Knowledge Management in a Changing World

by Steven A. Lastres, Director of Library and Knowledge Management at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. 

Since the earliest days of libraries, librarians have served as knowledge managers. Whether they were maintaining the scrolls at the Library of Alexandria, creating the catalog for the House of Wisdom (a Ninth Century Islamic library), or assembling annotated links for the law firm intranet, law librarians have always been in the forefront of organizing information and adding value to it. Librarians have long excelled at getting information into the hands of the people who need it. The precise definition of knowledge management (KM) is an elusive one, but one pillar of KM practice holds that knowledge management “is the process through which organizations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets.”1

Becoming Business Managers

What has changed is that the librarian needs to wear a new hat–that of a business manager. The array of tools available to today’s librarian has driven that change. No longer restricted to offering only upon-request services, librarians can instead embrace a broader view of their professional role. They actively manage their organization’s information assets rather than passively respond to requests.

KM, as evolved from traditional librarianship, today means identifying business opportunities within our organization to help our users practice more efficiently and effectively. Librarians need to understand how our users work, not just anticipate what their information needs will be.

As librarians expand their professional roles, their efforts at KM must align with their organization’s business objectives. Librarians need to become business managers. If we take the business view, librarians are selling a product (knowledge and information) to a market (our users) that needs to be serviced effectively (the right product), efficiently (at the right time), and cost-effectively (at the right price). Figuring out how to improve upon that business model is what knowledge management is all about. When it comes to knowledge management, the emphasis should be on management.

Why do librarians make good knowledge managers? The answer may be that librarians tend to be more eager to adopt new ways of sharing information than our users. Librarians look at new technologies and services with a critical eye to understand how to meet current and emerging information needs. KM is not technology for technology’s sake. Instead, librarians focus on content and its seamless delivery. In many ways, they can decipher what our users need before our users even ask. (After all, that’s what reference interviews are for!) They know the resources, they know how the resources are delivered, and they know how to find the information that our users ask for.

In addition to their skills, when it comes to knowing the content available, most librarians fit well into the KM mold because of their technical sophistication. Today’s librarians are perfectly at home in the online world. And unlike the past, when any project that lived on a server was automatically the ward of the IT department, KM projects are now managed by librarians. Library staff members drive the selection of tools to deliver content, the adoption of interactive services such as wikis and blogs, and the promotion of KM applications such as work product retrieval. This is a major change in librarianship, in which librarians are innovators and technologists, as well as content managers. Most librarians bring considerable technical savvy to their professional work. Librarians, in short, should select the information resources that best fit the practices they support, but they also should be involved in selecting the best delivery platforms. That includes managing the graphic display of information on portal or intranet pages and creating a Web-based presentation that is easy to use and search.

As librarians adapt to a changing world, it’s a good idea to understand some of the changes they face, including these:

  • Users expect to receive information faster than ever.
  • Users expect to have no impediments to get the information they need.
  • Users depend on knowledge managers to keep up with KM innovations and best practices.

As knowledge management becomes more ingrained in corporations and law firms, KM managers need to become experts in three specialized fields: librarianship, legal technology, and business management. Librarians need to understand the technical possibilities–not just the nuts and bolts of the software but also the realistic research needs of the lawyers.

Change is propelling librarians forward in a world where they must adapt to new ways of thinking about the information over which they are stewards. This changing world means new opportunities for librarians, as librarians redefine themselves as KM managers who create value for the firm by effectively managing the information for which they are professionally responsible.

1 Megan Santosus & Jon Surmacz, “The ABCs of Knowledge Management”, CIO Magazine, 2001.

Steven Lastres

One thought on “Knowledge Management in a Changing World

  1. Pingback: Profesionales de la información desde una visión de negocio | infoEstrategia

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