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Magazines > Searcher > April 2008
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Vol. 16 No. 4 — April 2008
‘Look, Ma, No Hands!!’
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastA worried investor contacts an information broker to check on the credentials of a “potential gold mine.” A research project team hires an information professional instead of another colleague. An expanding company working on the next year’s budget schedules a planning meeting to discuss a corporate library. A mayor asks the public library director to conduct a presentation on the future of publicly funded information services for the city council. A university dean sets up a task force of all departmental librarians to consider digitizing and monetizing the campus collections. An executive department head calls for a task force of information agency directors to construct a strategy for going “all-web” in delivering public information.

Smart moves all. Smart users. Smart clients. If only there were more of them. What makes these hypothetical clients so smart? They worry that they’re not smart enough. Socrates is reputed to have said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. And in knowing that you know nothing, that makes you the smartest of all.” That may be stretching it a bit. But you don’t get smart or stay smart without working at it. And the best thing you can do to protect yourself from what Socrates called “the only evil — ignorance” is to invest in knowledge and, even more, to invest in protection from the evils of ignorance.

And that means having knowledge workers, information professionals who work for you, who protect your knowledge interests. Some of the best info pros in the world work for information vendors and do good, often great, work for users within the information industry. But if push comes to shove on issues of customer service, vendor-based information professionals must protect their companies’ interests. They may view — rightly — the long-term interests of the company as necessarily being tied to the long-term welfare of clients. They may argue this viewpoint vigorously and often within the company. They may carry the product concerns expressed by clients to management and argue for fixes. But when it comes to expressing those concerns outside the company, to sharing knowledge of product defects with clients, to protecting the client even at the risk of losing a sale, that’s not going to happen — at least not more than once before the pink slip arrives in their inbox.

Consumer-based info pros serve clients by looking at the big picture. They don’t just examine the product with a sales rep in the lobby. They look at a wide array of products. They check out the prices and the usability. They kick the tires. And before they make a recommendation, they also examine the whole problem. They go through the reference interview process. These days that process may extend well beyond an interview with one lone user and one lone research topic, as it did in the olden days of intermediated searching. It may mean conducting a series of interviews with different types of clients having a wide array of problem-solving needs. It may extend to studying user experience outside the institution to learn where future needs may lead. The duties of consumer-based info pros will probably involve adding and blending services from multiple suppliers and educating clients both in how to search effectively themselves and how to recognize when they need the help of professional searchers. And their duties will always encompass dealing with vendors to get the best price for the best data with the best accessibility. Lucky vendors! Think of all the “free” advice they’ll get on how to improve their products. Well worth the pressure to make those improvements promptly, I’m sure.

Case in point: I was working on an NewsBreak some weeks back. The new product under examination used sophisticated text analytic and natural language processing technologies to build an answer-oriented product to satisfy the needs of R&D and marketing researchers. It had a very interesting and attractive, almost seductive, user interface. It drew on masses of sci-tech content to connect users with key decision factors in tapping content. But a closer look left me still scratching my head about a couple of points. Two of the content flows coming into the service had different structures than the two other dominant content flows. One consisted of short, densely packed abstracts, rather than full text; the other was full text but a full text built of odd, deliberately artificial language. In the first case, unless the developers had found some way to re-weight the abstracts, the literature reached only by abstracts would be underrepresented in user results. And, as it happened, some of that underrepresented literature would include top-tier sources. In the second case, users might never see the full text rise to the surface of results, though they might think they had searched that obfuscatory content effectively. The service in question started its pricing in the low six figures, meaning that the “usual suspects” known as the Fortune 500 were the marketing target. Most of these information-rich corporations have enough info pro talent in-house to provide protection against delusions of successful searching. But future marketing plans included reaching out to smaller, medium-sized companies for which such products might stand alone or even replace in-house info pro budgets.

In the best of all possible worlds, in-house info pros would frame this attractive and useful new product within their online service package. They would build in warnings and caveats and quick links to available fixes, including the ever popular “you’re too busy, you poor thing, let us do it for you” option. They would build avenues for very satisfied customers to exult in their success with the new high-priced tool. And if — by any chance — the info pros thought the exultation a little premature and the search results a little thin, quiet, eminently diplomatic assistance might supply a supplementary search or even a personal coaching session. Of course, appropriate information extracted from the lessons learned in working with end users would transfer to blogs built to gather user feedback and to conversations with sales reps and vendor info pros.

To serve and protect users everywhere is the ideal goal of consumer-based info pros. And to that end, we need all hands on deck.

— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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