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SLA 2011: Average is Over!

I’ve been going through my notes and tweets from the SLA conference, and it seems to me like there were several common themes across the sessions I attended. For that reason, and also because I’m a bit bored of writing blow-by-blow accounts of all the CPD events I attend, I’ve decided to see if I can pull out the main themes from the conference as my write-up instead of just writing up individual sessions. I’m going to start with one of the most quotable soundbites from Thomas Friedman‘s keynote speech, as this came up in several sessions: the fact that “average” is officially over!

Friedman’s point was that the days when, in Woody Allen’s words, “80% of success [was] just showing up” are far behind us now. A lot of organisations used the global financial crisis as an opportunity to get rid of all the jobs that could be automated, streamlined, outsourced or simply done away with, and those jobs are not coming back. If you want to make sure that your job is safe, then make sure you are not doing average, routine, replicable or automatable work, because if you are then there will be a better, cheaper way to do your job that doesn’t actually involve you! In order to make sure that you are not doing average work, Friedman suggested finding your “extra” – work out what it is that you do that no one else could.

Friedman argued that in this flat, connected world, ideas are the best competitive advantage we have, because idea generation cannot be outsourced in the way that production can. I think this is tremendously relevant to us as information professionals, as the best libraries are idea factories. What are we doing to facilitate great ideas, and what great ideas are we coming up with ourselves? Which bits of our jobs are routine and could be automated or outsourced, and which are things that can really only be done by us? I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I do think that it’s something that we, as a profession, need to be constantly thinking about.

Some similar ideas came out of a session on “Strategic Information Initiatives: Raising Visibility by Taking it Up a Notch”, in which Amy Plympton, Lynn Donches and Susan Cronizer discussed how they have used strategic initiatives to raise their visibility within their respective companies. A lot of what they discussed centred around making sure that the work you produce isn’t routine or average, and asking yourself what you can do to make the services you offer eaiser, faster or better for your clients? Much of this is about getting to know what your clients know, what they need to know, and what keeps them awake at night. For example, rather than sending around the same journals for everyone to read, can you get to know your client base well enough that you could read those journals for them, and just synthesise what they actually need to know? One of the speakers said something that really resonated with me, which was that you should know your clients well enough that you get critical information to their inbox before they realise they need to know it. That’s certainly something I’m working hard on being able to do in my own job, and I think it’s an increasingly important skill for an information professional to have.

Another session I attended, on “the corporate library in turbulent times”, also focused on the need to consistently prove the value of what we do. Jim Matarazzo and Toby Pearlstein made the point that corporations have short memories, so it’s not enough to be able to say what you have done in the past. What are you doing now? The need for regular SWOT analyses was discussed, with one panelist suggesting that although 10 years ago you could get away with doing it annually, now you could almost complete a SWOT analysis daily (although I think that was probably tongue in cheek – when would you actually get any work done?!). That slight exaggeration aside, I think it’s a valid point – you need to stay on top of the threats and opportunities to your service, to avoid being taken by surprise by changes in your workplace. I know of at least one corporate library who had no idea they were about to be outsourced until it was announced, so it’s not an exaggeration to say that you need to be constantly aware of how your parent organisation is faring and how any changes made could affect you.

During the Leadership & Management Division’s marketing breakfast meeting, Stephen Abram, Rebecca Jones and Jane Dysart came back to Friedman’s idea of finding your “extra”. The very valid point was made that it can be hard to identify what your “extra” is if it’s something that comes naturally to you – I think that librarians in particular tend to undervalue their skills. The panelists suggested that if you want to know what your “extra” is, you should ask someone who you work for/with, and trust to give you an honest answer, what it is that you do that they value the most. The answer may well surprise you – I know I’ve had feedback from clients before, thanking me effusively for doing something that I’d considered to be fairly easy, routine work.

I really like the idea of finding your “extra”, and making sure your employer and your clients know what you are awesome at. I know it’s something I struggle with, and I think probably the profession as a whole does too – librarians can easily be invisible within our organisations, and I don’t think it comes naturally to many of us to shout about what we do and why we are great at it. It’s absolutely something we really need to get over though – if we don’t promote ourselves then people will assume we are average, and as Thomas Friedman said, average isn’t enough!

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2 comments on “SLA 2011: Average is Over!

  1. […] I thought were the “key themes” from the sessions I attended at SLA 2011 (first post is here – had a small break from blogging to go camping in Wales, so sorry for the gap in posting!), […]

  2. […] of course, lets not forget that ‘Average is Over’ – see posts by the Wikiman and WoodsieGirl). Engagement will place you in a far better position to judge your own weaknesses. What Constitutes […]

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