by Guy St. Clair, Australia & New Zealand and New York Chapters, Knowledge Management Division
I was honored recently to be asked to speak for SLA’s Information Technology Division. My presentation – which we’ll continue with in a second session at Chicago in 2012 – had to do with the future of knowledge services and the role of specialist librarians in the next decade. It was my privilege to share with colleagues my perceptions about our future.
None of us has a crystal ball of course, and we’re all wondering what the resolution – when it comes – to the current financial crisis and global insecurity will be. That said, though, we also can’t let these negative influences distract us from the goals that originally brought us into specialized librarianship. We chose librarianship – and particularly specialized librarianship – because it is a profession that enables us to excel in bringing knowledge development and knowledge sharing (KD/KS) into the companies and organizations where we are employed. We didn’t call it “KD/KS” – the acronym had not yet come into our professional vocabulary when most of us chose our careers – but the tools, techniques, and professional service delivery built into that acronym were certainly what delighted us about our work. And they continue to do so.
But the workplace has changed. And keeps changing. And we are constantly challenged to manage KD/KS in ways that meet the needs (also ever-changing) of our employing organizations. It isn’t easy, and some folks are just about ready to give up on being specialist librarians. But we won’t give up. Not when we’re getting advice from some of the smartest people in the world about how we can manage our own future. Did you get the point of Tom Friedman’s Keynote Speech on Sunday night at the Annual Conference in Philadelphia? He was clear: today’s (and future) employees create their own jobs.
It is an important message (so important, in fact, that Friedman devoted his July 13 column in The New York Times to the subject). As we think about being Future Ready and preparing ourselves for continuing our careers deeper into the 21st century, we need to think about some of the people in our field who are doing just that, people who are creating (Freidman uses the term “inventing”) their own jobs.
From my perspective, these are people who are succeeding because they’ve been able to analyze what their managements require from information and knowledge professionals. Then they fit their contributions to match the corporate need. They have realistically identified their role in the larger organization, and when they look at the organizational “big picture,” they understand what their organizational leaders are looking for in information management, knowledge management, and strategic learning. Indeed, those three elements (found in every organizational function) are the very basis of what enterprise management wants from those of us who work in the knowledge domain. Combined, they make up what we call knowledge services and their successful performance is fundamental to organizational effectiveness. The people doing this work – whether in specialized libraries or not – are the organization’s knowledge thought leaders.
So we ask the question:
Can I – as a specialist librarian – be a knowledge thought leader for the company?
First: Start with taking a look at the organization’s “big picture.” And at your own (this is where the ambition comes in). Think about your personal goals, your ideals, what you want to do (meaning “What do I really want to do?”). And as you look at your professional life, it’s pretty well defined:
As an information and knowledge professional, you’re working in what we call “the knowledge domain.” You work with knowledge, with strategic knowledge for your company or organization, and your job is to focus on how knowledge is used to advance – to move forward – the goals of your employing organization, to ensure that the company succeeds in achieving its mission. And since your work is part of the knowledge domain, your career is a career in which you direct KD/KS in your organization. Your career is impacted by (and is going to be further impacted by) how well you work with knowledge management (KM) and knowledge services.
Now: Step back from your day-to-day activities and think about how you can match your company’s information and knowledge needs to your own ambitions and your own professional abilities. Connect all that with what you want from your professional life and create the job you want. You can do that by working in one of two roles (these, too, I identified in Philadelphia):
Your first opportunity is to continue what you’re doing, working as a strategic knowledge professional. These are people who are often thought of as “information professionals,” “content professionals,” records managers, archivists, specialist librarians, or similar employees working in related roles, all supporting the management of the organization’s knowledge domain. They are knowledge professionals who can usually be counted on to contribute to an enterprise-wide understanding of a subject or group of subjects (strategic knowledge) through focused analysis, design, and/or development. They use their research skills to define problems and to identify alternatives, and they generally connect to professionals in other disciplines and work (generally) with captured knowledge – tangible information – in physical or electronic repositories. Their work is distinguished by the fact that the knowledge these professionals manage is strategic, directly connected to organizational or corporate effectiveness.
At another level, you take on the work of the organizational or corporate knowledge strategist. Your area of specialization is now knowledge strategy, the discipline that, naturally enough, closely connects to the work of the strategic knowledge professional. There is a difference, though, as SLA Member Andrew Berner notes: one of the most distinguishing characteristics of knowledge strategy is that it is not a collection-based approach to KD/KS. Knowledge strategy – as a discipline – is management-based.
As a knowledge strategist, your work becomes – at the strategic level – the management of knowledge services. With knowledge services usually defined – as I’ve noted – as the convergence of information management, KM, and strategic learning, or, perhaps better put, as developing and implementing strategies for managing information, knowledge, and corporate or organizational learning, these activities allow the knowledge strategist to focus on matching the corporate knowledge strategy with the organization’s business strategy. As employees, knowledge strategists are expected to design and plan knowledge-related activities and policy, and they are particularly expected to give attention to future knowledge-related roles and activities that affect corporate or organizational success.
Choose: So what’s it to be? Strategic knowledge professional or knowledge strategist? It’s your choice, and either choice is a good one (and a valuable one) for your employer. One role, perhaps, is more service-oriented and the other is more managerial, but either is a good choice, and it all depends on what you want from your career. Both options allow you to respond to your ambition and – at the same time – use your expertise to lead the company as a knowledge thought leader. That’s a good scenario for any specialist librarian. Good luck.
Guy St. Clair (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President and Consulting Specialist for Knowledge Services at SMR (Strategic Management Resources), a management consulting practice in New York, NY. In his “other” career, St. Clair teaches two courses for Columbia University’s M.S. in Information and Knowledge Strategy program and consults as the program’s Subject Matter Expert (SMR). Guy St. Clair was SLA’s President in 1991-1992.