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The Future of the The Future: The continuing saga of the knowledge librarian

In "The Rise of the Knowledge Librarian" (KMWorld February 2009), we urged librarians to leave their traditional roles as reference clerks and human cataloging machines and embrace the higher calling of content czar, strategic planner and change agent. In the two years that have followed, we've seen discussions about the article making the rounds on social networks, KM forums, conference websites and blogs, along with direct citations in books, journals and information school websites. Positions for knowledge librarians have been advertised specifically seeking experience in one or more of our three recommended roles.

For those of you still hanging on to the past for dear life, time is running out. Best get on board now. The 2009 article tells you how to get started.

If you're one of the forward-looking pioneers and have taken on these new roles, congratulations. You're on your way. But you're probably running into fearce resistance (that's not a typo-we're talking resistance based mainly on fear). Here are some of the moats, parapets and other barriers you're likely facing:

  • no recognition, or worse yet, no respect from upper management;
  • painfully watching quality suffer from relentless cost-cutting; and
  • inability to shift the work force's perception of the library from a place to store books and periodicals to a clearinghouse for knowledge.

You've probably gotten wind of amazon.com's plans to offer e-book rentals in addition to its current textbook offerings. For a modest fee, you'll be able to check out a book, read it and return it, all virtually of course. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about that new development drew the usual howls from the Luddite community. What's interesting about the protests is that they show a stubborn adherence to the traditional model of author-publisher-distributor, with a book as the final product.

The argument shouldn't be about books. Even e-books are nothing more than digitized versions of a 500-year-old paradigm started by Gutenberg. The online discussions are reminiscent of the outcries of the railroads of the last century. Many of them slowly died thinking they were all about tracks, engines and cabooses. They had forgotten that they were really in the business of providing efficient and reliable transportation.

It's the same with today's libraries. The survivors will be the ones that remember that they are in the knowledge business. Just as the core mission of a railroad is to enable the transfer and exchange of goods, a library enables the flow of knowledge-plain and simple.

Here are some simple strategies for overcoming the barriers and accelerating the transformation. By the way, if you're a chief knowledge officer or knowledge manager, these strategies apply to you as well. But don't overlook the broad set of skills and experience you could add to your brain trust by bringing in a knowledge librarian, or training any librarians you may already have on staff.

1. Find a champion. Help him or her educate upper management regarding the essential role the knowledge librarian plays in your organization's success. In one company we worked with, the chief operating officer was the unlikely champion. He thought in terms of process flows, efficiencies and performance metrics, but that was exactly where the attention needed to be. For other organizations, it might be the human resources director (human capital focus), VP of research and development or general counsel (intellectual property), a program manager (focusing on a specific business area) or even the chief financial officer (connecting knowledge to cash inflows and outflows).

Don't be afraid to stretch outside your old boundaries. If you find someone at the executive level who "gets it," run with that person, even if his or her area of responsibility seems foreign to you. Bring in outside help if necessary, at least to get the ball rolling. One other important tidbit-you both have to be totally committed to making it work. No backing out at the first sign of pushback.

2. Sharpen your facilitation skills. You are a knowledge flow enabler. That is where you set aside your MLS degree and go back to what you learned in kindergarten-in the playground, that is. You know, things like improvising, role-playing, storytelling, negotiating, badgering and the like. Relearn how to bend the rules.

As a librarian, you've probably managed to touch upon every single discipline in which your organization is involved, and you have at least a basic understanding of the vocabulary and terminology used by each group. Everybody knows you and over time you've learned to speak their language. Now it's time for you to become the bridge builder and facilitate discussions among those many groups who were unable or unwilling to do it on their own.

3. Finally, get away from the books. Instead, get out on the front lines where the real problems and opportunities are. Start with identifying the biggest knowledge gaps and finding ways to close them. It may seem scary at first, but it sure beats riding at the end of the train where you face a good chance of being decoupled. Why not be the "Little Engine That Could" and take the lead? In the good old days, everybody came to you. Now you need to go to them.

In one organization in which we applied these three mini-strategies, we discovered that the sales force had a treasure trove of information that would have been of tremendous value to R&D. But R&D wasn't even aware of what the company's customers were saying. Once we opened the floodgates, several patent applications ensued. That is a perfect example of hidden knowledge being transformed into a revenue-generating asset. And horror of horrors, the catalyst who got the whole thing started was the corporate librarian!

In another organization, using the same facilitation process, the library staff succeeded in breaking down barriers across five different departments, reducing an investigation cycle from eight days to less than 48 hours. If you start doing things like that, you'll have the attention of the C-suite in no time. Even if they're totally fixated on cost cutting, they'll want to bring in an army of knowledge librarians just like you, rather than looking for ways to cut the one or two they still have left.  

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