Searcher
Vol. 9 No. 4 April 2001
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Vendor Knowledge Management
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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If the Bard of Avon were to return from his grave today and look out upon the state of the World and its Wide Web, what would he say? Methinks, he would shake his head wisely and sayeth, "TINSTAAFL, TINSTAAFL, aye, there's the rub." In case you've forgotten, TINSTAAFL stands for "There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." Words to live and die by.

Reality has finally caught up with the dot-coms and the burn-out continues to wreak havoc. No longer can one anticipate the appearance of ever newer, ever shinier, and ever freer Web services and products from outfits dreaming of IPO lottery winnings. Those seem to have completely disappeared. Now we have trouble tracking the survival of established services. Even "old-timers," like that hoary ancient of e-commerce, Amazon, finds financial analysts, computer industry gurus, and trade press reporters checking the company's vitals every half-hour.

The trouble with having Reality as an enemy is that the opposition always arrives in force. Not only do the dot-coms see venture capital and investment funds vanishing, but dot-coms even find themselves under attack from employees, who have seen the stock market's writing on the wall and will no longer accept being paid off in the promissory notes of stock options. And with the downturn in the economy still not significantly denting unemployment statistics, dot-com management faces a greater need for quality people than ever, while it has less ability to give those employees what they want.

So what has all this to do with the life of the working searcher? Lots. Don't let's kid ourselves. We all have come to rely on the products and services of the dot-coms. Sure, we can offer our clients access to commercial services, but the precipitous drop in intermediated searching indicates that in dealing with commercial products, most of us these days handle aggregator content in bulk. We license tons of data; we no longer spend our working days doing individual searches for each customer, one topic at a time. But basically, whether we still do some intermediated searches or just book data into our intranets and train end users locally, most of us spend more time working with open Web sources than commercial ones. As a rule, we try the Internet and its Web first and then move on to the "expensive" services if the Web has not satisfied our needs. In this, we usually parallel the searching strategies of our end-user clients. Even intermediary searchers these days find themselves doing primarily, if not exclusively, Web-based searching.

So how does the dot-com burnout affect us? Well, it increases the critical need for knowledgeable and aggressive vendor management.

In the old days, with "the usual suspects" of commercial vendors, our vendors knew us and we knew them. Heck, most of them were us! Vendors hired staff away from client organizations, staff that came "trailing clouds of glory" A K A MLS degrees. In olden days, vendors only had to deal with a handful of trade and professional associations, a half-dozen major national trade shows and exhibits, another half-dozen trade publications, and a measured sales and training operation. With such an approach, vendors could expect to reach almost every current and potential customer.

On the other side of the table, professional librarians knew the names and direct dial numbers of the several dozen vendor representatives with whom they dealt. From some of those reps, they could expect invitations to major family events weddings, christenings, anniversaries ending in zero, etc. Librarians knew the vendors' product lines, sometimes better than the vendors. Vendor middle managers would have private lists of customers whom each new hire should visit as part of vendor staff training. (Remember those visits where you did all the talking and the kid in the corner just sat wide-eyed? Welcome to Vendor Training Class 202 and, by the way, you're today's instructor.) The information pros usually also had a pretty good bird's-eye view of internal vendor politics. If the info pro didn't know, it was no trouble to find out just call a key vendor rep, ask a colleague, or post an inquiry on a list.

But what happened when the dot-coms came? No direct sales operation to speak of. No awareness of the existence of information professionals as a market in most cases. No advertising in the usual places. No appearances at the usual events. No nothing...except for free data. But when it came to customer support, you often got what you paid for.

Well, the dot-com burnout may have created some opportunities, even some advantages. The flakier ones with lots of hype and a nickel's worth of data have probably disappeared or are in theprocess of same. The ones that started with a reasonable business model, but abandoned it when the market of the last few years started mailing them winning lottery tickets in UPS trucks, have begun frantically hunting through their files to find and dust off those old business models. And, in these harsher times, the new reality has them turning to models that provide real revenue. Information professionals remain a market that has always reached for its wallet when acquiring information. The real dollars that we spend may have looked piddly next to the funny money of the boom years, but it's looking a lot greener and goldener (Hello, Sacagawea!) nowadays.

The problem still lies in the volatility of the marketplace. Information professionals should try to maximize the leverage their contributions can make. This includes grouping funds into larger masses. Perhaps some of us might even consider advising our organizations to take over a dot-com before it fails. Clearly, only very large organizations with very focused interests would consider buying an information service, but it is something to think about. More conservatively, you might consider actions by library consortia or professional or trade associations.

Perhaps the answer lies in encouraging friendly commercial vendors to look at new dot-com services that have proved their value to info pros. Today's information industry has already taken advantage of the downturn to pick up some bargains. Unfortunately, some acquisitions seem to have been designed to bury services that have threatened the status quo. Customers pressing vendors to acquire specific services may have more influence in seeing the acquirers set policies of preservation, instead of destructive, Second Millennium retro policies.

But the key to all this consumer activism is information, information, information. Searchers must track vendors both dot-coms and traditionals closely. They must know what's happening, hopefully before it happens. Finding out well after it happens is too late to do anything. Listservs help many information professionals keep in touch. Also consider routes for tracking press releases, financial announcements, breaking news from the trade press. Information Today Inc. has Newsbreaks posted each Monday as well as a Digest summary of key developments and a Newslink service that will push news to you in e-mail messages. But we're not the only source, nor are we sufficient. You should have folders and files regularly monitoring key players.

Don't forget to cover the "vendors" populating your Bookmarks or Favorites listings. If you rely on a source for information over and over, then that source qualifies as a vendor of concern. You should also consider adding the preferred sources of your end-user clients too. After all, if your clientele's sources suddenly dried up, they'd come running to you for substitutes. Get ahead of your problems.

You have another reason for concerning yourself with client sourcing. As the custodial information professional serving the interests and needs of your clients, you have to spot when the quality of a source has eroded, even though your clients may not notice. When some trade press report indicates that a dot-com supplier has halved their staff, info pros know that something has taken a hit, and it could be the data. Time to start triple-checking currency, comprehensiveness, et al. Again, get ahead of your problems.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Well, as the poet snickered, that's why they pay us the big bucks.

...bq
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@infotoday.com
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