As discussed in my last post, special libraries now exist in a highly competitive information marketplace, where business users of content have lots of options. Michael Porter—in his seminal book Competitive Strategy—stated that in a competitive marketplace there are three strategies that make sense: cost leadership, differentiation, and focus. What does this imply for special library strategies?
Since the internet wins on cost leadership (e.g. free), I strongly advise against competing here. When good alternatives exist on the internet (e.g. buying books from Amazon), do not try to be better than Amazon, or fight to save the business user $2 for a book. Instead, leverage free internet resources and send your users to high-quality places where self-service works well for your organization.
Now let’s examine how the special library can use differentiation and focus to win in this highly competitive market.
Different is good
Differentiation simply means being different. During my conversations with special librarians over the past twenty‑five years, the thing that comes up as a key differentiator is service. The internet is self-service, on-line databases are self-service, and statistics from consultancies still say that business users spend 25% to 30% of their time searching for information—and unfortunately, that 1/3 to 1/2 of the time, they fail to find what they seek. So if you can deliver the content business users need, it will save them time and lots of frustration. Sounds to me like the special librarian might be able to differentiate.
But here is where focus must now be brought in. Without focus, the special library cannot win in this competitive landscape. Too many people need too much information, so without focus you can easily service the wrong users—while not really impacting your organization’s performance. So, you need to focus. But how?
Do not focus on activities such as the number of hits on the OPAC, or number of research requests. Focus on the things that matter to your boss, her boss and her boss’s boss: e.g., work primarily on projects where you can measure impact on lowering costs or increasing revenue, or…? Develop practice or subject matter expertise within your department and embed team members into project staffing.
Go boldly (or boldly go!) toward success
If you focus on high-impact projects, and the library is an acknowledged contributor to their success, you can build the library’s reputation as being able to cut costs, grow revenue, shorten time to market, or play a pivotal role in creating the new blockbuster product. This is not easy and requires huge discipline to turn down requests for assistance from squeaky wheels with low-impact projects. But without this discipline, both the business and the library will lose out. Align the library with your organization’s strategic goals, identify the high-profile projects in your business that support these goals, and make yourself and your staff members integral parts of those teams.
Knowledge and content are indeed “weapons of business.” Those key strategic projects need your help. A fundamental tenet of communication is “know your audience.” That applies here: if special librarians think a bit more like business people, they’ll succeed and thrive in today’s information driven economy.