by Allan Foster, Europe Chapter and Business & Finance Division
For more years than I care to remember I have been charting developments in business information use through an annual survey of information managers. This is the Business Information Survey published each March in Sage’s quarterly journal Business Information Review. The focus of the Survey has changed over time, from a concentration on sources of information to key issues in information management.
The methodology has also changed, from an open, widely distributed questionnaire to a series of in-depth interviews with a small number of senior corporate information managers. These are mainly based in the UK but many work for global businesses and have responsibilities for international services. If I was being pretentious(!) I would describe it now as almost ‘ethnographic’, a series of ongoing conversations with trusted colleagues, trying to chart year on year changes in their services, roles within their organisations and strategic priorities. It has only been possible to do this and to get brutal honesty from respondents by honouring a rule of strict confidence and aggregating results so as to avoid disclosing any identities. Most but not all respondents are involved in the Survey each year. In it’s 21st year, the 2011 Survey1 included seventeen of the interviewees from the previous year whilst another four were new participants.
Although the respondents represent a range of corporate information, library & research services, across industrial sectors and of varying sizes, I claim no statistical representativeness whatsoever for the Survey. But, given the seniority and frankness of the respondents, the findings provide a rich narrative of current practice and future intentions. It’s the latter which I’m concentrating on here as a contribution to the ‘Future Ready’ discussion.
Whilst massive turbulence in the business and financial environment is the new norm and technologies change so fast, the Survey results suggest that the crucial ‘future ready’ attitudes and skills in the corporate information scene are and will be in the next five years pretty much the same as those exhibited in successful information services now. This may be a disappointment to the ‘everything is changing’ lobby who are looking for new magic bullets and a cookbook formula to succeed in the corporate information/knowledge management world.
The key approaches and skills that define successful information management, now and in the next few years, amongst the 2011 Survey group of senior professionals, are:
- Access to, and a good relationship with, senior executives, preferably at board level.
- ‘Business strategy & culture fit’ – the ability to develop the information service in harmony with the company’s strategic objectives and organisational culture.
- Developing a shrewd political instinct, having sensitive antennae amongst users and senior managers and being adaptive in consequence.
- Financial nous – contributing to the increased profitability of the company, streamlining processes and services, reducing costs.
- The ability to work globally with all that this implies – building alliances, harmonising & integrating services – whilst understanding different cultural and business practices which shape the environment.
- Develop hard nosed negotiation skills with content vendors. And getting harder.
- Responding to the growing emphasis on compliance work.
- Managing capacity & workload, with flexibility and responsiveness.
- Ensuring that your information/research/knowledge staff are embedded within business project and work teams.
- Continuing to look dispassionately at alternative organisational and delivery models including outsourcing and off-shoring.
- Embracing and handling internal ‘know-how’ as well as external data.
- Enhancing knowledge management skills (note small rather than capitalised ‘KM’) – knowledge sharing, capturing tacit knowledge, using stories, applying appropriate technologies.
- Use social media when appropriate. A number of respondents are somewhat sceptical of the business case for such deployment in terms of their information and research services.
- More attention should be given to measuring the impact of the information services (including outsourcing/off-shoring), through ROI and other metrics.
- New IT systems should be implemented in line with technological opportunities and trends but most of all to improve access to content and cost-effectiveness of services.
- IS/KM staffing – the most important internal resource of all. Improve communications, provide development opportunities, undertake succession planning.
- There’s no substitute for persistence and hard work.
1. These and other issues are developed much more fully in “Let’s save the company money” – the new orthodoxy. The Business Information Survey 2011. Business Information Review 28 (1), March 2011.
Allan Foster (email@example.com) is an information industry consultant and writer, previously Director of Information Services at Keele University and a senior information manager at Manchester Business School, Lancashire Polytechnic, Sheffield Polytechnic and the British Institute of Management. He presented these findings at an SLA Europe session, Is your information service ‘Future Ready’?, in Manchester on 22nd March 2011.