|So, here we are again to consider the potential impact of a still-faltering
economy. Since last month, I’ve done a little research. Yes, I know you
all believe this column is written with an ink extracted more from chutzpah
than from sweat of the brow, but occasionally I do deign to do some research.
And what did I find? Solid, statistically valid studies proving beyond
a shadow of a doubt that anything could happen. Consumer confidence is
at a 10-year low, but interviewees are still brightly optimistic about
the relative strength of the economy. Home sales are sinking fast, but
are still at a 10-year high. Layoffs threaten the land, but the unemployment
rate is holding at a 30-year low.
However, as usual, the research did offer some useful insights. From
an article that led off a series of pieces in The New York Times
("What the Web Means in Tougher Times," February 28, 2001), John Schwartz
wrote about the conflicting strategies the iffy economy can produce: "[C]ompanies
are reassessing their Web strategies in light of the sudden economic slowdown.
Some are pulling back, while others are speeding up spending, hoping to
find even greater savings in everything from purchasing to training workers.
And some companies are acting on this discovery: A technology that lets
you do more with the same number of people also lets you do the same amount
of business with fewer people. In other words, Americans who have become
used to getting mail, books, and even cars online may now be receiving
pink slips as a result of the Internet."
Looking further at the reactions of companies, Schwartz observed a rise
in business-to-business exchanges, the promotion of consumer-activated
transactions with a minimum of live help, the outsourcing of computer operations,
and an involvement of higher levels of management in information-technology
and automation decisions. The consensus of the advisors he interviewed
was that wise companies will hang on to their staffs and avoid the truly
wasteful expense of hiring new employees to do the tasks that technology
can enable. Transferring skills to new tasks increases one’s competitive
edge, but firing, then hiring, burns money and goodwill.
The Ouch Factor
So let’s imagine that The New York Times got it right for once
and Mr. Schwartz speaks the truth. What would this mean for information
professionals and their vendors?
At first glance, one can clearly see the ouch factor for already imperiled
corporate and institutional librarians. A clientele deluded enough to think
that every piece of information they’ll ever need exists on the Web—and
is probably, if not positively, available for free—will throw on-staff
information professionals overboard with the same shortsighted critical
judgment that lifeboat passengers would show in treating oars as useless
ballast. But what happens when sober reality grips them by the throat?
Will they hire the lost librarians back or turn to a vendor that can supply
them with the same level of protection from their own worse natures? Bottom
line: Someone’s going to be hiring information professionals and training
them to serve specific clients in handling digital data flow.
When digital data dominates an information environment, the role of
information professionals can rise proportionately. For example, in the
past, librarians who served publishers often had charge not only of gathering
the data to produce publications, but of building and licensing online
venues for that data. When database aggregators or search services wanted
to add full-text journals or newspapers, they usually negotiated with publishing-industry
librarians. Today, as online has become much more important to publishers’
long-term strategies, the decisions may extend outside the library. However,
the librarian may remain an essential part of the decision team and may
even lead it—though perhaps no longer with the job classification of librarian.
The Value of Info Pros
Information professionals these days—particularly in these tougher
times—must have the authority to make sure that individuals in their organizations
follow their guidelines. In particular, they should find ways to protect
their clientele from the consequences of the volatile dot-com downturn.
For example, at press time I heard that MURL (MyURLs), a very convenient
service used by thousands of Web workers to monitor and maintain personal
collections of bookmarks or favorites, fizzled. One day they were reporting
hardware trouble, and within a week they stopped answering their phones.
The Web world soon heard the agonized howling of people who hadn’t backed
up—or, to be more precise, people who had backed up, but with MURL—and
now found themselves bereft of beloved, essential Web sources.
How could good information professionals—whether hired by a company
directly or leased from a vendor as part of a service package—have prevented
the disaster of some company sales executive stuck on a road trip with
links to key data gone awry? With the proper authority and mission statement
behind them, info pros would have scoured the company regularly to determine
the information needs of its denizens and to assess the efficiency and
reliability of the sources used to meet those needs. They would have looked
for behavioral habits and corporate culture issues as they affected the
information environment. Seeking the simplest, least-intrusive plan to
ensure a smooth, unbroken flow of the highest-quality data at the lowest
reasonable price, the info pros would create a liaison with techies and
content vendors. Aware of the vulnerability of dot-coms these days, they
would do an impact assessment of possible failures and find a way to intervene.
Assuming the company was large enough and had enough resources—and that
the need for MURL services was great enough—they might have even advised
the company to intervene and prevent the failure of the dot-com. A vendor-supplied
info pro might have phoned home and told a vendor to jump quick and pick
up the service before it shut down, as a valuable coup in both serving
current customers and ingratiating itself to new ones.
If institutions do decide to adopt a strictly end-user searching environment,
they’ll still need info pros to handle training and education. Again, smart
vendors should offer such service as an extra. But, above all, they shouldn’t
use these trainers as simple tools to jam their data down the unsuspecting
throats of client staffs. It isn’t good for the clients and that means
it isn’t good for the vendors—assuming the vendors intend to promote a
long, permanent, productive relationship with their clientele. Long ago,
information professionals recognized the persistent, unattractive truth
that no matter what vendors promised, "They’re not going to give us what
we need, they’re going to give us what they’ve got a lot of" (as the immortal
Eugenie Prime of Hewlett-Packard said).
Let’s look at the reality here. If a company has info pros in situ,
then no amount of vendor blarney will get past. So, tell the truth and,
even more, listen to it when those info pros tell you the facts of their
lives. Then adapt your products and services to do the jobs they want done.
If the company doesn’t have its own info pros on staff, then by the
time it turns to you vendors it will have already tried to get all the
data it needs off the Web for free. This disastrous policy will have left
the company somewhat shellshocked, but it will also have left it fairly
knowledgeable about what the Web can do and how good Web services look
and feel. So any selling strategies relying on the sucker’s total ignorance
won’t work. Salespeople will fail if they only know commercial online and
have no notion of Websourcing for the specific field or industry in which
a target company operates. On the other hand, if you come in asking to
learn, possibly offering a temporary deal to reach your own data package—but
urging the client to let you install staff on site to assess needs, advise,
and train—you could form a permanent relationship built on really fulfilling
the client’s long-term needs. If you need staff to perform such tasks,
turn to outsourcing resources yourself. Try the Special Libraries Association
or the Association of Independent Information Professionals.
Once you and the client have established a solid strategy for good information
management, the maintenance of that relationship could probably be handled
by off-site staff. Virtual reference desk or Ask-A services continue to
spring up around the country. Such services offered by a heads-up vendor
could supply a constant flow of valuable customer information to product-development
staffs. To get products or services from the drawing board to operational
status and from there to profitability, the most efficient approach would
be to design them right in the first place. Then they should be built with
a keen, accurate knowledge of what customers want and why—knowledge supplied
by people who have firsthand, close-up knowledge of customer operations.
"Wah-la!," as they say. Take these tips from your C-I-P-S (Client Information
Speaking of taking tips, you may remember that last month’s column recommended
that vendors start licensing and arranging their own exclusive content
from authors. I’ve noticed that Lexis-Nexis recently announced licensing
of original content for its lexisONE Lifestyle section. Bell & Howell
Information and Learning has also accelerated author contracts, as has
Hmm. Are those guys getting advance copies of these columns, or do great
minds merely think alike?
Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, co-editor with
Paula J. Hane for NewsBreaks, and a longtime online searcher. Her
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.