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Magazines > Information Today > July / August 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 7 — July 2003
CONFERENCE CIRCUIT
InfoToday 2003
By Paula Hane

The New York Hilton once again was the setting for InfoToday, the annual event for information professionals sponsoredby Information Today, Inc. InfoToday 2003, which comprised three concurrent conferences—National Online, KnowledgeNets, and E-Libraries—offered a diverse mix of lively sessions, knowledgeable and interesting speakers, and solid information. While the economy, travel fears, and other conferences (SLA was held in New York just 5 weeks later) took an unfortunate toll on the number of attendees and exhibitors, those who came took full advantage of the networking, idea-sharing, and learning opportunities offered by the well-organized event.

Putting Ideas to Work

The three conferences opened with a common keynote address by well-known author and consultant Larry Prusak, who challenged information professionals and knowledge managers to be thought leaders within their organizations. Drawing on more than 2 years of research for his latest book (What's the Big Idea: Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking, co-authored by Thomas H. Davenport), he noted that it's usually a small group of intrinsically motivated people within an organization who are "idea practitioners"—those who fight to get their ideas noticed and adopted. Interestingly, he said these folks are generally liberal arts majors (not business majors), typically read a lot, and are in middle-management positions.

According to Prusak, the three themes usually advanced in successful idea proposals are efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation. But an idea is essentially worthless unless it contributes to business success. He said that the adoption of ideas generally comes about from working your networks, using powers of persuasion, and exuding passion. He believes that face-to-face contact is important for selling an idea. Finding a mentor, sponsor, or partner is also an effective technique. For companies that are looking for an edge during tough times, he stated, "There is a strong correlation between success and playing with ideas." His examples and upbeat encouragement energized attendees to launch into the packed schedule of conference sessions.

New Information Marketplace

Patrick Spain, founder, chairman, and CEO of Alacritude, LLC, shook up the National Online attendees with his opening keynote. "Most of the information industry is boring," he claimed, "and little interested in innovation." He feels that most aggregators are just gathering usage rights and adding content but not making information easier to find and use.

He detailed what he called "insurmountable opportunities," rather than problems:

• Content is permanently commoditized.

• Technology is still too abstract.

• Publishers are still balkanized.

• Aggregators have not come close to replicating the cable TV or software-bundling models.

• Mindsets about value and market size are fossilized.

Spain said that the ultimate winners will be those who understand how information can be used to provide answers. Most research services stop at serving up search results, he said. But providing answers involves a combination of locating, organizing, and publishing. He noted that information professionals are in the best position to influence the "boring industry."

While it certainly must have rankled some listeners, Spain said: "Pretty good information at an excellent (low) price is [a] larger market than perfect information at a high price. That's why Wal-Mart is 150 times Tiffany's in size." Not coincidentally, Alacritude is the publisher of eLibrary and Encyclopedia.com. Spain launched the company to be the Wal-Mart of information provision by supplying content to individual consumers at low cost. He referred to this model as "the rise of the individual as content manager."

New Directions in Search

The common keynote for the second day was given by Google's director of technology Craig Silverstein, who said he was presenting the "InfoTomorrow" part of the conference. First, he reviewed how information is becoming more accessible, saying "as search develops, people start using it in new ways." People now "Google" a date or business contact to find information about that person and search for dinner recipes based on available ingredients. He said that users of his company's Web APIs are not just using Google to search and get results, but are doing so as part of a broader need (and long-term trend) for working within applications on the Web.

Silverstein also talked about what's next for search tools and Google in particular. For example, Google's current Catalogs beta search (http://catalog.google.com) is a proof-of-concept project that's making printed mail-order catalogs available online. But he noted that the increasing availability and use of more information—and more types of information—will in turn demand even more discernment and judgment. Filtering will remain an important issue.

And, he said, the questions people ask will get harder. Humans are still better than computers at helping folks articulate their information needs. However, he ended his talk with a picture of a "Google bot," a futuristic concept that would combine the best of computer and human skills to enable relevant information retrieval.

Themes and Messages

Some messages were repeated by various speakers throughout the National Online tracks and presentations. The importance of providing answers was one theme I picked up several times following Spain's keynote discussion.

Chris Forbes, president and CEO of Knovel Corp., said that companies that are simply product-oriented (e.g., provide journal access) will eventually flounder. The opportunities (another word that popped up throughout) are for companies with a service orientation: those that offer services that solve a problem or an information need, or provide answers. He said this advice also applies to libraries. Don't just fill the stacks but provide services.

Forbes and a number of other speakers stressed a customer-centric approach: Really listen and know what your customers want. Forbes also noted the importance of work-flow integration and the opportunities this presents for designing information services.

The following are some other key opportunities and themes that I identified during the conference:

• Integrate tools with content to make it more useful within a work context.

• There's a close relationship between taxonomy use and search success.

• Create communication possibilities.

• Copyright and other legal issues remain contentious.

• Collaborative, nomadic (wireless-access) computing is hot. We will see many advances in this area over the next few years.

• The value of continuous learning—and training others in search skills—cannot be overemphasized.

For more on InfoToday, see Gail Dykstra's reports on pages 23 and 27. A number of the conference presentations are linked from the event's Web site (http://www.infotoday.com/it2003/presentations). Those interested can also purchase the Proceedings volumes from Information Today, Inc. (800/300-9868) or a CD with audio of specific sessions from Digital Record (703/683-8273).


Paula J. Hane is Information Today, Inc.'s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks. Her e-mail address is phane@infotoday.com.
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