While many SMR International clients and other readers are not affiliated with specialized librarianship, many others are, and the current activity relating to the recommended new name for the Special Libraries Association (SLA) offers a remarkable naming opportunity for all knowledge workers.
SLA has long been recognized as the preeminent international professional association for specialist librarians and other information professionals. For a decade or more SLA has struggled with how to broaden its membership base and provide a professional “home” for people engaged in knowledge work, regardless of job titles and departmental affiliations. The many people who work with information, knowledge, and strategic learning have until now not had a single organization to meet their networking, professional development, and advocacy needs. SLA has tried many times to assume this role, but its name – with its difficult construct that confuses “special” and “libraries” equally – has excluded many knowledge workers who require an association to support them in their work.
Now things have changed and SLA has found a solution. Recognizing the last decade’s attention to knowledge management, knowledge services, and the role of knowledge professionals as knowledge thought leaders – both in developing organizational knowledge strategy and in building the organizational knowledge culture – SLA’s leadership recommends that the association be known as an organization for strategic knowledge professionals.
In taking this step, SLA now gives the professional knowledge worker the opportunity to be established as the “go-to” person for any interaction having to do with information, knowledge, or strategic learning, regardless of how their operational business unit is designated or what the individual job title is. Indeed, SLA has made it clear that in seeking the new name, it is not seeking to change job titles or “take anything away” from current members and their working relationships. It is a name change for the organization that is being recommended, not for individuals or their professional roles.
From a different perspective, though, what is being offered by SLA is not just a name change for one organization. It is an important next step in how we think about knowledge, KM, and knowledge services.The new phrase takes the attention from any single or particular branch of knowledge work and moves us to that larger realm in which many, many knowledge workers are employed . Whatever they are called in their workplace (according to some sources, SLA members have more than 2,000 job titles!), being affiliated with the newly christened field we’ll call strategic knowledge finally gives knowledge workers an important new function in the workplace. Now, without question or explanation, the strategic knowledge professional automatically becomes that “go-to” person for questions and policy having to do with organizational information, knowledge, and strategic learning.
It makes so much sense. We all know what the words mean, and if we don’t, SLA Past President Steven Abrams offers guidance in his essay on the SLA name change:
- Strategic: “highly important to or an integral part of a strategy or plan of action”
- Knowledge: “The sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned”
- Professional: “A skilled practitioner; an expert.”
So how does one know if they are working as a strategic knowledge professional? How might the phrase apply in the workplace? Mary Ellen Bates, just elected to SLA’s Board of Directors, provides a useful picture: “I know that I have to see myself,” Bates writes, “as someone who looks strategically at my clients’ information needs, who is able to provide added analysis to my research, and who is always staying on the leading edge of the information industry. I expect to lead my clients’ expectations of what I can do; I’m not just responding to what they ask for.”
“I also think that ‘strategic knowledge’ can be a canny phrase for us,” Trefethen says. “Let me illustrate that by comparing it to what it isn’t: it isn’t common knowledge. ‘Common knowledge’ is a more well-known phrase, and it used to be a staple of our service when I first began my career. We called it ready reference. Now, it is all available for free on the Internet. At least it is PERCEIVED to be free, by those who employ us. This means we must differentiate ourselves from the free Internet. One way is to use an evocative term that moves away from language that implies ‘free’.
“Unfortunately,” Trefethen continues, “‘information’ is a bit compromised for our purposes, in my opinion. ‘Information’ is closely associated now with software engineers and, well, Information Technology. People also think ‘information wants to be free,’ the paradigm we are trying to get beyond. ‘Knowledge’ has always worked well for us. It’s been in [the SLA] motto from the beginning, putting knowledge to work. It consists of valued intelligence and wisdom, not just facts. I believe this is the path we can successfully pursue, and I think ‘strategic knowledge’ is a phrase that can work for us.”
Well said. And while I’m not sure Abram and Bates and Trefethen were suggesting that their association adopt phraseology that would translate into a descriptor for an entire profession (although, knowing them, they probably were), their cogent thoughts lead to a useful pathway in that direction.
At SMR International, we too – not surprisingly – have our own take on the the role of the strategic knowledge professional. Using other phraseology of course, we have discussed the subject often over the years, both with clients and colleagues, and – truth to tell – in almost any other conversation about building strong relationships between knowledge workers and management. Especially when the focus is on knowledge services and we are seeking to describe the function of knowledge services in developing and sustaining a corporate knowledge culture, there have been many, many conversations about linking knowledge workers to organizational success. We even found ourselves developing our own slide show, just to try to clear things up when we needed to speak about these things. Now, with the new phrase re-naming what we used to refer to as the “knowledge services professional,” the story make a lot more sense. And it will make sense to organizational managers and enterprise leaders.
Examples abound, and five come immediately to mind, all of which (and many others of course) can be used to illustrate the wide range of professional services provided in a strategic knowledge environment:
- the archives management unit of an international scientific research organization
- the corporate records and information management department of an established business, a real estate management firm, say, or a family-owned insurance agency
- the research management operation in a large philanthropic organization
- a members’ library in a private club or trade association
- a library in a law firm
In each of these examples, the organization has a specific mission and each organization utilizes knowledge services to support the achievement of that mission. In doing so, each organization functions as a knowledge culture because knowledge development and knowledge sharing, the famous “KD/KS” of knowledge services, connects the organization’s knowledge strategy directly to the organization’s business or mission strategy. And in each situation the management and service delivery function of the knowledge services business unit is not constrained by what it is called, nor are the knowledge services director and the strategic knowledge staff constrained by job titles. They use what works in the specific, individual environment, yet each business unit connects with strategic knowledge for the larger organization and each strategic knowledge professional supports and sustains the larger organization as a knowledge culture.
And to prove it works, here’s an exercise: let’s start using the term “strategic knowledge” to describe that thing we work with. It’s not an artifact (a book or a journal article) or content (digitized or otherwise). It’s not even a person or group of people “containing” (excuse me) the content, such as a community of practice or a working group or even the guy in the next cubicle. Regardless of how we get it, it is what we develop and share. Job titles and business unit functions don’t matter, and by applying KD/KS in the workplace, our employing organizations succeed. It’s knowledge, it’s strategic, and strategic knowledge professionals put it to work.
Thank goodness we now know what to call it.