A second aspect of improving the service to your customers is to broaden their scope. Look beyond the normal services of a library. Can you get in-house experts to add analysis and comment? Can you organise events around specific themes with outside speakers. Technology can also play an important part. It lets you reach more users effectively, and can reduce your information handling time. Increasingly it makes sense to let users have direct on-line access to information and even to encourage their use of external on-line services. Figure 1 shows a framework of the options to consider for broadening the scope of services offered.
Figure 1 - Framework for information services development
One caveat, though, is not to undertake activities that can be done as effectively by others or by the users themselves (such as ordering specialist books and journals). You need to package your activities as a set of products that are unique and distinctive. Articulate what this uniqueness is. An example might be your knowledge and access to sources, that lets you offer 'one-stop shopping'.
5.. Sales and Marketing
There is no getting away from it. A successful information unit will sell and market its services. It will have promotional fliers that also serve to inform and educate users. It may well have its own identity and logo. It should also get out and meet customers at their events, such as a sales meeting or the in-house annual research conference. As well as helping the 'selling' it also gains valuable input that helps you develop and improve your services.
Pricing is another aspect of marketing that needs careful attention. Gone are the days when you can continually offer your services for free. Information is valuable - let your clients appreciate that! One approach that can be very effective in a sizeable unit, is to allocate different professionals as 'account managers' for different client groups. This helps their own personal development as they will learn to represent the whole of the information unit and not just their own specialist activity.
6. Evaluation and Feedback
Evaluation and feedback will help you fine tune your product offering, and your marketing strategy. It also links back to the first marketing phase, that of research, thus completing the management loop. Three simple but effective ways of gaining feedback are:
- include a feedback sheet with every item you send out; keep it short e.g. 2-3 questions, such as asking how they used the information provided, and how much time and money it saved
- maintain a call log (even easier with a computerised client data-base); use it to analyse the pattern of demand and identify any patterns over time
- publish the results; it generates even more feedback, and also maintains visibility.
7. Exploit Technology
One of the best ways to leverage scarce resources is to let technology (and your users) do some of the work for you! Many information professionals will already use information technology quite extensively and it is a theme I have touched upon in several of the earlier guidelines. However, there are certain developments that you need to keep abreast of, and offer opportunities for off-loading work:
- sales and marketing administration packages to improve client service
- multimedia and its potential for demand publishing as an alternative to purchasing hard-copy journals
- PC information retrieval packages, such as IdeaList that users can use themselves
- the Internet and its search and retrieval tools
- electronic mail for mass distribution and information centre newsletters
- computer conferencing as a means of gaining feedback and developing plans and turning information into intelligence
The great benefit of today's technology is that it allows access to library collections from the user's desk top (the 'virtual library'). Networks allow you to promote and deliver your services more easily throughout your organisation, and to draw on outside resources. It could well be, if you are in a large organisation, that there are multiple information units, rather than a single central one. Networking allows access to common material, pooling of resources and greater opportunities for mutual help and support.
8. Selective Outsourcing
One of the current management fashions is that of outsourcing - contracting out of specialist, non-core activities to outside providers. Its attraction is that outside specialists can offer a broader range of skills and knowledge, and generally at a lower cost. However, before outsourcing organisations must think very carefully about what to retain and what to divest. Some recent lessons from the IT world are instructive.
Whereas facilities management, systems development and upgrading systems are typically outsourced, what tends to be retained in-house are:
- policies e.g. for buying
- standards and quality assurance
- user requirements identification
- user support
- some development
Despite its attractions recent research  has surfaced several problems:
- outsourcing suppliers are not inherently more efficient
- many of the promised savings have not materialised
- the interface with users can revert to one of 'contracts' rather than one of 'relationships'
- there is no shared profit motive: extra costs for one party mean extra profits for the other
- information needs are idiosyncratic not homogenous
Generally, the more 'commodity-like' the service on offer, the better it is as a candidate for outsourcing. On the other hand the more organisation specific or strategic it is, the more the arguments favour retention in-house. Even with outsourcing it is necessary to retain some specialist information skills to select and manage the external contractors.
9. Building Partnerships
Building effective partnerships with clients and suppliers is paramount. There are several means by which partnerships with the business can be strengthened. They operate at three levels:
Organisation level - the reporting structure can have a positive influence. An information unit that is a corporate function, rather than embedded within one department is generally better positioned. Also treating it as a separate profit centre. The strategic influence is increased when the head of the information unit report to a member of the board - in my case it was the director of marketing and strategy.
Teams - there should be teams and task forces that bring information professionals together with business managers. If the account manager approach is adopted, ensure that the information professional becomes an integral part of one of the clients management teams. Also why not have user representatives on your own management team.
Individual - opportunities to improve partnership occur when individuals develop good working relationships with each other. One way of achieving this is through co-location e.g. of an information professional into a user department, or of secondments, say for six months, between a business unit and the information unit.
10. Develop Hybrid Skills
Although you may have trained as an information professional, to bring improved benefits to the business you will need to broaden your skills i.e. become something of a 'hybrid'. A hybrid manager  has a mixture of business knowledge and general management skills as well as that of their speciality. Some of the key skills they possess are:
- knowledge of the industry in which the organisation operates
- awareness of business issues and pressures
- organisation 'know-how' and 'know-who'
- communication skills
- inter-personal skills
Therefore, unless you want to remain a specialist, you should take time out to develop some, if not all, of these skills. This can be achieved by management training, going to industry events and courses, and being assigned on secondment to a business units.
Information is becoming a strategic resource. It is an exiting prospect for the information professional to add real value to information and contribute more directly to an organisation's strategic decision making. A number of guidelines that help to develop this new strategic role have been outlined. They have been based on my own experience with a marketing approach and a service/customer orientation. They are development processes that rely on activities beyond basic information service provision. Properly implemented these guidelines should improve the strategic positioning and visibility of information units, enhance client satisfaction, be cost effective, and help to anticipate opportunities and threats. Above all, they will works towards securing the prosperous future of the in-house information unit. I hope they prove useful to you and I look forward to hearing from any readers of their personal experiences.
I would like to thank Graham Robertson for his comments and suggestions during the preparation of this article.
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