Toward world-class knowledge services: emerging trends in specialized research libraries; Part two: the customer perspective

Toward world-class knowledge services: emerging trends in specialized research libraries; Part two: the customer perspective

Guy St. Clair

Delivery of Services to the Customer

AS A MANAGEMENT METHODOLOGY, KNOWLEDGE SERVICES BUILDS ON THE foundation of knowledge development and knowledge sharing, generally referred to with the acronym KD/KS. It is a framework for management that embodies the highest objectives of knowledge management and combines them with the basic principles of the learning organization and the teaching organization. It builds on the assumption that all stakeholders accept their responsibility to develop, to learn, and to share tacit, explicit, and cultural knowledge within the enterprise. In the knowledge-centric organization–and within its library, information center, knowledge center, or other information services function–KD/KS exists for the benefit of the organizational enterprise with which the Library and its stakeholders are affiliated. At the same time, KD/KS is implemented in the organization for the growth and development of these stakeholders as they seek to exploit information management, knowledge management, and strategic (performance-centered) l earning for the achievement of the organizational mission.

Knowledge Services, when adopted in the organization, clearly affects service delivery. As the organization seeks to achieve excellence through the convergence of information management, knowledge management, and strategic (performance-centered) learning, specific benefits accrue:

* Better leverage of resources and capabilities

* Better staff utilization

* Better performance

* Higher quality of deliverables

* Just-in-time, performance-centered learning and training

* Collaboration as the norm (with no disincentives for collaboration)

* More customer engagements and interactions, with both internal customers and the organization’s external clients, customers, and stakeholders

* Improved customer and staff satisfaction

The libraries that support the intellectual endeavors of these knowledge-centric organizations–what we refer to as world-class specialized research libraries–provide services that might be thought of as high-level library services. For such libraries, Knowledge Services results in tangible and measurable benefits for their parent organizations, resulting in qualified practitioners who are empowered to implement an overarching information-use package that pays off for all enterprise stakeholders. These practitioners are then able to produce the levels of service delivery required for performance excellence, particularly in research management and in the products, services, and consultations that are required for leveraging the research effort for excellence in the end products of that research. At its most successful, Knowledge Services is about establishing social communities; about creating the social infrastructure, a foundation of trust, and a collaborative environment in which all stakeholders contribut e to the successful achievement of the parent organization’s mission. It is the ideal tool for enabling specialized research libraries to support the larger organization in achieving its objectives. Such an organization might literally commit itself to being “a continuously learning and improving organization,” which was the phraseology that one organization put forward as its operational vision. In such an environment, Knowledge Services is obviously about the library’s customers and about providing them with the highest levels of information, knowledge, and learning management. We identified a number of trends in world-class specialized research libraries that demonstrate a serious organizational commitment to these highest levels of service delivery.

Electronic Access. The managers of specialized research libraries all indicate that they have a single library portal for user access. As would be expected, these portals vary considerably, ranging from a simple library Web page as part of the organization’s intranet to elaborate and very sophisticated portals, in the true sense of the term. One library does not have a “true” portal, but it has a community page with content, and that serves the purpose for the parent institution. At one company, the corporate intranet is simply referred to as “The Brain,” since staff have come to think of it as the first place to go, regardless of their information need. There are a considerable number of obvious links to the library section where the library’s own products–newsletters, reports, information about products, reports on competitors, and so on–can be found.

In one organization, all research results (except books, of course, and hard-copy journals owned by the library) are disseminated on the Web; in another, the library manager describes the library portal as “the biggest intranet site at the company.” Staff–not only researchers but staff in other departments as well, including departments that traditionally do not access libraries for information–can access everything from sites such as an “Ask a Librarian” link to past research summaries, an expert database, and similar products.

All the library managers say that their customers are very interested in desktop access to information; and no matter how many bibliographic and full-text databases, extensive Web pages with links, and the like are provided, their customers are always looking for more. Some of the larger libraries offer an electronic tables-of-contents alerting service, with digital document delivery, and it seems to be a trend in most of these libraries, as one manager says, to “push as much to digital and desktop as possible.” The libraries all use various combinations of the standard commercial databases. When asked what’s available, it is not unusual for library managers to pull up a list of 50 to 75 or more CD-ROM and database titles; in one library, more than 120 online databases are available. Another library has a content access team whose members include professional staff from the library, from information technology (IT), and from the customer base. The team is responsible for working with intranet teams in the org anization to ensure that information customers have access to what they need.

Value-Added Services. Such services as knowledge or content management are being undertaken in most of these libraries. Among the managers of these libraries, there is much interest in how the libraries should be offering these services within the Knowledge Services framework, but in many cases development is just beginning. Some of the libraries are heavily involved in discussions about an institution-wide knowledge management program, and several library managers are interested in learning about how other libraries are helping their organizations capture institutional knowledge as it is generated through projects and programs. Some pilot projects are being considered, but there is no standard to report among these libraries yet.

One library has begun the actual process of knowledge management for the organization with the creation of a product called the “Experience Information System.” It is an “electronic team room” from which project managers can select project summaries and confidential data about project work, and, as the title indicates, can learn from the experience gained in other projects. Similar to the “lessons learned” frameworks used in some of the knowledge management initiatives being developed for the military, these “experience databases” exist to provide a resource for others who might be working with similar projects or subjects.

As library managers talk about knowledge management and how their libraries might participate in the organizational effort, it becomes clear that the managers of these research libraries want to participate and use the professional expertise of their staffs to ensure that content is managed at the highest quality levels. In one library, attempts are being made to capture knowledge at the research level, but this effort is being carried out project-by-project and department-by-department; and it is not yet an enterprise-wide effort. Another of the libraries was involved in the creation of an intranet knowledge management product (although it wasn’t called KM). This “knowledge bank” became a valuable tool in the organization, and library staff members were heavily involved in creating the thesaurus, which is now used for other KM applications in the larger institution. Because librarians were keenly visible in these KM projects, the connection was made in the larger institution between the library and the infor mation services it supplies and the creation of knowledge for the organization. The library’s manager credits these projects with raising the library’s visibility in the organization.

In another situation, the specialized research library offers a “popular topics” section on the corporate intranet, with succinct knowledge areas where information about particular topics, subjects of interest to researchers, quality standards, concepts and ideas about research activities, and similar notes are posted. The effort includes the launch of a new topic each month; the research staff, with guidance and advice from the library team handles the upkeep.

Another library has created a system for tracking when the organization is mentioned in book reviews and other scholarly journals, so that management will have a record of how the organization is perceived in the larger world.

With respect to services provided by the libraries themselves, two of the library managers indicated that they keep electronic records of all reference queries, but for some reason they are not consulted very often, which raises interesting questions about how the tool and its purpose are understood by staff. Another library manager describes how the library uses a self-created database to track the progress of a request, establish or set up a charge code, and so on. This library has not set up a reference-type retrieval service yet, but it probably will do so in the not-too-distant future.

It must be noted, though, that not all the organizations represented in this study are ready to embrace knowledge management, much less Knowledge Services as a management concept. One library manager commented, “Sadly, our place is not ready-at all-for KM. The term ‘knowledge’ does not even show up in the organization. It’s all ‘information management: and that at a very rudimentary stage, with stovepipes, silos, a large variety of vendors, tools, equipment, and very little effort at coordination and sharing.”

With respect to the concept of experts databases, which are so desired in so many organizations, several libraries have set up informal programs for handling this kind of information. Unfortunately, as is well known, there are problems with keeping the information up-to-date, and if participation is voluntary, there can be what one library manager characterized as “turf and control issues.” On the other hand, in some organizations, the use of such tools is mandated by senior management, and participants are required to participate, but these are generally not organized and managed through the specialized research library. One library, though, has had remarkable success with a self created experts database that includes information of value to all employees in the company. Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport have referred to these experts databases in their book Working Knowledge, [Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998] noting that while the technical side of such locator services has been mastered, organizat ions are still wrestling with “the issue of how to motivate scientists to include their biographies” and with the “controversial connotations” of the term “expert.” In many organizations, those issues are now largely resolved, but of course the acceptance of any experts database tool in the organization depends, as noted, on standards established for keeping information current and for determining whether participation is voluntary or mandatory.

In some specialized research libraries, external commercial services provide the preferred experts database of choice, and the organizations’ subscriptions to these products often eliminate the need for the library to move in this direction. These are, however, particular situations in which the experts sought are in a specific field and the products required have already been commercially developed and are available on the market.

Strategic Learning, Marketing, and Advocacy

All the libraries are involved, to some extent, in these kinds of activities. It is not uncommon for a specialized research library to have a formal strategic learning program for customers, with a half-time reference (or other) position devoted to managing this function. Even in libraries that do not have a structured program, the library’s knowledge workers team with the organization’s staff development or training unit to ensure that programs with a library or research focus are available. Computer-based training and learning management systems (usually administered through the parent organization’s enterprise-wide staff development program) are often in place or are being considered.

In one library, instead of providing learning and training programs as such, the manager insists that the staff work proactively with customers and potential customers to get to know them and to be in a position to “intellectually, intuitively understand what these people need,” Learning and training programs are then matched to those needs.

With respect to strategic learning and training, an important challenge in most of the libraries studied is the need for staff in these specialized research libraries to grow, both intellectually and professionally. These library managers are working with very competent, very driven Knowledge Services professionals, and one of the biggest problems they have is keeping the work (and the compensation, of course) at a level that encourages employees to do their best work. All the library managers agreed that there are no easy answers for resolving this issue, but that strategic learning as part of Knowledge Services, if carefully thought out and executed, is a move in a direction that can be very valuable to library staff.

As for marketing the library’s services to its identified customer base, one of the libraries studied has had great success in this area, and it has taken on a full-time staff member dedicated to managing the library’s marketing program. As would be expected, all the libraries offer such traditional marketing, awareness-raising activities as library tours, orientation programs for new organizational staff, and the like. Brown-bag lunches are frequently offered, especially for introducing a new program or service. As with learning and training activities, success is spotty, with most customers taking part only when the topic can be specifically connected to or identified as particularly relevant to the work they do. The lesson learned here is, not surprisingly, that marketing must be tied to relevance. Generally speaking, some form of internal electronic communication is generally used for outreach- for announcing new resources and services, for example- and electronic newsletters are also offered. In all case s, these are considered to be important adjunct library services, and they are enthusiastically received by some users, but they are not, as yet, universally appreciated.

With respect to advocacy for the library, the specialized research libraries were asked if they have formal library committees, and, if so, whether the committee’s role is role advisory or managerial or has some other function. Only one of the libraries indicated that there is such a committee–an advisory group, with user representation from the various research areas. The same organization also has an “information solutions group” for working with all the units, including the library, that relate to the IT effort in the parent organization. In some other organizations, a task force or planning/advisory committee might be formed to work on a specific library- or research-focused issue, but the concept of a library committee, as such, does not seem to be of interest in the libraries studied.

A different slant on this concept, though, was found in one of the specialized research libraries. Although all the libraries have someone at the senior management level who has authority and responsibility for the library and its services (usually through a direct report, or perhaps even a second layer down), informal sponsors at the management level seem to be in place in about half the libraries. One library does, however, have a formal sponsorship role, with one of the senior management team named to the position. The designation requires that all senior managers “apply,” after which one of them is chosen to be the library’s sponsor. As it turns out, competition among the senior management group is strong, for each one would like to be designated as the library’s sponsor (indicating to those of us in the profession that the “L” word is still attractive to many lay people!).

Knowledge Services. Formal arrangements for combining information management, knowledge management, and strategic learning as a single function are, as yet, rare in specialized research libraries, although quite a few organizations connect two of the three disciplines. For example, some organizations have knowledge management and staff learning grouped together as part of an operational function already in place, usually in the human resources department. Others have linked information management and knowledge management, connecting the organization’s IT products with the KM function. Knowledge Services per se continues to operate through informal arrangements, and often with learning and training handled by the unit that wants to sponsor a program or is seeking a learning activity. In the library, participation in learning events is usually handled on an ad hoc basis or through the parent organization’s staff development office, human resources unit, or whatever other operational function has been designated to handle this work. Several library managers did, however, expressly connect the success of learning and staff development in their libraries–both for library staff and for library customers–with a positive and mutually rewarding relationship in place with the organization’s staff development function.

Some libraries are mandated to provide services to all the organization’s employees. In one case, the library retrieves background material to inform corporate decisionmaking. Other functions–such as IT, finance, legal, and development–make use of library resources in the course of their work as needed. One library manager commented that library staff are very interested in providing Knowledge Services and information delivery for senior management staff. Not only would the activity be valuable to management but (“not to be too altruistic about it”) providing such services is a high-visibility effort. Word-of-mouth appreciation from senior management would be to the library’s advantage and would have a positive influence on how the library is perceived in the institution’s organizational culture.

High-level value-added services have been included in the offerings of several specialized research libraries. From our work, we conclude that the following activities and services can be considered essential for a world-class specialized research library:

1. A formal, structured marketing program for raising awareness about library services, to ensure that all the library’s stakeholders are informed about the strategic role of the library in the parent organization.

2. Strategic learning and training specifically focused on how the library can benefit organizational staff in their work. Whether the library has its own strategic learning program or offers learning activities through collaboration with the parent organization’s staff training and development function, the library’s offerings require specific and dedicated effort.

3. Electronic resources, particularly “push” technology products for direct desktop delivery to the library’s customers.

4. Interlibrary loan/document delivery management services that encourage a gradual move toward customer-initiated requests, with product delivery directly to the customer.

5. Consultation services at various levels, from a brief conversation and advice, provided without charge, advancing through a structured consultation “tree” to the provision of fee-based (or charged back) full-service research.

6. Research services for all functional units of the organization, including non-research organizational units.

7. Direct connection through the organizational intranet to the library’s virtual “reference desk” or “kiosk,” where a library staff member is on duty according to a published schedule (or 24/7, if possible). The library customer goes to a live site where his or her query can be discussed virtually; if necessary, a follow-on telephone conversation can take place.

8. A distributed electronic tables-of-contents service for library customers.

9. Subject specialists and an insourcing/research liaison program, with library staff available to be assigned, on an as-needed basis, to work exclusively with particular programs or activities.

10. An experts database, providing the parent organization with biographical and subject specialty information about employees, recognized authorities, leaders, and others who might need to be contacted or otherwise known about in the course of the work of the organization.

11. An informal but well-managed “knowledge area” on the organizational intranet, providing updates about current projects, requests for information and advice about projects, and so on.

12. An organizational “knowledge store” or clearinghouse, capturing and disseminating information about programs as they are implemented, so that as knowledge is developed it is recorded in such a way that it can be shared as required.

The strategic benefits of services provided by world-class specialized research libraries can best be identified by looking into an organization’s management framework, probably through the implementation of a well-planned and well-organized Knowledge Services audit. Once a determination has been made as to the services required, the trends identified here can be considered and, as appropriate, used as a model for providing Knowledge Services for the organization. It then becomes clear-to all in the organization-that the specialized research library is attempting to provide its customers with the services they need and desire. By invoking Knowledge Services as its management framework, the library ensures that collaboration, knowledge development and knowledge sharing, and an achievable social infrastructure are in place, leading to the successful achievement of the organizational mission.

Guy St. Clair, consulting specialist for knowledge management and learning at SMR International, New York, NY, is a past president of SLA. He is the author of Beyond Degrees: Professional Learning for Knowledge Services, recently published by K.G. Saur. He can be contacted at Victoria Harriston is library manager, the National Academies (National Academy of Sciences), Washington, DC. She can be contacted at Thamas A. Pellizzi is president, InfoSpace Consultants, New York, NY, and series on the executive board of the New York chapter of SLA. He can be contacted at

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