Knowledge navigators – changing practice of librarians

Knowledge navigators – changing practice of librarians – Cover Story

Rory L. Chase

Librarians and information professionals have long thought of themselves as knowledge workers, providing value-adding services to their organizations. However, when viewed from a senior management perspective – from an Industrial Age corporate mentality – they often have been classified as overheads, unable to demonstrate visible contributions to the productivity and profitability of the enterprise. Where they have been seen as vital contributors to the company’s bottom line, it usually has been as the result of an executive champion who successfully has argued the information center’s case before the senior management team.

The new Knowledge Economy is a period of rapid change – a paradigm shift – for librarians and libraries. It can be viewed as either the beginning of a new “golden age” for the profession, or the point when librarians and information professionals became marginalized, and perhaps made irrelevant, by the rapid advances in digital computer and telecommunication technologies and the networking power of the Internet, intranets, and extranets.

The physical library or information center already is shrinking, or even disappearing, as electronic multimedia knowledge databases and networks are created. Increasingly, employees are able to bypass libraries and librarians altogether and locate their own information through advanced knowledge retrieval tools.

Edward B. Stear, senior research analyst, Information Research Center Management, Gartner Group Inc., predicts that knowledge workers will soon have “electronic workbenches” at their fingertips(1). These desktop electronic workbenches will support knowledge workers as follows:

* Enterprise-wide integrated document functionality will enable the electronic workbench to become a prevalent and mainstream service to multiple users.

* Text retrieval products will become basic components of office system architectures.

* Information retrieval will evolve from a technology which finds long lists of documents to one that answers questions.

* Current business intelligence tool categories (i.e., executive information systems, decision support systems, query and reporting) will converge into new classes of business intelligence tools (e.g., guided analysis, data mining, and statistical sampling) over the next two years.

Librarians and information professionals are in a position to transform themselves into value-adding knowledge professionals. However, this will require a radical change in how they view their roles and jobs within knowledge-based organizations. It will require them to visualize a world of rapid change, instantaneous communications, and the transformation of organizations from those based on identifiable boundaries to networks of business relationships. This is the challenge facing the profession.

Knowledge Economy

We have entered the Knowledge Age – but many people still are trapped in an Industrial Age mentality. There are three main driving forces to the Knowledge Economy: globalization, information technology, and shareholder value(2).


Globalization, from a business perspective, means that capital is free to move across national borders and is available for investment in new ideas, products or services – anywhere in the world. This is not to imply that every country operates as a capitalist nation – far from it. However, the easy access to capital allows the introduction of market forces, freer trade, and widespread deregulation in formerly “closed” national economies.

Information Technology

Information technology (IT) is all around us – computers, telephones, fax machines, modems, and the internet. The twin trends in information technology are miniaturization and integration. Miniaturization is driving IT toward equipment mobility, for example, cellular phones and laptop computers with built-in modems and fax capabilities. Integration allows the combination of voice, data, and pictures, and forms the basis for videoconferencing and multimedia Internet technologies.

However, information technology is more than just smaller devices with expanded capabilities. IT is really about digitizing information – words, images, and sounds. This digital technology is at the heart of the emerging Knowledge Economy, and is the visible face of the Knowledge Age. Besides creating new enterprises and business sectors, digital information technology is affecting every other industry. It is to the Knowledge Age what railways, oil, and cars were to the Industrial Age. It is a transformational technology that is boosting productivity, reducing costs, and spawning new ways of conducting business – for example, electronic commerce.

The United States and Western Europe now are harvesting the economic benefits of the Knowledge Economy. Because of the “portability” of information technology and knowledge, developing countries have the ability to “leapfrog” into the Knowledge Age. For example, India is rapidly becoming a center for excellence in software development, while Singapore and Malaysia strive to become international financial centers.

Shareholder Value

The concept of shareholder value has its origins in the United States and is now entering the world investment community’s conscience. It is driven by investors, institutions, as well as individuals, who are looking for above average returns over a sustained period of time. The globalization of capital as noted earlier is a major factor. Pursuing shareholder value, stated simply, is seeking the highest market price for a company’s equity capital.

Shareholder value is the creation of corporate wealth rather than its destruction. It is the main criterion on which investors, such as pension funds and mutual funds, make their investments. These influential investors put their money into companies where they think value is going to be created and withdraw it when they believe that value will be “destroyed.”

For businesses, especially those in Europe and North America, the ramifications of adopting a shareholder value strategy are staggering. Senior managers will be required to establish processes within organizations which will be devoted to creating shareholder value, including:

* goal-setting and strategy development

* resource allocation and budgeting

* performance measurement

* compensation

* communications – external and internal

For enterprises pursuing shareholder value, it quickly will become obvious that cost-cutting and improvements to existing processes will increase shareholder value, but not enough to double a company’s market value every three to four years. To accomplish this demanding goal, the senior management team must adopt strategies supporting wealth creation. Capital and other resources must be allocated to those areas that create value and denied to areas where value is being eroded. The net result will be that management and employees must work harder and harder to meet the shareholders’ expectations.

The Intelligent Enterprise

The twenty-first century company will look and operate quite differently from its Industrial Age counterpart. Organizations will become virtual with networks of employees, associates, suppliers, shareholders, and customers communicating increasingly through digital technology. Yes, there will be physical offices and factories, but over time physical location will become secondary to interactive communication. Time will become the new competitive weapon – resulting in an acceleration in innovation, production, and service delivery.

As Frances Cairncross observes in The Death of Distance, physical location will no longer be the determining factor when conducting business.(3) Rather, companies will organize many types of work in three shifts according to the world’s three main time zones: the Americas, East Asia/Australia, and Europe.

Likewise, knowledge workers will work from many locations through advanced networking technologies. The physical library will be replaced with the virtual knowledge center, and librarians and information professionals will become knowledge professionals.

Customers will assume an even greater role in the life of the intelligent enterprise. Mass consumer marketing will be replaced in many business sectors by customized products and services – with the customer taking an active role in the order/delivery process. Increasingly through Internet technology, customers can “shop” for the most suitable product/service or the best price or the delivery timetable they require. Financial services, travel, and consumer retail operations already are selling their products to an increasingly sophisticated Internet audience.

Suppliers and other stakeholders are becoming part of a company’s operations. In a few leading industries, companies can order products using electronic data interchange (EDI) over corporate extranets. Suppliers can access proprietary corporate databases to gain vital information on their customer’s product development, production schedules, even marketing strategies. In the case of shareholders, the printed annual report will be replaced with electronic financial and non-financial company information updated regularly and available to investors real-time through the Internet.

The effect will be that an enterprise’s “outer shell,” the boundary between managers and employees on the inside and customers, suppliers, and stakeholders on the outside, will become more permeable. This means that more employees will be in contact with networks outside their organization. No longer will the company and its managers “control” communications with the external world. The paradox here is that on the one hand there will be closer cooperation among “partners,” on the other hand dissatisfied customers, employees, or stakeholders will be able easily to communicate their feelings and take action.

The working relationship within the Intelligent enterprise will also undergo a revolution. In the Industrial Age company, the battleline was between management (capitalism) and labor unions (workers). In the Knowledge Age, the new antagonists will be knowledge workers versus managers.

Knowledge workers will be those key creative “professionals” who will be the brainpower of the intelligent business. The exodus of only a few of these knowledge workers could have a disastrous effect on a knowledge-based company. Managers will be the allocators of money and resources, and will be seen by knowledge workers as the “bureaucratic” structure of the business.

It will be the responsibility of the organization’s leadership to keep the knowledge workers and managers working in harmony. The most effective leaders probably will be drawn from the knowledge workers’ professional ranks, but they will have the ability to command the respect and allegiance from the managerial ranks as well. In many organizations, tandem professional and managerial career ladders will be implemented to provide appropriate remuneration for each group.

In the new federal enterprise many of the traditional functions will be outsourced. These outsourced activities, whether facilities management, information services, catering, security, etc., will become “intelligent” enterprises in their own right, organized around a new class of knowledge workers, One of the primary roles of senior managers will be to coordinate the core and outsourced activities to maximize shareholder value to the company.

Knowledge Workers

Every organization has knowledge workers who are part of knowledge communities – also known as communities of best practice(4). Some of these groups are formal and are part of an organizational function or activity, (e.g. R&D, design, marketing, developing a new product, providing customer support, etc.). A far larger number of knowledge communities – often invisible to the organization – exist in the form of special interest groups. Many of these informal knowledge communities seem to contribute very little to the organization’s core competencies and knowledge, yet they are reservoirs of potential tacit knowledge.

Most of the formal knowledge communities have their own databases – or “silos” – of expert knowledge. Many of the informal knowledge communities also have created databases, mainly in the form of discussion bulletin boards and newsgroups. A key goal of any knowledge-based organization is to encourage the active participation of these formal and informal knowledge communities – through the integration of experts into knowledge teams and linking the knowledge databases into the organizational knowledge warehouse.

These knowledge communities are the new sources of creativity and innovation in an organization – they are the groups that will serve as the new core constituencies for librarians and information professionals. However, for a growing number of knowledge workers, libraries and librarians are seen as irrelevant, even archaic. The advent of the Internet and corporate intranets, and the introduction of a host of software-based knowledge management systems and intelligent retrieval tools holds out the promise to knowledge workers of direct access to information and knowledge bases without the need for human (librarian) assistance.

Based on their skills and training, librarians and information professionals should be in an ideal position to take the lead in transforming their organizations into knowledge-based enterprises. However, the relatively low status accorded to corporate librarians within organizational hierarchies, the emergence of IT directors as leaders of knowledge management initiatives, and the marketing of knowledge tools and software solutions directly to knowledge workers are having the opposite effect – librarians and libraries are in danger of being marginalized in the new Knowledge Era.

The challenge facing librarians and information professionals is how to package knowledge to make it usable by individual knowledge workers and communities of practice. Librarians and information professionals are sensitive to these issues of content packaging and context, but they act as though all knowledge is objective – it is possible to communicate knowledge in a particular way that will be understood by all.

Instinctively, we know that this isn’t true. People are different and what is an objective “fact” can and does change from person to person. However, most discussions about knowledge management ignore this problem. According to SRI Consulting, what is missing is an understandIng of the ways in which individuals approach and use knowledge. SRI Consulting suggests that knowledge is “idiosyncratic” to a person in two ways(5):

1. Personality plays a critical role in the way people acquire, understand, value, and use knowledge.

2. The creation of knowledge is affected by the world view of the individual.

SRI Consulting has applied its Values and Lifestyles System[tm] (VALS) model, based on the psychology of customer behavior, to provide insights into how people use information and knowledge. For the United States, the VALS approach defines three self-orientations: principle, status, or action. Principle-oriented people make decisions based on a belief system. Status-oriented, or role-conscious people, are more interested in ways of knowing. Action-oriented people are generally not information based – they are trying to have an impact on the world around them.

When the VALS tool is applied to knowledge workers, the three self-orientations have the following characteristics:

1. Principle-oriented people seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge and are constantly acquiring knowledge. They tend to test their belief systems continuously against new knowledge. A principle-oriented person is triggered to pursue particular knowledge by any conflict with their existing beliefs which the new knowledge appears to create. Such a person is open to multiple sources of knowledge. The personal motive to acquiring knowledge is most likely triggered by a focus on personal learning.

2. Status-oriented people seek functional knowledge. For this group, knowledge has no value in and of itself; knowledge is pursued when there is reason to believe that it will support some other primary goal or activity. Knowledge is seen as a tool. They pay more attention to the authority of the knowledge source and less attention to their own beliefs. The personal motive to acquire knowledge is based on the use of knowledge and its results in the wider community or organization.

3. Action-oriented people tend to pursue interactive, social knowledge. The process of acquiring knowledge directly affects their interest in its acquisition. They are triggered to pursue knowledge which appears offbeat, unusual, or novel. The personal motive to acquire knowledge is mainly to have fun, i.e., they care less for the content than for the process (unless the content is particularly entertaining).

SRI Consulting’s research has serious implications for librarians and information professionals. To share idiosyncratic knowledge, people need to network and talk and learn from each other. Corporate knowledge environments need to be designed in ways that allow different access points and pathways into the “deep” knowledge bases and centers of excellence which reside in every organization.

The primary question librarians must ask themselves is: How are today’s libraries and information centers responding to the twin challenges of meeting the needs of knowledge workers in a global, digital world?

Virtual Knowledge Networks

The knowledge management problems facing organizations are reflected in the problems facing librarians and information centers as both attempt to implement enterprise-wide solutions to the delivery, distribution, and integration of external and internal content. The challenge centers on creating integrated document-related architectures that provide the end-to-end digital access strategies required to encourage and support knowledge-based organizations.

Many corporate libraries and information centers, including those at AT&T, British Petroleum, DEC, Hewlett-Packard, ICI, Microsoft, Sequent, SmithKline Beecham, and UTC have accepted the challenge and are moving rapidly to create virtual knowledge networks(6-8). Three examples illustrate the different approaches libraries are adopting to remain at the center of the paradigm shift to the intelligent enterprise.

United Technologies Corporation

Virtual libraries and the transformation of librarians and information professionals into knowledge managers are the goals of many leading international companies. For example, in 1996, the United Technologies Corporation library initiated a radical redefining of its services.(9) Ten UTC libraries have become virtual libraries, with their physical collections moved to a centralized resource center at the company’s headquarters. Half of the print collection was deselected, and the emphasis has shifted toward developing electronic databases and resources.

The roles of the UTC library staff have been redefined – they are now information managers, research analysts, and knowledge facilitators. Information managers – formerly reference librarians – have been moved closer to UTC users and provide “one-stop” information services. Research analysts offer their skills to specific UTC groups and departments, including support of strategic planning, engineering, financial, and technical projects. From a central location, knowledge facilitators provide reference services to UTC employees worldwide, supplying them with supporting documentation, and coordinating and integrating desktop access to internal and external resources via the Internet.

SmithKline Beecham

SmithKline Beecham, one of the world’s largest health care companies, has operated a Pharmaceuticals ROD Libraries service for over fifty years. The driving forces of change are(10):

* a more computer-literate customer base demanding information via desktop workstations

* customers requiring research documents – quickly

* the distinction between library collection management and document delivery is becoming increasingly blurred

* the rapid growth of the Internet provides a wealth of information available at the click of a button

* library budgets are not able to cope with the rising demand for hard-copy journal titles

The SmithKline ROD Libraries’ response has been to develop a strategy that will lead to the virtual information center. The key components of this strategy are:

* there is no corresponding physical collection

* documents are available in electronic format

* documents are not stored in any one location

* documents can be accessed from any workstation

* documents are retrieved and delivered as and when required

* effective search and browser facilities are available

Digital Equipment Corporation

In 1996, the Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) Corporate Library Group (CLG) launched an Internet-based initiative – The WebLibrary(11). The goal is to “provide consistent, reliable, authoritative external content and content expertise for effective decisionmaking and timely transference and application of knowledge – anytime, anywhere.”

The focus at DEC’s CLG is establishing a new way of doing work – evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, qualifying, and delivering externally created content. The CLG is now working on including team “rooms” (forums) in the WebLibrary, the evaluation of web-casting technologies, and the implementation and management of knowledge-based indices.

Each of these organizations has taken a different path toward the virtual library. UTC has centralized its physical document holdings and attempted to integrate its information professionals into the organization’s business processes. SmithKline Beecham’s goal is to provide document access and delivery to the researchers’ desktop workstations. Digital Equipment is focusing on providing a web-based solution to the identification and access of external knowledge.

What Will Become of Librarians?

Many librarians and information professionals already have been “transformed” into knowledge professionals[12]. According to Arthur Andersen, the emerging roles of these knowledge professionals include[13]:

* Technology Expert – ensuring that members of the knowledge communities understand the available technology and use it to its fullest potential. This role is a technology trainer and cheerleader.

* Cataloger/Archivist – organizing information to meet the professional needs of the knowledge community; sifting and sorting on a regular basis, budding the institutional knowledge base of the group and increasing efficiency.

* Guide – directing members of the knowledge community to outside information when appropriate and maintaining high-level information about sources outside the community.

* Scout – ferreting out information useful to the knowledge community and bringing it into the knowledge base.

* Research Librarian – helping users define information needs and prioritizing highly relevant information from a pool of interesting information according to user preferences.

* Analyst – adding value to information by creating a context for understanding and by looking for patterns of information that points to new areas of interest.

* Debriefer – eliciting understanding so participants understand what they have learned (an integral part of identifying internal best practices).

According to Arthur Andersen, knowledge teams consisting of individuals possessing these different skills sets will be located throughout the organization. Many of these groups will operate as matrix-based, cross-functional teams to ensure the linkage of knowledge communities and networks.

David Skyrme and Debra Amidon, authors of Creating the Knowledge-based Business, have created their own list of roles for knowledge professionals based on their observations of the new knowledge-intensive organization[14]:

* Knowledge Engineer – represents or maps tacit and explicit knowledge to enable its classification and dissemination. Early work in this area was in the development of expert systems.

* Knowledge Editor – refines explicit knowledge into formats which make subsequent access and use easier. The knowledge editor selects information from external and external sources, synthesizes and adapts it to standards for sharing across the organization.

* Knowledge Analysts – acts as a link between the customer (internal or external) and the knowledge base. They have good interpersonal skills, a willingness to help others, and good communication skills.

* Knowledge Navigator – understands where the repositories of knowledge are within the organization. In some cases knowledge navigators act as mentors to new knowledge analysts.

* Knowledge Gatekeeper – accesses external sources of knowledge and directs it to customers inside the company. Knowledge gatekeepers describe the functions of traditional librarians. However, many teams inside companies also have such gatekeepers – the subject expert.

* Knowledge Brokers – Like navigators and gatekeepers, knowledge brokers usually have good networks of contacts within and outside the company.

* Knowledge Asset Managers – identifies, evaluates and manages a portfolio of knowledge assets, such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, etc. The knowledge asset manager’s role is modelled on that of the financial controller.

It can be argued that these “new” roles and functions are nothing more than a re-labelling of current job titles; the activities of librarians and information professionals will remain more or less the same. This view fails to take into account the emerging reality of working in knowledge-based organizations.

The New Navigators

The emergence of the intelligent enterprise and the ascendancy of knowledge workers as the creators of wealth offers librarians with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent themselves as value-adding professionals[15] Rather than becoming knowledge managers, editors or analysts – and remaining low-paid “overheads” within the corporate hierarchy – the opportunity is at hand for librarians to transform themselves into high-paid knowledge navigators.

A knowledge navigator could be likened to a spider at the center of a gigantic “knowledge” web. Electronic networking with customers (internal and external), subject experts, knowledge bases, etc., will form the core of the knowledge navigator’s virtual activities. By understanding the acquisition and sharing requirements of groups of knowledge workers and communities of practice, knowledge navigators will be able to deliver customized, value-adding knowledge – just-in-time. They will be able to provide knowledge workers with what has been until now an elusive service: the transformation of tacit to explicit knowledge.

Knowledge navigators will require a new skills set. They will be forced to continually market their own services in a very close alignment with the demands and changes of the business around them. The most important key to success will be to proactively seek involvement in the organization and make knowledge creation and management an integrated part of the business process.


Libraries and information centers are not immune to the forces that are transforming organizations. In fact, they are at the forefront of the digital revolution. The romantic view of libraries as physical structures housing the wisdom of the ages is being swept away by the cold reality of the Internet, Intranets, and multimedia technologies. It is the knowledge workers – not the offices where they work, nor the supporting IT technologies – who are the wealth creators in the Knowledge Age.

Knowledge always has been a valuable asset, but in the past it has been jealously guarded according to the old adage of “knowledge is power.” Today, through rapid advances in computer and telecommunication technologies the emphasis is shifting to sharing knowledge for competitive advantage.

Many organizations are now struggling to transform themselves into knowledge-creating businesses. Librarians have been trained to work with information and knowledge in a variety of formats. They understand the differences between information and knowledge, and have the background, technical skills, and abilities to take a leading role in creating the intelligent enterprise.

For far-sighted librarians, becoming knowledge professionals is just a step toward becoming knowledge navigators – individuals who understand how knowledge is created and shared in the increasingly “shapeless” intelligent organizations and their networks of customers, suppliers, and stakeholders. Like their counterparts in the Age of Discovery, this new breed of knowledge “explorers” will be critical to the success of the intelligent enterprise. They will become the knowledge worker’s knowledge worker.


Special thanks to Marcia Talley, systems librarian, Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy, for her assistance in researching this paper.


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Rory L. Chase is an advisor, author, and researcher in the development and implementation of knowledge management strategies and approaches. He is principal of his own knowledge company, Teleos, which operates a Knowledge Management Internet web site: He is also the editor of the International Knowledge Management Newsletter and the Journal of Knowledge Management. Chase may be reached at

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