Hot topics in information management #2

Persuaded to get up this morning by the thought of one of my favourite breakfast meetings, one of those regularly hosted by Sue Hill and her team, where eight lucky information professionals from diverse environments get together to consider the contemporary professional landscape.

We started by suggesting two words that we each felt represented the biggest impact on our work today, and then added in one which we felt embodied the most significant factor for change over the last 5 years. The ensuing discussion focused on the concepts identified in this simple but effective conversation starter. I suggested information-anxiety, and mobile.

The concepts fell, for the most part, into four categories: economy, technology, skills and organizational culture.

As would be expected, everyone felt the pressure of needing to achieve more with less, and the accompanying ‘de-motivation’ as candidate ways to economise failed to materialize due to services having already been rendered maximally effective and efficient. There was a feeling that excellence in service was no longer attainable, as physical resources, dependant on human care and attention, were downsized in unison with staff numbers.

Technology affects most aspects of our lives, and so again it was not surprising that discussion turned to how mobile devices and cloud computing are changing the workplace in ways we have difficulty imagining. We need strategies for cloud computing. And what of future technology? Can we imagine it? Who would have thought of mainstream smart-phones and augmented reality 5 years ago? Possibly secret Star Trek followers – and I’m not admitting to anything – but I did happen to hear that the science behind the Romulan cloaking device was now a reality (tiny reality – just a paperclip at the moment …)

Social-media received a mixed response. Some felt it was a ‘dumbing-down’ medium, which implied that trained professionals were no longer needed. Others pointed out that many organizations ban the use of these time-wasting, potentially ruinous applications. I am a social-media advocate. Genie and bottle. Be careful what you wish for though.

My role as a masters course director means I am always soliciting first-hand views on what sort of skills employers want from prospective new team members, although balancing this with the requirements for an academic masters can be problematic – the question of vocational training versus learning how to think and develop – quick fix for now or investment in a framework for life-long-learning? As already stated, technology is a key driver for change. Nothing stays the same and the systems in place today will be superseded in increasingly shorter time-spans. Technological-literacy, flexibility and adaptability are key aspirations for prospective job applicants, but how to capture this on a cv, and to stand out from the crowd is less evident.

I was concerned to hear that recent LIS graduates were perceived to have limited abilities in using query language for bibliographic databases – this is something they should definitely take away from any LIS masters course, and most alumni will agree that search was included on the curriculum. I wonder if the Google free-text search box is somehow overriding all our carefully planned lessons in Boolean logic? Perhaps we need to focus on information literacy in schools, as by the time students reach masters level, quick and dirty keyword addiction damage is done.

It was unanimously agreed that the focus on information technology management, rather than information management, meant that the higher paid role of ‘Chief Information Officer’ invariably indicated someone with a computing, rather than LIS background. Although as an aside, the importance of ‘softer’, information related skills may be being recognized in newer courses, such as the masters in information leadership (MIL) at City University. The feeling that for higher paid jobs, business, rather than LIS skills were sought was mentioned, and I am interested in pursuing evidence for this, and indeed to identify what exactly is meant by ‘business skills’.

On the positive side, the evaluative and analytical skills of a trained information professional were perceived to be highly valued, with clients preferring to engage with those who offered ‘added-insight’ to research results. This requires subject knowledge, and adds weight to my belief that information professionals also need to be subject specialists, and that LIS needs to remain a postgraduate profession.

The failure of many IT-led implementations was noted – it is obviously helpful to ask the users and creators of content about system requirements before spending huge sums on something designed for some other purpose entirely. Never happens though – except in systems design courses.

Organizational culture is changing to interpret and work with moving technological, economic, political and social factors. With lawyers charging in ever decreasing units of time, it is essential that information and research related tasks are undertaken by lower-paid information professionals, so that clients are not overcharged. Not sure I am entirely comfortable with information workers being openly worth so much less per hour than lawyers, but its one of those unpleasant facts of life. Often, the idea is to outsource this kind of work, rather than to develop a skilled, in-house team. It’s the economy.

Other observations were that there was a demand for information-skills training from clients themselves, (i.e. a mentoring role outside the LIS profession),  that increasingly innovation came from connectivity between specializations, and that we need to ensure we have the infrastructure to cope with the landslide of information  produced from government open-data initiatives and e-science. There is just too much information. Hence I end where I started, with information-anxiety. Which is now mobile.

Many thanks to Sue for her innovative get-togethers – and just to mention that her events also raise money, this year for Macmillan Cancer Support.

About Lyn Robinson

academic, londoner
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