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SLA’s Annual Conference - Librarians ‘move to the core’ of their companies
Posted On June 28, 1999
The Special Libraries Association put on its 90th annual conference this year in Minneapolis, with spillover into St. Paul for some events related to the sprawling meeting and exhibition. The conference ran from June 5 to 10 and drew some 6,000 special librarian attendees interested in networking with each other; exchanging ideas, experiences, and opinions in conference sessions; talking about products and services with approximately 540 information providers and technology vendors; as well as enjoying the Twin Cities with a little help from information companies hosting events and receptions in interesting locales.

As usual with this mega-event, there was some glitter and celebration, as at the Sunday evening President's Reception on the 50th floor of the IDS Tower, "high above the other downtown Minneapolis buildings," presided over by SLA president L. Susan Hayes. There was some publicity-oriented pomp and ceremony, as when Hayes and a Silver-Platter Information representative snipped through a ribbon to open the exhibit hall, after which a four-piece "band" led observers in an actual march into the hall!

There were some high-profile honors, as Hayes presented SLA's Hall of Fame Award to special librarians Ellen Mimnaugh of Chemical Abstracts Service and Angela Pollis, formerly of U.S. Steel Corp., in the Monday morning general session. Hayes also recognized local information industry company West Group with the Major Conference Partner award. And there was an undercurrent of bureaucratic planning and just-plain-work as SLA committees and divisions met throughout the conference.

The main focus, of course, was on the major speakers, the conference sessions, and the news to be gleaned from the exhibiting companies.

The Big Speeches
While there was only one official keynote speech, there was more than one big-name speaker this year. Laurence Prusak, currently managing principal with IBM Global Services Consulting Group, was the keynoter at the general session. And Stewart Brand, one of the founders of The Well and currently touting his affiliation with something called The Long Now Foundation, drew a big crowd the next day at a session sponsored by nine (!) SLA divisions. They're both big thinkers, but from decidedly different worlds.

Prusak co-authored the books Information Ecology and Working Knowledge with Thomas Davenport, professor and director of the information management program at the University of Texas. Through those books and numerous other pursuits and writings, Prusak has established himself as a premier expert and original thinker on the subject of knowledge and information use in large organizations.

Knowledge management is his stock-in-trade these days—as well as an essential stock-in-trade of organizations that want to make it in this technologically connected business climate—and he proceeded to define, dissect, and underscore the importance of the concept. In terms of engendering innovation, information ("a message; content that has the intent to inform") is useful, but only of second-order importance, he said. Knowledge ("what a knower knows; it resides in a person, not on a disk") has importance of the first order. Throughout his speech, Prusak focused on this human connection.

To illustrate the difference between information and knowledge, he contrasted the knowledge that a Brooklyn bank manager held in his head with the data and information in the bank's computer system. The manager knew the local customers in his bank's Brooklyn neighborhood, Prusak said, because he had learned enough Creole and Yiddish to be able to talk to them and understand the way they think about money. The computer gave the manager information, but it was his knowledge of his customers' needs that earned his branch money. "Innovation," said Prusak, "comes from the interface between the worker [and his knowledge] and the work."

The trick now, of course, is to make knowledge visible, to let people in an organization know who knows what and where they are. A directory of people with knowledge proved far more effective than a directory of information in a case study Prusak related. A great sticking point, he said, is changing people's behavior regarding knowledge sharing. It's a crucial issue for knowledge management, and it gets right down to infrastructure and reward systems. Typically, nobody is rewarded for sharing knowledge across the organization. Prusak maintains that we should spend the money to connect people in many ways, offering impetus and incentives. Do so, and people will form their own cross-organizational networks, naturally (not imposed). Put another way, he said, "Hire smart people, give them access to information, and let them talk to each other" to invigorate the decision-making and innovation processes.

Prusak closed with comments on the "return on knowledge," which he asserted is now at the core of an organization's value. While his remarks sometimes seemed aimed at upper management, they sat well with his large audience of special librarians struggling to redefine, or at least refine, their missions with their employers.

COO Patrick Sommers on a ‘Redefined' Dialog

Patrick Sommers, chief operating officer at The Dialog Corporation since last October, spoke with me while I was at the SLA conference. He wanted to get out a message about the company's focus and upcoming plans. Here are some excerpts.

Sommers on the integration of the merged MAID and KRI
Dialog has been challenged with many things over the past year—with the integration of the two businesses, financial challenges, increasing competition from Internet-focused companies, and also from the publishers themselves making their data available. I think for the last year and a half we've just been kind of dealing with straightening out the internal integration of these two businesses, which is coming along very well. In fact I would call it almost done. We've also been dealing with some of the financial issues of the company, with  the debt issues, and re-establishing Dialog in the market. And I think that what the market is going to begin to see in the coming months is the emergence of a redefined Dialog.

On Dialog technologies, knowledge management, and licensing agreements
We recognize very clearly what we need to do. On one hand, we've got a very loyal and solid group of customers who use and find great value in the command language of the traditional DIALOG. On the other hand, we're going to see the gradual rise in dissemination of information through corporate intranets—to what we call ‘Webtops,' people's desktops. Users will have a Webtop designed to their needs that will enable them with little or no expertise in searching to navigate through the glut of free information on the Web, to navigate through the premium service providers such as Dialog, and also be able to get needed information internally. And we are very well positioned in terms of our technologies, our InfoSort, categorization, thesaurus technologies, our search technologies in Muscat, and knowledge management technologies, to enable this movement....

The technology is here now to enable [knowledge management] to happen. Corporate intranets are growing exponentially, although they're not well utilized today. Most companies have an intranet. Web technology to enable people to build a Web front end for you, your own screen, is pretty simple technology today .... You have database technology that has advanced tremendously over the last few years, and you have the ability now to go in and structure data, categorize it .... So, it's like ‘the stars are in alignment.' ...

I think people are going to be surprised at the types of technologies that Dialog can bring to helping this become a reality. I'm talking about things that are here today that we've never brought into the U.S. market-things that MAID brought with it in the acquisition that no one has seen. The InfoSort technology, which is the ability to categorize and structure unstructured text. A technology called Whisper, which can read documents and create taxonomies automatically.... [These technologies] can go through and read 100 documents—news articles, whatever—and create a taxonomy out of that electronically, very accurately. We've been working on ... using this technology and another technology, which then takes that taxonomy and reads a point document and determines how you ought to categorize it, what structuring terms you should use on the document. We've been running it against some major databases that have people doing this task, and it's running more accurately.... The real power of this ... technology is that it allows you to do internal documents....

You're going to see a big announcement tomorrow [with] a major international technology company that is going to be licensing and paying us large sums of money and really going into strategic partnership based on InfoSort technology. They want to make it a standard in their end of the world. [Editor's Note: It turned out to be with Fujitsu.] (See the news release story "Fujitsu and Dialog in Global Internet Technology Alliance.")

On tools for knowledge workers and information professionals
 [In terms of this technology and information tools,] I think the first thing you saw was the Intranet Toolkit, which is designed specifically [for] the information professional ... On [the end user's] PC is a page that that the professional helped design using the Toolkit ... that uses the powerful DIALOG command language in the background for a search ... that sends it out and says go to file 133, go to file 26, do all of this. That's where the information professional comes in. They're the ones who understand that.

Now that's really just step one in terms of what we envision. We're going to take this toolkit and make it available to also search the Web, which we are right now crawling.... We're going to make it so that it will search other external information. As far as I'm concerned, it can search our competitors. I want this to be a fully functional toolkit. I don't want you to have to sign off of DIALOG and sign on to Dow Jones. I'd like you to still be on your own Webtop, and for that to give you the screen that will allow you to get all the information you need to do your job. If you want to see the Wall Street Journal and we don't have it through DIALOG, you should be able to not have to sign off of DIALOG, hyperlink over to Dow Jones and remember how do to do the Dow Jones command for the Wall Street Journal.

And for the next phase ... utilizing our search engines, our categorization tools, InfoSort, I want to help organizations also get at the vast stores of valuable internal information. So when someone is writing a memo in Hong Kong about the exact topic that you're dealing with in Boston, somewhere through your intranet you'll understand that someone just did a memo on that topic. So you won't be duplicating work that's just been done in Hong Kong, and was done last week in Singapore, and was done the week before in California. It's amazing how much of this sort of wasted, duplicate effort occurs in corporations today.

On a time frame for all of this
You're going to see this in growing sets of announcements over the next few months. You're going to see maybe what you'd call a trickle at first,  but going at a full current within the next 6 months or so.

This stuff is done. I mean, our sin as a company is not the fact that we haven't been doing anything or that we don't have the technologies or we don't have the tools. It's that we haven't been marketing them.... We've been so busy dealing with debt, dealing with customers, dealing with issues—some of which we've created ourselves. But I think you're going to see a new Dialog emerging out of this. I do not want to call it a Phoenix! I think you're going to see a much faster moving, dynamic organization starting to emerge here in the next few months.

—D. H. 

Time and Bits
Remember The Whole Earth Catalog and its progeny (The Last  Whole Earth Catalog, The Whole Earth Epilog, Whole Earth Magazine, and The Whole Earth Software Catalog)? Do you recall the Point Foundation, which gave away money to support "effective individuals"? You of course know about The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link)—in 1984 a groundbreaking computer teleconference system, and what still endures today as, among other things, an effective electronic community. Well, when all these were started, Stewart Brand was there.

On the strength of these and his many other forward-thinking activities and affiliations (The Hackers' Conference, The Santa Fe Institute, The Electronic Frontier Foundation), Brand was invited to address SLA attendees who turned up by the thousand. Apparently their admiration for him is returned, as I heard that, on learning he was invited to speak to a group of librarians, he cut his speaker's fee by 50 percent.

There was a rather visually inconspicuous entry in the conference program about Brand's talk. But those who read it were no doubt intrigued, and I couldn't really encapsulate his subject better than the program entry did:

"We have entered a digital dark age. Digital media rot faster than newsprint, digital formats have the life span of field mice (six years), and all information is becoming digital. What libraries are gaining in scope ... they are losing in continuity. No one else will cure civilizational amnesia if librarians don't, and the problem is almost intractable. One approach is to figure out what a 10,000-year library needs and work back from there."

Given who he is and where he's been, Brand's speech was wide-ranging. He touched on everything from managing acceleration ("As technology keeps accelerating, the leading edge will move ahead to where most in society can't even see it; they'll only be aware of ‘an enormous force.'") to pace-layering—harnessing and integrating aspects of those societal elements that move fast with those that move slowly, to engender learning but maintain continuity. Librarians, he said, are in the thick of all of this, needed in order to "hold the ground" and to keep up with the leading technological edge.

For purposes of graspability (I think), Brand scaled back his time scale at least during part of his speech from 10,000 years to 100 years. He discussed, for example, problems that will probably or had better be solved by 2100, such as copyright, storage/access/search functions, even global language translation. Possible new problems we'll face might come with a global computer as our information repository. "What if it becomes old, sort of a ‘legacy system'? That could pose major problems, dwarfing the Y2K problem for which the scene was set 50 years ago." It adds new meaning to the concept of deep backup, or, as Brand said it, "Deeeep backup."

He encouraged his audience to take the long view in devising digital continuity strategies. And he charged them, in a sense, with the duty. Mentioning the Torah and the Book of Genesis, he said, "If you want data to endure over time, you need somebody to be obsessing about it." Who else but ... ?

Sessions, Sessions, Sessions
There were probably hundreds of conference sessions! Thankfully, they were organized for attendees around four tracks: Issues of leadership; Evolving roles for information and knowledge managers; Managing knowledge: How do we do it?; and The nuts and bolts of the profession. When not on the exhibit hall floor or elsewhere talking with vendors, or minding our own Information Today, Inc. booth, I dropped in on as many sessions as I could and found them well attended by eager participants.

Of the many currents that ran through the sessions, one that I picked up on was that of librarian/information professionals' need to "move to the core," to align themselves with the strategic direction of their organizations—which is indeed one of the core competencies developed by the SLA. Here are just a couple of quick examples and quotes to illustrate:

The news division held a session entitled "New Directions and Changing Roles for News Librarians," during which Nora Paul, of the Poynter Institute, said: "The line between the work that [reporters] do and we do is getting fuzzy. We are all journalists now .... Make news librarians part of the reporting team. Get them out into the news room." And Lany McDonald, of Time, Inc., admonished the audience not to limit their role, to be willing to go out beyond editorial. "Our greater role is being the information and knowledge consultants for our companies. Editorial is no longer our primary employer," she said. Help the publisher organize an intranet or a saleable information product, and you'll be seen in a very different light. Kathy Foley, of the San Antonio Express-News, added, "It's our job to lead our companies in the information revolution—and we'd better follow the money."

Later, former SLA president Jane Dysart moderated a library management division session in which well-known speakers Anne Mintz, of Forbes, and Eugenie Prime, of Hewlett-Packard, spoke directly to the subject of aligning with the business core. Mintz both cajoled and encouraged the audience: "Aligning yourself with a profit-making organization means you must assume your experience has value. Self assurance engenders authority, so presume the authority to tell [other managers] what you know, what—based on that—they need to have done, and that you will do it ... you have the authority to do it." Prime discussed, among many other things, how she "injected" her people into groups at Hewlett-Packard that were developing ideas, saying "You must ‘do' what the company does, read what they read."

News, ‘Links,' and Some Flavor
Cruising the exhibit hall, keeping appointments, and attending breakfasts and lunches, I collected a certain amount of company news, although nothing that seized the undivided attention of the conference this year. Here's a brief rundown, along with pointers, in some cases, to more detailed stories.

Questel-Orbit held a media briefing to report that, a year after initiating what it termed the Intellectual Property Gold, or IPG, project, the company has successfully integrated all the content of its Orbit databases with that of Questel into a single platform and system, replete with function enhancements. The company also announced the impending launch of QWEB, all the Questel-Orbit content on the Web, as well as a new version of the already Web-based QPAT. For more on this, see the June 21, 1999 NewsBreak story "Questel-Orbit Completes Intellectual Property Gold Project, With Revised and Integrated Search Software," by Barbara Quint.

Representatives of corporate and special library software and automation specialists Inmagic and Open Text both spoke to me of their companies' moves to integrate access to internal and external information with interactive and collaborative capabilities. Inmagic is offering Web consulting services including construction of a customized interactive database that enables library customers to submit requests or rate resources via a Web browser (see the news release story on page 67 of the July/August 1999 issue of Information Today). And Open Text introduced Livelink Catalogued Library, which integrates the collaborative knowledge management/document management capabilities of Livelink with the structured information access provided by the BASIS Techlib IOLS (see the news release story "Open Text Introduces Livelink Catalogued Library").

Dialog COO Patrick Sommers met with me to lay out the company's line on what he termed would be emergence of a "redefined" Dialog through, among other things, the integration of its InfoSort and other search and organizing technologies into more products and, through licensing agreements, large organizations. See the sidebar for his comments, and the news release story  "Fujitsu and Dialog in Global Internet Technology Alliance"—announced the day after I spoke with Sommers.

Several principals of Outsell, Inc., a consulting firm with an increasingly high profile in the information industry, discussed the company's latest Outsell Briefing with me. (Briefings are created on a subscription basis for Outsell clients from both the information producer and information user sides of the equation.) This one, entitled "The Changing Role of the Information Professional: Implications for Vendors, Buyers, and Users of Content in the Corporate Marketplace," was of course a natural for publication timed with the SLA conference. It is based on a quantitative survey of 200 corporate information professionals (What is the size of your budget? Your staff? How many users do you serve? etc.) and a follow-up series of interviews to extract qualitative information.

The results seem to indicate, among other things, that information professionals are indeed moving in the direction indicated by the speakers I've mentioned above, aligning themselves with the strategic core of their organizations, "uncoupling from the traditional ‘library'" and participating in "global content strategy units" and project teams, per the briefing. It's still a developing role, however, and barriers remain, including insufficient budget and lack of management understanding.

Outsell president Anthea Stratigos also introduced what the company calls an Information Loyalty Measurement Model—a method to measure the effectiveness of information offerings—during an SLA panel. For more on the survey results and this, see the news release story "Outsell Releases Study of Information Professionals, Introduces Information Loyalty Measurement Model."

More in the realm of atmosphere than news, the exhibit hall echoed every couple of hours with the musical and verbal sounds of  what resembled a TV quiz show. It was, in fact, an amusing audience-participation news and current-events quiz show put on periodically by Wavo—the recently renamed WavePhore—to tout the new company name and recently released NewsPak service. Each quiz session, of course, included a prize—a Rocket eBook. Not too shabby at all! For the full report on news from Wavo over the past weeks, see Paula Hane's June 14, 1999 NewsBreak  "WavePhore Changes its Name and Introduces newsPak."

Also in the realm of atmosphere, at the numerous conferences I attend, I've noticed an increasing trend among exhibiting company staff toward casual, even khaki, but quickly identifiable uniforms. The Dialog folks, LEXIS-NEXIS, Dow Jones Interactive, and many others do it. Of note at SLA was the quick change that Dow Jones Interactive effected since the National Online Meeting less than a month earlier, when the news broke that DJI's and Reuters' business information services were being merged into a new joint venture. At SLA, former DJI staff seen in light blue shirts at NOM were sporting dark blue shirts monogrammed with both Dow Jones and Reuters logos. Or was it dark blue at NOM, light blue at SLA?

One final note (and, OK, a plug): Dow Jones Interactive joined my employer, Information Today, Inc. (ITI), to sponsor and host a reception and book-signing during the conference for a new ITI book, Super Searchers Do Business: The Online Secrets of Top Business Researchers, by information professional Mary Ellen Bates. Both Bates and Super Searchers series editor Reva Basch were on hand to mix with the sizable crowd and to sign books.

David Hoffman is editor of Multimedia & Internet@Schools

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