The Challenge of Reintermediation

 PKM Enabled Organization
Iíve said before that I think information professionals (both those with library science backgrounds and those with IT backgrounds) are the most undervalued and underutilized people in most organizations. Over the past decade, many organizations have deployed a lot of knowledge resources and technology out to the front lines in an attempt to get

  1. improvements in productivity,
  2. research done by the people who really know the organizationís business, and how the research will be applied, and
  3. more valuable knowledge being shared throughout the organization. 

This process of ëblowing up the corporate libraryí is called disintermediation.

Initially, this met with some success. Younger employees in particular were able to get information and do things that they couldnít before. But over time, even the enthusiasts realized that

  1. as they moved up the ranks in the organization, they simply didnít have the time for do-it-yourself research anymore,
  2. they really werenít very good at doing research anyway (no one ever taught them how to do it), and
  3. the really valuable knowledge transfer was still through context-rich conversations, not by sharing documents. 

As a consequence, more and more staff have been looking for people (librarians, subordinates, administrative assistants) to reintermediate this work ñ to take it back off their hands.

So now, there is a clamouring among front-line staff for someone to:

But hereís the dilemma:

  1. Most large organizations have been so massively ëhollowed outí by the downsizing, outsourcing and offshoring of ëback officeí staff that there is no one left to do this work.
  2. Most information professionals are really good at doing ëknowledge and technologyí stuff, but donít really understand the business of the organizations that employ them (they havenít worked in the field themselves or come up through the ranks).
  3. Most information professionals arenít skilled or comfortable with the ëcustomer anthropologyí work needed to help people one-on-one in the field, and also aren’t skilled at adding meaning and value to information.

These are difficult problems to overcome. To wait for managers to understand and address these problems on their own initiative is pure folly. If reintermediation is to have a chance to succeed, itís going to need champions like university faculties of information science, library science and knowledge management, and professional librarians’ associations. And these champions are going to have to do three things:

  1. Teach customer anthropology, personal productivity improvement, advanced research and analysis skills, and capacity for adding meaning and value to information, both in university programs for information professionals, and in continuous education programs.
  2. Engrain in the minds of executives and recruiters the importance of training information professionals in the business of their organizations very early in their employment, so they have the context to apply their IP skills effectively to the organizationís problems. This might require either a special orientation or a ëshadowingí program to allow new IPs to see and ask about what those on the front lines actually do, and what their information needs are.
  3. Develop case studies and success stories about reintermediation that show that it works, and why, and hence to overcome management resistance to commit time and resources in order to ëfill back iní their hollowed out organizations. Alas, most executives still think the solution for people who canít (or wonít) powerfully use the knowledge and technology available to them, is to fire them.

Thatís the challenge. Iíll be talking with students and conferences attendees over the next year about this need and some possible approaches to addressing it. If youíre an information professional, Iíd love to hear your ideas on whatelse we can do.

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4 Responses to The Challenge of Reintermediation

  1. PaulSweeney says:

    Too true. I did hear it said(a few years ago) that the true test that you have an information system that delivers value, is that access to that system, and the value it delivers to a role, is a determinant in employee retention! (i.e. if I worked somewhere else, I would be less productive, and would therefore make less money).

  2. The role you’re describing as the reintermediated information technology professional is very much what an enterprise architect does – connect between technical knowledge and the business, with a focus on business needs.

  3. Dave, you nailed the “dilemma” and I thank you for a to-the-point and honest description of the profession’s overwhelming obstacle: Until senior executives see a competitive edge *for themselves* in promoting the use of information professionals … the “obscurity” challenge remains. I, too, have been looking for (too many) years for the compelling business case that will make executives rush to find out how to insert our expertise in the right places in their organizations. To date, my sense is that any anecdotal evidence of the benefits we offer simply does not succeed in affecting decisions among executives, given many competing priorities clamoring for their attention. Hence I believe the central question is “what is the psychology behind an executive’s decision to champion the deployment of information professionals – or not?”. (And I fear I already have a good idea what the answer is.) Keep up the good work; I look forward to haring more on this topic as you speak to the community.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the illuminating comments. Ulla, I too fear I know the answer, but I’m not ready to give up trying.

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