Huge numbers of library and information professionals work in the corporate sector. Instead of supplying information services to students, children or the general public, we use our skills to help office workers, lawyers, bankers, civil servants and charity workers to find the information they need to do their jobs.
Technology and changing attitudes towards information have affected us in the same ways as they have in other sectors, but we have had the additional burden of always being seen as an adjunct to the main business, an overhead rather than a source of income.
For this reason, despite living in a so-called ‘information economy’, corporate information professionals have struggled in the last twenty years to maintain their roles. Who needs a professional when information is freely available? Wasn’t the library just the place where you collected books and inter-library loans? The 1990s saw vast numbers of libraries disappear and whole sub-sectors, such as media, shrink to a tiny community of survivors.
Yet, although rarely working in physical libraries, and cognizant that they are not the gatekeepers to information, corporate information professionals continue to have important roles in the workplace. Many organizations that closed their libraries are now rebuilding information departments, recognizing that operational staff should be concentrating on their day jobs, rather than inexpertly ploughing through the mysterious and overwhelming world of information.
Today's corporate information professionals are experts in finding and procuring information sources, developing intranets and websites, creating taxonomies and indexing, managing internal information, training and carrying out both proactive and reactive research and analysis at a high level. This doesn’t mean they don’t have to constantly prove their worth.
But there are reasons why their organizations should value them. Here are just five:
1. Our special talent is finding authoritative information
End-users can be frighteningly easy to satisfy when they carry out their own searches. Issues such as authority, impartiality, accuracy and currency are forgotten when speed and ease of searching is a priority.
If all they are looking for is somebody’s website, this is not a big problem. But if it means they offer services or advice to clients based on out-of-date legislation or biased sources, this could be embarrassing and expensive. Information professionals who specialize in research start consulting the huge databank of sources in their heads almost as soon as they receive a request (or rather, as soon as they have worked out what the requestor is really looking for).
Using the right source and search technique and understanding what they need to bring back isn’t simple, and it saves end-users hours of fruitless work.
2. Our other special talent is organising and summarising it
Knowing what pieces of information belong together, because they are about the same thing, and describing them in a way that they can be found, may not sound difficult. But it is a skill lacking in many people who are otherwise brilliant at writing insightful content.
We don’t tend to talk about classification or cataloguing to our users, but our ability to assign information to categories using language they understand helps them find information all the same. And our pithy summaries mean they don’t have to open an item to know whether or not it is useful.
3. We understand information vendors
Procurement departments are often excellent at negotiating large corporate contracts covering years at a time. But they are usually terrible at sifting through different suppliers’ information products, evaluating their usefulness, currency and authority, and assessing how many site licences would be worth the prices charged.
Where end-users are responsible, contracts proliferate for similar or identical products, usually assigned to the most prestigious in the organization, regardless of how much they need them.
Information professionals have the skills to bring good-value products into the organization and make sure that end-user access is seamless, regardless of the technology they are using.
4. We don’t have a departmental agenda
Content producers know perfectly well their documents, policies and communications are the most important information in an organization. It takes an information professional to assess the content in the light of the questions people in the organization are likely to ask, in particular ‘why do I need to read this?’
Information professionals can take a ‘helicopter’ view of corporate information and make sure everyone in the organization finds the information they need, and understands what it is for.
5. We are dedicated, cheap and don’t require constant glory
Nobody goes into the information profession for the money. Instead we choose it because it allows us to practice our skills to help people find what they need. To do this well, we stay up-to-date with developments and are in touch with a network of peers.
We don’t require high status, fat bonuses or even thanks (much of the time) to stay motivated, which is just as well. Many corporate information professionals earn a fraction of the salaries earned by colleagues of similar experience. Frankly, we’re a bargain.
The challenges facing the corporate information professional
Of course proving all of this isn’t simple. We fight to have our voices heard and to challenge ill-informed opinion about what we actually do. Years of hard work building trust and reputation can be wiped out by a company merger or the arrival of a new Chief Executive with Big Ideas. But it matters to us that information work is done well in our organisations, and that makes it worth fighting for.
The challenges facing the corporate information professional are many and varied. But we are lucky enough to have peers willing to share their experience and offer advice to help us solve current problems and be ready for future ones.
My edited collection ‘A Handbook for Corporate Information Professionals’ aims to do exactly that. The talented and experienced contributors discuss issues ranging from managing information suppliers and training end-users to building taxonomies and managing intranets.
They advise on marketing information services and preparing for change. If you work in the corporate sector, or would like to, I can’t promise you will find an answer to every question raised in your working life, but the advice the book offers is based on experience and an in-depth knowledge of the sector.
Are your a corporate information professional? What are the main challenges you face at work? Share your experiences in the comments
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