Friday, July 02, 2010

Article Note: On Knowledge Management and How It Applies to Libraries

Citation for the article:

Sarrafzadeh, Maryam, et.al., "Knowledge Management and Its Potential Applicability for Libraries." Library Management 31.3 (2010): 198-212.

Read via Emerald.



The article basically looks at the concept of knowledge management (KM) and considers how it applies to libraries. It begins by reviewing the literature and outlining the debate within librarianship as to whether KM is just something that librarians do anyways or if it is something different that librarians should be doing. KM comes into play because of the trend to apply business solutions to library and information science environments. KM is in fact a business concept, and it has found its way into librarianship. I am not interested in looking at how business practices have been applied in libraries; that is material for another time, and the author mentions examples briefly. The main interest here is the KM concept.

The authors argue that in order to survive in a competitive world, organizations need to be able to transform information into knowledge so they can use that knowledge to stay competitive, make decisions, and make new products and services. They write that "the principal asset for organizations in both the private and the public sectors is knowledge" (199). This is why firms and organizations are investing in knowledge management. Though it started in the business world, by now, it has been applied in the nonprofit world, which includes libraries. And yet, in spite of the fact that KM has attracted the attention of libraries and library management, at the end of the day, "there appears to be no clear indication about how KM relates to libraries" (200). It seems the profession is still just trying to figure out what to do with it.

Historically, librarians have always dealt with the organization of knowledge. This is what libraries do. Librarians work as facilitating intermediaries between those who have knowledge and those who need it. It's what reference work is about as well as other library services. But the authors argue that librarians need to expand their vision of KM. They cite Davenport and Prusak, who write that librarians "must realize that people, not printed or electronic resources are the most valuable information asset in any organization" (qtd. in 200). This is why I say that I will always have work. You can have the best databases in the world, but if you do not know how to use them and how to leverage them to your best advantage, the database is just an expensive subscription toy. Librarians are also assets as people in terms of the knowledge they have and in terms of the connections they make with other people. Those are resources that should be leveraged as well. In essence, librarians are knowledge managers. The authors cite Middleton, who makes this distinction: "management may be aware that information resources of a library are their collection and materials, however, the knowledge resources of a library are its staff" (qtd. in 201).

The authors go on to define knowledge sharing in the context of the article. "Knowledge sharing is a means to achieve business goals through transferring knowledge between employees, customers and other stakeholders" (201). This kind of culture needs to be developed for libraries to formulate a KM strategy according to the authors, and it is something that will take time. Librarians are already familiar with this concept. In fact, "KM authors sometimes see librarians as key brokers of knowledge sharing" (202). The problem often is that libraries lack the resources or infrastructure to make KM practical and possible. The librarians may have positive perceptions about it, but it seems their organizations often fail to put into place KM initiatives. Even things as simple as librarians consulting their colleagues as sources of knowledge rarely occurs because, even though librarians do show an interest in consulting, they often do not see other academics as a knowledge acquisition source. I wonder which librarians were surveyed in the work the authors cite. I have always know that sometimes it is just better to consult a local source for an answer. Yet campus infrastructure, the culture, so on, rarely encourage for more of this to happen. On the positive though, librarians are developing their own tools and resources to engage in KM such as blogs and wikis. Internal reference blogs can be an example of this.

The authors did conduct their own survey to investigate perceptions of the LIS people as well as benefits and advantages of KM in libraries. Let us look at some of the findings.

  • "Knowledge management has been seen as a survival factor for libraries" (203). Given the challenges libraries face, this may well be another way in which librarians add value.
  • "Furthermore, KM gives librarians an opportunity to collaborate with other units in their organizations and hence, to become more integrated into corporate operations and enhance the overall visibility within the organization" (204). I think you can replace the word "corporate" for "academic" in that statement, and it would still be a valid statement, especially at a time when more academic administrators see the library as just a budget item that can or should be cut.
Some examples of KM activity. I am pulling these from some activities mentioned in the study:
  • Set up of a database of topics proposed for publication and for those published in the organization. This can serve not only as storage but as a planning tool.
  • An internal archive. Intranets.
  • Creating a knowledge base, which can then push information internally or two a public website depending on need. I would guess this could translate, at the public website level, into tools like FAQs.
More findings:
  • "In KM, people (their skills and expertise) are the most important asset of an organization. Organizations need to capture the tacit intuitions and know-how that knowledge workers acquire through years of experience and practice, so that their knowledge can be leveraged at the organizational level. This will avoid risking a loss of knowledge when people leave organizations. In other words, in KM, people are not only knowledge users but also knowledge resources and knowledge generators" (208). This also has to do with things like succession planning, which is something not many libraries seem to worry about, and yet they should. Lose a couple of good librarians or staff members, and chaos will ensue. I wonder if in many cases this has to do with the fact that librarians, at least at the early stages of their careers, may jump around every two or three years in search of better opportunities. You take a job knowing you will jump when the better one comes along. For libraries, this means a significant cost in terms of training and continuity, and if it is a case where a particular library has a poor environment that leads to a lot of turnover, the problem is worse. You have to treat your people as assets, and I mean more than saying lip service. They have knowledge, and it must be used and managed.
For those interested in reading further, the article does have a pretty extensive bibliography. While the article seems a bit more focused on corporate libraries, I think it does have a thing or two to say for those of us in academic libraries as well.

1 comment:

campbele said...

This is the kind of stuff I look for on my listservs and librarian blogs. This gives librarianship more meaning than the numerous posts I see lamenting yet another library closing.
Knowledge management makes us relevant to the many fields we should be supporting through our services.