posted 17 Dec 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 4
Ramon Barquin - Debt to librarians
In the late 1990s I chaired a joint summit for KPMG and the Brookings Institution,
Coming from the IT community, of course my invitation list was weighted heavily towards experts who came from the computer industry. This certainly was a horrible mistake on my part, since knowledge management is quintessentially multidisciplinary. But I need not have worried since the phone started to ring off the hook as different constituencies with a stake in knowledge management got wind of the event.
The philosophers chastised, “How can you have this event without us philosophers? We invented knowledge.”
The educators chimed in, “We have been responsible for transmitting knowledge from generation to generation from the beginning of history.”
The cognitive scientists reminded us that insofar as knowledge resides in the brain, they were the ones best able to contribute to the topic, as did the management scientists who pointed out that knowledge was just one more thing that needed to be managed.
And then there were the librarians. They called too. They weren’t the first nor were they the most forceful, but they made their case eloquently. “We’ve been the stewards of knowledge since time immemorial. We’re the ones who best know how to classify knowledge, store it and retrieve it.” And they were right. A former president of the American Library Association participated in our summit and provided some of the most valuable contributions to the event.
Knowledge management owes a debt to library science that has not been sufficiently recognised. It’s time to change that, but also time to start taking advantage of the contributions the librarian community can and could make to our discipline.
We have to remember librarians have been the guardians of knowledge from the very beginning of man’s attempts to capture information outside the human brain. The media in which explicit knowledge was stored evolved from clay tablets, parchments and papyrus scrolls into books. But librarianship today has gone substantially beyond books, and the focus of its work is connecting people with a need to know something to the right source of content for that knowledge. Most of these knowledge sources now are online databases or virtual documents that exist in cyberspace.
It’s a far cry from the image we have of the librarian of the past. In fact, many schools of library science have now either changed their academic name outright into schools of ‘information science’ or have added that term to their traditional library science denomination.
And well they should since they are very much into the thick of information science and hence IT, as well as knowledge management. Take something as hot these days as search. There is little that has a higher priority than search for an enterprise that must find specific content in the mountains of virtual documents in order to address the needs of its knowledge workers. Well, to a large degree this is what librarians have been doing for millennia. For them, it starts with developing taxonomies and classification schemes that allow the storing of content in a way that will make it easier later to retrieve what they are seeking. The card catalogues of our school libraries provided a basic example of a multidimensional approach to search. We could look under the author, title and subject headings in order to find a specific tome or list of possible books that might be helpful in researching a given topic.
With automation came quantum changes in libraries too. Fairly soon we saw the computerised catalogues allowing us to search a library’s collection, then expanding its reach to permit searching sets of collections across collaborating schools or other domains. And because the scope of librarians is no longer tied just to books, the content in databases and knowledge spaces is very much their bailiwick.
Today information scientists have a number of tools at their disposal allowing them to search cyberspace, ‘the giant library in the sky’. And they work with some of the great search tools we knowledge management practitioners also use: Google, AltaVista, Yahoo, Vivisimo, Mooter and the like. Furthermore, today search schemes are much more powerful as we try to find relevant content based on keywords, character strings, abstract concepts, spoken phrases, video patterns, satellite images, etc., and do so across multiple media and in many different languages.
In a recent class I taught to U.S. Army librarians, it was striking to hear about their day-to-day work experiences linking Army surgeons in real time to virtual sources about new medical procedures – in many cases via video – helping them to save lives. Or connecting a military engineer to a website where he or she can learn about new materials used in the design of a levee. Often times these websites provide connectivity to the experts themselves.
Knowledge workers of today spend an inordinate amount of their working day just looking for knowledge and information. In March of 2004, a study published by Susan Feldman of International Data Corporation reported knowledge workers spend 15 to 35 percent of their time searching for information; that only half are successful in finding what they want. Forty percent of corporate users reported not being able to find the information they needed on their intranets. The bottom line result of these facts was that an organisation with 5,000 people wastes approximately $7.5 million per year just finding information.
Successful enterprises in the future will in many ways be those that can be effective and efficient in providing pertinent knowledge to someone who needs it to accomplish a business purpose. We are increasingly seeing tools that help do this, yet it is still very much in the hands of the knowledge brokers – the individuals who can assist the process of searching and finding the most relevant knowledge. And this is very much a job that librarians are ideally prepared to carry out.
We are starting to see the need for new job descriptions and titles. In the same way that webmasters were basically unknown just a scant two decades ago, we may now see the emergence of librarians of cyberspace – or maybe cybrarians as they become key players in our corporate future.
Ramon Barquin is president of Barquin International, a consulting firm. He specialises in developing information systems strategies for public and private sector enterprises – particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management. He has consulted for the