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Knowledge Management and the Information Professional: Strategic Partner or Service Provider
Dr Patricia Milne
Program director, Library and Information Studies, University of Canberra
As knowledge management becomes an accepted core function in organisations, why are so few librarians at its leading edge? Is our core professional ethic, service to clients, an inhibiting factor? What are the knowledge skills and attitudes that information professionals need to participate effectively in the knowledge aware organisation? How can information professionals convince senior management that they can play an important role in the organisation's knowledge management processes at the strategic planning level? This paper examines these issues and suggests a future direction for information professionals.
We are quite used to historians defining historical periods with names such as 'stone age' or 'middle ages' and we are able to visualise life in those times. It is not hard to see why 'information age' was an appropriate description of the late 20th century.
It has now been hypothesised that the 21st century will be the age of the mind, where the focus on the externally observable features of information will be replaced by a completely different set of rules and customs and modes of delivery and where people will use information according to judgements made on a different set of criteria. [1 ]The Age of the Mind will be characterised by a focus on knowledge rather than a focus on information.
Currently, right across the western world, knowledge, expertise and innovation are now considered primary assets that underpin key competitive advantage. To be successful, organisations need to be able to change and adapt to a fast moving, global, customer-driven and competitive environment where information and communication technologies are radically changing the dynamics of doing business. The response has been that all types of organisations are embracing a new set of management principles that are changing core business processes. These principles are being collectively referred to as 'knowledge management' and develop an environment where:
But what knowledge and skills are required to function in an organisational environment that is undergoing a great deal of cultural, technological and organisational change? Each organisation, depending on its structure and culture will adopt a different approach to knowledge management and research has shown that new roles and responsibilities are evolving, some new knowledge management specific jobs are being created, some existing positions are being realigned to reflect a substantial knowledge management focus, and many others are having a knowledge management focus embedded into the role. 
This paper will consider the opportunities that exist for information professionals in the new world of work. It will then examine some of the challenges that information professionals need to address before they are able to play significant and strategic roles within their organisations. Finally, it addresses the question, 'strategic partner or service provider'.
Opportunities for information professionals in the new world of work
As a result of these changes, the skills required to participate in the new work environment where change is the norm, are new and varied. Traditional career paths have disappeared and there are new roles based on fundamental requirements that include flexibility and the ability to learn new skills and processes.
Where do information professionals fit in this new environment? We know that demand for their services is escalating.
'Knowledge managers, information specialists, chief answerists, knowledge navigators - they're more commonly known as librarians. As corporations rely on information to keep ahead of the competition, demand for these professionals is escalating'. 
What is also evident is that career paths for librarians are changing and opening new and different opportunities. A report in the US noted that, currently, 13 per cent of librarians don't work in a traditional library setting. Instead they are functioning throughout business in roles that command salaries much higher than the profession has traditionally seen.  It has also been noted that, whichever part of society is the focus, the information profession has unprecedented opportunities. 
Professional associations such as the Special Libraries Association (SLA) in the US have recognised that information and knowledge management is at the center of business and society in the 21st century and SLA's mission statement reflects these new directions:
To advance the leadership role of our members in putting knowledge to work for the benefit of decision-makers in corporations, government, the professions, and society; as well as to shape the destiny of our information and knowledge-based society. 
But while this scenario suggests bright and interesting future career paths for librarians, it is very much a matter of 'seize the day'. The opportunities are there, but are information professionals ready? What will be the nature of the 'world of work' for information professionals when knowledge is the most significant basic ingredient of the political, economic and social infrastructure? Do information professionals recognise that the knowledge and skills they already possess are an essential part of the way forward for knowledge aware organisations? Do they recognise too, that their attitudes must be in tune with the needs of this new order if they are to become strategic partners in the knowledge processes within their own organisations?
Challenges for information professionals
In a study conducted in 1990, Prusak and Matarazzo focussed on the value placed by management on the corporate library and detailed the views of the corporate managers to whom librarians report. Findings found that online searches performed by librarians was the most valuable service offered. They also found that most companies surveyed had no methods or processes in place to evaluate the effectiveness, efficiency, or productivity of what librarians do, and while everyone appeared to 'like' libraries and librarians, few firms thought of them as 'mission critical'. They concluded that with no methods to evaluate library contributions to productivity and profits, the stature of librarians within the firm was likely to sink further in terms of compensation, status, value and impact.
Two studies in different professional environments, law and medicine, found that librarians were highly regarded by their clients, but they fulfilled very much a service oriented and reactive function, serving clients by responding to their needs, rather than anything more dynamic and proactive. The librarians were perceived by their clients as efficient, intelligent, helpful and possessing specialised knowledge. They were also seen as unambitious people whose satisfaction was in helping others to achieve their ends. The authors concluded that there are problems for professionals working in a service function setting but that librarians must develop ways of showing that they are central to the business of the parent organisation. 
Within a climate characterised by knowledge management, the information professional's service ethic is seen by some as a handicap. It is seen as a handicap because of the perception it has created in the minds of information professionals themselves, and in the minds of their clients, about the type of role that the information professional can play in the organisation. Many are now asking the question why, if knowledge management has become an accepted core function in organisations, are there so few librarians at its leading edge?
Recent research conducted for the library and Information Commission (LIC) sought to provide answers to this question.  It was carried out for the purpose of:
The research was largely qualitative and was based on wide consultation with experts and on a series of case studies. It also included a highly selective questionnaire survey of organisations known to be actively developing knowledge management. Of particular interest was why information professionals seemed to be playing such a small role in developing knowledge management strategies. In exploring the issue, the research examined key elements of a successful knowledge management program and identified the essential skills that are required.
A concept generally accepted, and highlighted in the LIC research, is that knowledge management is essentially about a creative mixing of skills. It isn't the prerogative of any one department or function and forming hybrid teams at the planning stage is a key feature. Team members must:
Team members must also:
The primary feature of a knowledge management environment is this emphasis on the interaction between people - people working in multi-disciplinary teams, virtual or actual, to achieve collective results. Also important is the sharing of knowledge and experience. This can take place by a process of managed interaction through team and project work and formal communities of practice, or more informally facilitated by the environment and by creative communication.
Skills for knowledge environments
While the ability to create and nurture multi-skilled teams is essential to the process, underpinning skills are diverse.  The research for the LIC identified three sets of skills that have been incorporated into table 1.
Table 1: Essential skills for working in a knowledge environment
In some earlier research it was found that librarians generally have strengths in the area of all aspects of information management (collection, structuring, retrieval, filtering, analysing and design) and skills transfer (training, coaching). They are people focussed, understand the potential of IT, and are flexible and adaptable. In addition they have good listening skills and network effectively. 
However, some of the areas where librarians were found to be lacking in strength, grouped under the headings of skills, experience, attributes and behaviour, include:
To answer the question about why so few information professionals are involved in planning knowledge management activities, the research concluded that there are probably many reasons.  Primarily, knowledge management processes and practices are organisation specific, and their implementation reflects the culture of the organisation. However, she has also identified fundamental criteria that make it difficult for information professionals to initiate major change programs or to play a major part in them.
The first is related to the poor visibility and definition of the information profession, and a similar lack in individual information specialists. The profession is still associated with the management of libraries, the critical element in the issue being that even virtual libraries are still viewed as a support, rather than a core, function. It was also found that while there are imaginative modules and courses in LIS education, they are not immediately recognisable to top management as relevant to the development of business 'high-flyers'. This perception of information professionals as the providers of effective support services rather than key business players is reflected in the positions that many hold within their organisations. However well they are regarded, or even rewarded, few are among the most senior managers. These results support the earlier findings of Prusak and Matarazzo. 
Initial knowledge management planning started at this senior level, with strategy and planning teams reflecting their peer group. How soon information managers are included in the planning process depends on whether they are able to influence this senior group. For many senior managers, information professionals have valuable technical skills but they need to be directed by people who are core to the business; in general, they are not seen as business managers.
Because senior managers do not expect information professionals to participate in strategic planning, then senior information professionals do not expect to be involved. One outcome is the view held by many information professionals that knowledge management is a new term for what they were already doing and it was being used by other functions and professions as a means of capitalising on the relatively new corporate interest in information. However, while there are notable exceptions among information professionals, these are surprisingly few, and such attitudes contribute as much to the information department being kept in its box as do management expectations. 
It has been suggested that the most important task for organisations developing knowledge management is to change the mindset of its people. [16 17] Most information professionals are likely to have appropriate skills and personal attributes. What they need to change is their thinking about themselves in relation to the organisation. They need to identify with the core business, become part of the team delivering the products and services to clients, and not merely a support service.  Making the change is dependent on information professionals understanding the value and relevance of their core skills.
Research has also found that while some information professionals were coming to grips with the opportunities and having a real impact, many other professions are also seeing knowledge management as a career opportunity. As information management is becoming a core business process, it is creating competition for information roles. To participate in the future, it is necessary to adopt the philosophy of partnerships and teams as the information professional cannot work alone. It is necessary to identify and work with strategic partners. Information management is not knowledge management and information professionals need to demonstrate that they not only understand this but are able to help build the multi-skilled teams essential to knowledge management.
The need to improve information literacy in organisations was also identified by the research. All staff in an organisation need to be able to:
Because these require a level of information management skills not found in most people, the opportunity exists for the information professional to contribute to the development of these skills in members of their organisations.
It has been noted that
Arguably, the most valuable role for the profession in KM is that of facilitation through the design of information systems, coaching information skills and participating in the development of Knowledge Management policies and strategies. 
Kinnell  provided another perspective when she emphasised the management role of information professionals and suggested they need a portfolio of skills to help them handle it effectively. She stressed that they must become critical in assessing the relevance and value of modern management techniques to meet current challenges. Kinnell stated that information managers need a theoretical understanding and the ability to apply the principles of:
In the past, library and information studies curricula have focussed on the functional role of the information professional in the belief that management skills needed at a later date could be learned on the job. Kinnell believed that there needs to be a strong focus on information servicemanagement skills. This does not imply neglecting the traditional functional aspects, but by placing them in the context of the current work environment and supplementing them with aspects of the principles outlined.
There is no doubt that knowledge management is becoming a key concern of organisations, particularly those who have already redesigned their business processes and embedded a total quality approach into their practices.  One of the most important trends to emerge from Delphi Australasia's research was that there is a strong awareness amongst the 181 companies surveyed of the importance of innovation and learning in organisations. Leveraging corporate knowledge through knowledge management will become less of a differentiating factor, and more a basic requirement, for participation in a market space. 
Snowden  stated that knowledge management is a new way of thinking about the organisation and society. It challenges the dominant mechanical metaphor of scientific management, in thinking of the organisation as a complex, self-structuring ecology in which the secret is to achieve minimal intervention for maximum beneficial effect. It is about creating adaptive systems that learn, in preference to systems that are optimal within a specific context. It is about a volunteer, rather than a conscript mentality in employees and managers. It is about the professional management, as opposed to the amateur use of, intellectual assets.
Knowledge management is not about managing some higher order of information, but about creating and sustaining informative processes. It is about common sense human skills such as story telling, community learning and intuition, as much as it is about intranets, workflow systems and business intelligence.
Creating new knowledge is not about the processing of objective information. It is concerned with the releasing of the tacit and highly subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches of individual employees and making them available for testing and use by the company as a whole. One of the key factors in creating an organisation that is knowledge aware is the personal commitment of employees and their sense of identity with the organisation and its mission. It is recognising that an organisation is not a machine but a living organism.
For information professionals, a core skill of the future will be recognising a continually changing order and identifying where their skills fit within it. Also essential is the ability to recognise that the way forward will be the way of collaboration, pulling together teams with the right mix of skills for the particular task.  Librarians, the 'ultimate knowledge workers', must firstly recognise what they have to offer and then ensure that this is recognised by management. These skills are important to organisations as they move along the path to knowledge awareness and librarians should be included in the process, from the 'visioning' and then through all subsequent stages. Librarians, need to carve out a place for themselves within the core business processes of organisations rather than being content to offer a service from the sidelines; they must become strategic partners.
© ALIA [ feedback | update | privacy ] . 6:10am 27 February 2010