered the question about redefining information services. Summit, Edwards, and Chou all mentioned the value of communication to accomplish a number of ends.
Summit recommended establishing more contact with our clients so they know how much we know and how this knowledge can help them. His suggestions: Hold brown-bag sessions, write for the company newsletter (maybe even establish your own), or offer search training.
Edwards said, “Quote the boss.” If staff know that the boss says get more contracts, then communicate to users that you have products and services that can help them “get more contracts.”
Chou’s advice was to share your success stories as a way to communicate value. Regarding stories, Edwards shared a few stories she has collected that communicate value. For example, research performed by the information center led to a contract worth $50,000 with $1.5 million more anticipated. Another project produced a conference mailing list with new, previously unidentified contacts—25% of those who attended the conference were unknown to Draper before these efforts. A colleague in business development said, “The library helps me to know which government departments have money and who decides how to spend it. I’m not wasting my time with folks … that have no budget.”
Trudell moved on to asking if we are on the right track with discovery tools. The issues here appear to center on how much competition the do-it-yourself tools actually pose to the profession.
Whether we are on the right track depends on how you view the competition. Bates suggested, in the case of Google as a do-it-yourself discovery tool, that the info pro can’t compete with Google. End users will, inevitably, find valuable information using Google. The question for the info pro becomes how do we make these findings more useful?
Remarks from the panel suggest that training and education may be a big part of the answer. Edwards pointed out the impact of search engine personalization and how individual search results will vary from one searcher to the next. Bates drove the point home by sharing results of an experiment she ran in Google News. Approximately 40 searchers entering the term “Israel” sent her a screen shot showing the top of their hit list. Results varied widely. Sharing findings such as these with end users can help them learn more about how to interpret Google search results. [See Bates’ Online Spotlight column titled “Is Google Hiding My News?” in the November/December 2011 issue of ONLINE for a detailed description of her impromptu experiment. —Ed.]
Chou offered PubMed as another end user discovery tool that can produce a false sense of security in end users. For all its merits, this database lacks some valuable information. Adverse event reporting is best found in Embase and BIOSIS, not through PubMed. Chou suggested that info pros demonstrate through sample searches specifically what’s missing from PubMed.
Given these examples of limitations on end-user tools, the info pro can add value by educating customers on how to bring out the best from these resources and the possible pitfalls inherent to their use. Summit pointed out the opportunities that lie in these training or education sessions. Info pros who become expert Google searchers and then train others in these fine points can gain the confidence of the end users. With that relationship in place, these customers may more readily turn to the info pro for help when the need arises.
GAPS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Trudell asked the panel to imagine that they were starting a company today. What would they target as a need or a gap for the new company to address? Bates quickly identified the need to analyze Big Data. She cited the example of Watson, the IBM computer that trounced the highest winning Jeopardy! champs of all time in a 2-day contest. Watson searched more than 200 million pages of content to answer quiz questions and win the match. This is the future, said Bates, “taking the big data dump to find the useful information or the right answer.”
Summit identified customer relationships as another opportunity. Based on observations of info pros conversing with customers about an information request, Summit sees the need for empathy with the customer. “A world shattering feature would be to have that empathy and draw out what the customer really wants.”
As many info pros learned in graduate school, there is an art to this particular conversation and to drawing out what the customer really wants. This conversation, traditionally called the reference interview, provides an opportunity to step into the customers’ shoes and truly understand their challenges, priorities, and what they value. Perhaps the actual opportunity lies in creating a true collaboration or working relationship with the customer or end user. This relationship would be grounded in a mutual respect for the skills, knowledge, and talents that each brings to the conversation, thus allowing the individual and the organization to truly thrive.