Knowledge Management: Libraries and Librarians Taking Up the Challenge (Hobohm, 2004) is a collection of papers based on presentations made at the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) conferences between 1997 and 2002. The first section, “Political and Ethical Implications” provides some theoretical and philosophical foundations. The second section, “Issues and Instruments”, looks at the practical application of knowledge management in libraries as well as some of the skills required for librarians to successfully take up this role. Finally, “Case Studies” includes some real world examples of knowledge management in libraries. My goal in examining this volume is to increase my understanding of how librarians have typically been involved in knowledge management, and where they are looking to go. Although over eight years old now, it is still the best collection available on knowledge management thinking in libraries today. In that time, public libraries and academic libraries have begun the transition away from the traditional warehouse model to a more dynamic, knowledge network model. Corporate libraries have been slower to take up this challenge, but could benefit from reflecting on the progress these other library sectors have made to ensure their ongoing relevance to their organizations.
Librarians and Knowledge Management
Librarians have traditionally approached knowledge management as an exercise in the collecting, cataloguing, and indexing of explicit knowledge, either generated within the organization, such as reports, memos, minutes, etc. or acquired from external sources, including journal article databases, external reports, government information, etc. Librarians then make the knowledge searchable, providing access using a variety of methods, including paper-based filing systems or online databases, offer training in effective search techniques, and answer reference questions regarding the knowledge that makes up the library’s collection (Srikantaiah, 2000; Riccio, 2011). Corporate librarians are also frequently asked to develop “current awareness” reports, pulling together related explicit knowledge on a particular topic, and making it available to executives or company teams.
In their introductory article, “Blowing Up the Corporate Library”, Davenport and Prusak (2004), argue that this is no longer good enough for the current knowledge management needs of most businesses. While these traditional tasks have been, and in many cases continue to be important, they are no longer satisfactory to meet the changing knowledge needs of corporations:
Corporate libraries in the USA have largely been left behind by the information revolution. They have performed relatively narrow functions, mainly associated with identifying and acquiring information, and have not become integrated into the major organizational processes for managing information. Most of them operate on obsolete storage-based models of information management. They have little influence and their employees are often in dead-end careers (Davenport & Prusak, 2004, p. 12).
Despite these problems, Davenport and Prusak argue that corporate libraries have a potentially critical role to play in the success of organizations. First, corporate libraries must understand the strategic goals of the organization. They must move beyond focusing on the library’s internal needs, and instead prioritize the needs of the wider organization. Only by speaking the language of business will librarians gain credibility and influence. Second, corporate librarians must get out from behind the reference desk, stop simply reacting to information requests, and actively seek out information needs throughout the organization. Finally, librarians must move from the outdated information warehouse model to being overseers of a multi-media knowledge network that draws in a wide variety of relevant and high-quality knowledge sources or nodes. Perhaps most significantly, the authors see the need to expand the understanding of knowledge sources from being only in books and electronic resources, but also to be people themselves. “The librarians or information managers in tomorrow’s organizations must realize that people, not printed or electronic sources, are the most valuable information asset in any organization” (Davenport & Prusak, 2004, p. 16). By seeing both documents (explicit knowledge) and people (tacit knowledge) as key knowledge assets, librarians can build on their traditional expertise as information organizers and managers to develop their emerging skills as connectors of people to knowledge. This conception of knowledge management as a social process reflects the work of Figallo and Rhine’s Building the Knowledge Management Network (2002), and recognizes the importance of knowledge as a process rather than as a static artifact.
In “Change of Paradigm in Knowledge Management – Framework for the Collaborative Production and Exchange of Knowledge” (2004), Kuhlen extends this argument further, stating that not only should librarians abandon the warehouse model for a networked model, but should also see knowledge management as communication management, again recognizing the importance of people as knowledge sources and the value of facilitating communication between them:
The paradigm shift in the understanding of knowledge management (towards communications) has come about because knowledge and information are no longer considered as being simply there. Information is not just the result of a particular distribution or retrieval process, using and applying existing knowledge to new problems, but is also the result of communication processes (p. 21).
As a result, knowledge can less be seen as being produced by a single author working alone, and is instead increasingly recognized as a collaborative process, involving multiple knowledge sources, building upon past experiences and research, and collectively creating new ideas and understanding. Kuhlen argues that these kinds of social knowledge networks can take place remotely through tools such as online forums and Communities of Practice, but do require coordination and management. Taking a leadership role in planning, establishing, organizing, facilitating, archiving, and evaluating social knowledge exchanges can become an entirely new role for corporate librarians that can help them regain their relevance in a rapidly changing knowledge and information landscapes.
The importance of communications as part of knowledge management is further emphasized by Wagner-Döbler (2004) in “Tacit Knowledge, Knowledge Management, Library Science – No Bridge Between?”, where he argues that codifying tacit knowledge often results in a significant loss of important contextual details, making it much less valuable for future reuse. Instead, he suggests alternative methods of capturing tacit knowledge, such as conversations, storytelling, and observations. These can all become techniques available to librarians as social knowledge managers to increase the value of the knowledge that exists within the people of any organization, reflecting the existence of knowledge as a process rather than as an artifact.
A further illustration of a knowledge management technique available to the corporate librarian is the information audit, described by Henczel (2004) in “The Information Audit as a First Step Toward Effective Knowledge Management”. An information audit is a tool to “identify strategically significant information resources, … [and] to identify those tasks and activities that create knowledge and those that rely on the transfer of knowledge from other areas of the organization” (p. 92). It includes seven steps: planning, data collection, data analysis, data evaluation, communicating recommendations, implementing recommendations, and the information audit as a continuum (making it an ongoing process).
Conducting an information audit provides an improved level of understanding of how the tasks and activities performed by the business unit, sections, and departments of the organization create knowledge and what the level of strategic significance of that knowledge may be. It has also provides a ‘map’ of existing formal and informal information transfer and communication channels and networks within the organization and between the organization and its external environment (p. 104).
Henczel extends the information audit to also include a knowledge audit, which consists of identifying the people involved in knowledge creation, transfer, and sharing, as well as any political or cultural issues that support or inhibit knowledge flows. This is an important extension of the traditional corporate role in the knowledge management process.
Unfortunately, Wormell (2004) argues that a gap exists between the skills required for modern knowledge management and what is currently being taught in library and information studies master’s degree programs.
Through several dialogues and studies, it has been identified that the industry and public sector are demanding a cadre of information professionals with knowledge and skills in technology, management, and inter-personal skills to effectively lead organizational integration and process reengineering activities…. Here a gap has been identified between the expected qualifications and what the applicants actually had in their bags (p. 112-113).
Filling this gap is of utmost importance to corporate libraries. With the traditional role of the corporate library rapidly changing with the advance of emerging technologies, an abundance of digital information, and new understandings of social knowledge processes, new librarians must be graduating with the skills and abilities to meet the challenges of the future (the knowledge network model) rather than just the ability to solve the problems of yesterday (the warehouse model). A more contemporary study of the current state of knowledge management education within Library and Information Studies programs would be a valuable source of information to measure whether progress has been made in this area. Evidence does exist however, in the changing practices of other kinds of librarianship, such as within academic and public libraries, which signifies progress in this direction.
Adapting to the Knowledge Network Model
According to Chaudhry and Higgins (2004), the skills required for librarians to adapt to the knowledge network model include having a broader strategic perspective of the overall organizational goals, leveraging information technology, understanding knowledge sources and flows, developing organizational “knowledge literacy”, and supporting the facilitation of knowledge communities and teams. Although these skills may be seen as lacking within Wormell’s (2004) study of corporate libraries, evidence of these emerging abilities is visible within both academic and public libraries.
These libraries recognized early on that their value was under threat from the changes brought about by the rapid growth of the Internet, and that the “Googlization of Everything” (Vaidhyanathan, 2011) threatened their continuing existence (Thompson, 1983). As a result, many librarians saw the need for fundamental changes in what it meant to be a librarian.
One important change was to recognize that libraries are more than warehouses of books and other information objects. This warehousing model has a long and proud history stretching at least as far back as the Ancient Library at Alexandria, and has played a critical role in preserving knowledge from generation to generation, from culture to culture. Letting go of this tradition has not been easy, but both public and academic libraries have come to recognize that, while some special collections will continue to need careful curation and preservation, the vast majority of the library collection has moved online. For the first time in human history, information is no longer scarce, but is available in abundance. Corporate libraries must also embrace this model, expanding their vision from a focus on knowledge as tangible, explicit artifacts, into an appreciation of the strategic value of the tacit knowledge that resides with the organization’s people.
The changing nature of cataloguing and indexing has also been an important challenge for academic and public librarians. In the past, every information object that was brought into the collection needed to be manually catalogued by the librarian. This allowed for the materials to be later discovered and used for future research. Today, most physical information objects coming into the library arrive pre-catalogued, and electronic resources are searchable in ways that previous generations of librarians could never have imaged. Some initial effort went into trying to catalogue everything on the Internet, but this was soon given up as an impossibility. Instead, Google and other automated indexing tools have made the discovery of billions of online resources possible. Corporate libraries need to change their focus from the detailed description of explicit knowledge to incorporating networked knowledge, both explicit and tacit, into the library. While automated tools will never provide the level of descriptive detail as a professional, manual indexer or cataloguer, the need for the level of detail is no longer required for adequate discovery.
With fundamental concept of the library as an information warehouse, carefully collected and described by the librarian, becoming a thing of the past, it rapidly became apparent that new definitions of librarianship were required. One important move in this direction was to embrace information technology rather than reject it. The value of the Internet and digital collections were unmistakable, and librarians have made it part of their new mission to ensure that access remains open and that evaluation of quality continues. As the technology platforms advance from the simple Web 1.0 static pages of information to interactive Web 2.0 online communities of knowledge exchanges, public and academic librarians continue to embrace the changes and find new ways to incorporate the technology into their core mandate of access, freedom, and knowledge sharing (Courtney, 2007; Kroski, 2008). Corporate libraries must follow this example, learning the value of social media for connecting people to information and knowledge sources, whether those are books, electronic resources, or other people.
Public and academic librarians have also been quicker to transform their spaces from book warehouses into knowledge and learning spaces. Many university libraries today include a large “learning commons”, filled with computers, tables, and comfortable chairs. These spaces, often reclaimed from bookshelves, are designed to facilitate collaborative learning between students, as well as providing students with ready access to resources (both print and electronic), learning technologies, librarian assistance, and other services, such as writing centres or counseling support (Schader, 2008). Public libraries are also transforming their spaces, reducing the size of their print collection, and focusing on the development of public spaces (often the only truly free indoor public space in a city) for learning, communication, and civic dialogue, leading to increased social capital development in the community (Vårheim, Steinmo, & Ide, 2008; Hill, 2009). Corporate libraries would do well to follow this example in transforming themselves from warehouses into networked knowledge spaces. Establishing the corporate library as the place to go for the conversations, storytelling, and observations described by Wagner-Dobler (2004), could be a critical step in re-establishing the core relevance of corporate librarians and their work to the organization.
Academic and public libraries have also embraced their instructional role. While most library users continue to be self-directed learners, librarians are also developing extensive training programs in multiple kinds of literacies, including technological literacy and information literacy (Eisenberg, Lowe, Spitzer & Spitzer, 2004). The programs support library users in becoming stronger independent learners, and help them make even better use of the library’s resources. By facilitating this kind of knowledge development, academic and public libraries are placing themselves at the heart of community learning. Corporate libraries could also benefit from establishing learning programs within their organizations, helping people better understand the ever-changing knowledge resources that are available, and how to better connect with others in a networked knowledge environment.
Public and academic librarians have also begun to understand the importance of getting outside of the walls of the library too, and have adopted an “embedded librarian” approach to working with their communities. This is very similar to Davenport and Prusak’s (2004) call to “blow up the library” by expanding beyond its immediate confines. This involves going directly to the library users, pro-actively seeking them out and asking what their information and knowledge requirements are, rather than passively waiting for them to come to the library (Hamilton, 2012; Miller & Pellen, 2005). This can include working directly with a faculty member at a university in the design of information literacy into the curriculum or going to meetings of community groups to discover what they need from the library (McCook, 2000). This kind of outreach, as part of the information and knowledge audit outlined by Henczel (2004), is an important technique to increase the visibility and importance of the corporate library as a key participant in the organizational knowledge network.
Related to this deeper understanding of the needs of the communities that they serve, public and academic librarians have also begun to better understand the needs of their funders, including library boards, city councils, or university administration. Librarians now understand the importance of aligning the library’s goals and objectives with the strategic plans of their parent organization (McNichol, 2005; Lown & Davis, 2009). In much the same way, corporate libraries too must better understand the business needs of their organizations, and ensure that the library’s goals and objectives are closely matched with the strategic plan of the parent company. Corporate libraries must be prepared to demonstrate their value to the company, not just in vague or qualitative terms, but with firm, quantitative numbers that provide clear evidence of financial value and return on investment.
Knowledge Management: Libraries and Librarians Taking Up the Challenge (Hobohm, 2004) presented a series of papers reflecting contemporary thinking on knowledge management and libraries. The most important theme that emerged from these papers was the need to re-evaluate the role of the corporate library under the changing information and technological circumstances of the Twenty First century. This includes moving from a warehouse model to a network model, which incorporates the changing nature of knowledge resources (such as moving from print to electronic) as well as recognizing the value of human communication and interaction as a critical knowledge source for organizations. In addition, the call for “blowing up the library”, meaning to expand its presence beyond the library walls is another important theme. Both of these recommendations have already adopted by many progressive public and academic libraries, and their lessons learned are available in the extensive reflective reports in the professional literature. Corporate libraries would benefit from reviewing these experiences and incorporating them into their own organizations and their own professional practice. The warehouse is an out-dated model for today’s libraries, and the network model provides a vision that can deliver value to user communities seeking knowledge as well as to ensuring the ongoing vitality of libraries and librarianship.
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