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Riding the knowledge management wave to job security

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David J. Pauleen, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

How does one remain useful, even valuable, in an ever-changing professional environment? Must one stay current with technology, or are there other more fundamental skills that will carry us through to the time we choose to retire? At the turn of the twentieth century, organizations appointed chief electricity officers to try and figure out a way to profit from that latest of technologies. In a short time, however, electricity was ubiquitous and hardly given a thought: chief electricity officers were no more. Is history repeating itself with information technology, and will the fate of the information professional be the same as the chief electricity officer of yore?

Some say yes. We are already well along the way to off-the-shelf technology fixes, sold and serviced by vendors. So where will this leave today's organizations' information professionals – perhaps, as information technicians, or possibly information clerks? Not a pretty picture, is it? So, what's it going to take to stay current and valuable in today's, and tomorrow's, world? Some say the answer is knowledge management (KM). This article takes a look at what KM may mean to offer librarians and information managers.

"Watch out! Coming through, hot subject!"

A good place to start is by answering the question, "What is knowledge management" (see Hannabuss, 2001; Rowley, 1999). Unfortunately, there is no single answer, and the answer you do get often depends on who's answering the question. Librarians and information managers will, by and large, tell you KM is very much the same as information management – that is, knowledge can be codified, put into a technology-based system, searched and recalled. Academics, with a sociological bent, will explain that knowledge is really only valuable when it is shared and so KM should be about creating opportunities to communicate. Human resource managers might claim the focus of KM should be on increasing employees' knowledge via training and persuading employees to share through a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Accountants are not interested in the subject of KM unless they can calculate a return on investment, whichever method of KM others in the organization may decide on.

Just a fad?

Indeed, one of the critiques of KM is that it is both amorphous and ubiquitous to the extent that it doesn't really mean anything at all. Loughridge (1999) tackles this issue when he asks whether KM is just a fad or something with which librarians and information managers need to concern themselves. His conclusion is that while some aspects of KM, such as the information management approach discussed above, mirrors traditional library and information management studies, much more of the KM agenda could be effectively incorporated into academic programmes in library science. Such areas as knowledge gathering and creation, team skills, and the ability to assist in the development of organizational strategy could be significant "value-added" subjects, creating additional opportunities and extending the careers of librarians and information managers.

Generating value

This theme of extending traditional information management studies has been recently taken up again by Rowley (2003) as she further explores the KM paradigm and peers into the future of knowledge and information professionals, particularly in the public sector. She concludes that besides expertise in "storage" those looking for or trying to hold onto their jobs will need to know how to optimize organizational communication and knowledge flows, as well as being able to generate value from existing organizational stores of knowledge and information.

Understanding the special needs of small enterprises

Given that many information professionals work in small enterprises, it is important to understand the special needs of small enterprises with regard to KM. Lim and Klobas (2000) outline a number of factors, not the least of which is the need to balance the needs and costs of acquiring knowledge (maybe those bean counters are right after all). Besides financial skills librarians and other information professionals may want to hone their knowledge-spotting skills, both within and outside the enterprise. Sounds like networking and boundary spanning skills will be invaluable. Indeed, Mizrachi (1998) was pointing out years ago that those in the information trade would need to get off their bums and become active seekers, editors and interpreters of knowledge, with facility in both communication and knowledge tools, such as digital knowledge mapping.

Librarian or multidisciplinarian?

Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden, two KM gurus, have both stressed (in interviews with the author) the need for a multidisciplinary background for those interested in careers in KM. According to them, philosophy, psychology, sociology, rhetoric, even mathematics and physics are important in achieving the broad base of skills and knowledge to remain effective during one's career. Interestingly, the one subject they believe is almost unnecessary for a career in KM is information technology.

Maybe we cannot go quite this far in library science and information management, but it is crystal clear from a brief survey of the literature that the so called "people" skills are critical for those interested in library and information management careers in the public and private sectors. While it would be excellent if academic programmes in library science and information management adopted a more multidisciplinary approach to education, in the end it is up to students and working professionals to consider carefully what skills and knowledge they will need to remain effective in an ever-changing environment.

Technology comes and goes, but the ability to communicate and persuade will always be deemed invaluable.

References and further reading

Hannabuss, S. (2001), "A wider view of knowledge", Library Management, Vol. 22 No. 8/9, pp. 357-363.

Lim, D. and Klobas, J. (2000), "Knowledge management in small enterprises", The Electronic Library, Vol. 18 No. 6, pp. 420-433.

Loughridge, B. (1999), "Knowledge management, librarians and information managers: fad or future?", New Library World, Vol. 100
No. 6, pp. 245-253.

Mizrachi, Y. (1998), "The knowledge smiths: librarianship as craftship of knowledge", New Library World, Vol. 99 No. 5, pp. 176-184.

Rowley, J. (1999), "What is knowledge management?", Library Management, Vol. 20 No. 8, pp. 416-420.

Rowley, J. (2003), "Knowledge management –- the new librarianship? From custodians of history to gatekeepers to the future", Library Management, Vol. 24 No. 8/9, pp. 433-440.