VOICES OF THE SEARCHERS
Have You SWOTed Lately?
by Mary Ellen Bates
Every year around this time, I pause for a day to reflect on where my business is heading and where I want it to be in a year. I ask myself what has changed in the information world and what impact those changes have had on my business. I think about what my clients will need and value the most in terms of research services, and then I develop a plan that—as much as possible—prepares me for what’s ahead.
One of the tools that I always find useful during this yearly planning exercise is a SWOT analysis (a matrix of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) focused on research. Marydee Ojala, editor of Online Searcher, and I often give a joint presentation on SWOT analyses for search professionals. While the specific strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats have changed over the years, I have found that some info pro principles just don’t change. As you consider what direction you and your library want to take in 2024, a SWOT analysis may help identify ways to leverage your opportunities and avoid possible threats.
Sometimes, it is difficult to identify search professionals’ key strengths—it’s second nature for us to understand user search behavior, the need to respect intellectual property and copyright laws, and the best resources to bring to a research project. Those are, in fact, our secret superpowers. We know how to evaluate information sources; we break down information silos; and we look for ways to better leverage our econtent purchases. Our reference interview skills enable us to help users get better search outcomes.
Search professionals’ weaknesses often result from misperceptions. We struggle with getting adequate funding for econtent because of the perception that “It’s all on the web for free.” Our users often assume that research is just a matter of Googling the question and do not understand the depth of our search skills, nor the wide range of information sources at our disposal. And, perhaps most frustratingly, “good enough” is often good enough: Users are content with whatever they’ve found through a rudimentary web search, without considering what they are missing by not using the library’s resources.
Of the four quadrants of a SWOT analysis, the one for opportunities always gets me the most excited. The opportunities for search professionals are wide-ranging. We can serve as what one info pro calls “information whisperers”—working with the IT or intranet group to advocate for users’ information needs, ensuring efficient access to library resources, and embedding search widgets where they are most likely to be needed. Search professionals can help users understand the basic concepts of new information trends, such as AI, text and data mining (TDM), virtual reality (VR), and semantic enrichment. We can find new ways to embed intelligence in our users’ information workflow. We can educate our users on how to detect mis- and disinformation, falsified data, and predatory journals. We can add value to our search services by becoming familiar with our users’ data analysis and visualization tools.
The threats that search professionals face have remained fundamentally unchanged. Libraries and information centers are not seen as critically valued, so library budgets get cut, and libraries get closed. The growth in the use of search bots may drive the perception that research requires no professional skills, and librarians can be replaced by a chatbot. (I have already had a client ask me why I couldn’t just use ChatGPT on a particularly challenging research project!) As users lose faith in traditional information sources such as news media, they may also devalue the expertise of information professionals. You may face other threats specific to your environment and organization.
While a SWOT analysis is useful in identifying our internal strengths and weaknesses as well as our external opportunities and threats, the next step in the process creates actionable insight. A TOWS matrix takes those four factors; reorders them as threats; opportunities, weaknesses, strengths; and asks the following questions:
- How can I use my existing strengths to leverage new opportunities and avoid potential threats?
- How can I use new opportunities to overcome my
- How can I minimize my existing weaknesses to avoid
When I look at my strengths and opportunities from the perspective of a TOWS matrix, I can identify ways to leverage what I’m doing best and to continue to grow professionally. I can look at the areas where I am weakest and most vulnerable and decide what proactive steps I can take to help me thrive in challenging situations. While I may not be able to control the external opportunities and threats I face, I can prepare for them by conducting an unflinching evaluation of what assets and value I bring. By reviewing possible scenarios, I am better equipped to address challenges as they arise.