Ten Ways to Add Value to Your Business
Dr David J. Skyrme
In today's competitive business environment every activity carried out in an organisation comes under scrutiny to make sure it pays its way for the business. This is particularly true for non-core activities, such as the provision of information and library services in many organisations. How can information professionals make sure their unit provides good value to their business? This article describes tens ways to add value for a successful future.
It is something of a paradox that at the moment that information is taking a higher profile in organisations that many libraries and information groups are under threat. The rising profile is exemplified by the growing prominence given to the strategic role accorded information and knowledge by management writers such as Drucker and Nonaka in Harvard Business Review [1,2] and books such as 'The Intelligent Enterprise' by Quinn . The formation of ASLIB's Information Resource Management (IRM) Network is also a response to its growing recognition as a strategic asset. This shift in prominence creates both opportunities and threats for in-house professionals. The opportunity is that of being an active partner in strategic decision making, while the threat is that of being perceived as not appropriate to the new role of information in the organisation.
This situation is not unique to the information profession. There are many parallels in the field of information technology and information systems. Although IT has become recognised as giving 'competitive advantage' and being 'strategic to the business'. many formerly quite large and powerful IS departments have found many of their activities 'outsourced', sometimes almost overnight and with indecent haste. Can information professionals learn any lessons from these parallels? I believe they can, and my confidence is based on two sets of inputs:
2) My experience in setting up an information unit and establishing it as a strategic partner to top management 
From these I have developed a set of action guidelines that should help you increase the value of your unit to your organisation.
There are ten guidelines with a broad coverage, ranging from developing a strategic role for information to the development of capabilities and the marketing of the information unit. There is a considerable degree of overlap between these guidelines, since many of them support and depend on each other. Mostly, they are guidelines for development, not maintaining the status quo. Therefore it is essential that you should regularly devote at least 10% of your time to these activities, and certainly more in the early stages.
1. Establishing the Strategic Role of Information
This is a two stage process: (1) a research and investigation phase that gives you the information you need for (2) articulating your mission and strategy. The first phase requires an assessment of the attitudes of senior management to information and how much they are willing to pay for it. I recently asked the head of a market research unit how hard it was to justify their existence and budget. He commented: "that has not been a problem, ever since we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new product and then lost market share to the Japanese". This direct link between a large strategic investment and the bottom line delivered a sharp lesson to senior management on the value of competitor intelligence.
Some of the strategic decisions whose successful outcomes depend on the availability of good information include:
- Market selection and targeting
- New investments
- Location of factories and offices
- New product development and launch
- Pricing and Promotion
Find out how these decisions are made, what information is used, and from where it is sourced. You may already have data from feedback on how the information you have supplied has helped such processes (if not, you should get it!). Has your organisation recently had successes or failures that could be directly attributed to good or bad information? From these investigations you can determine areas of high information leverage where you could play a role. Identify the linkages between information and results. This should then be a cornerstone of your strategy. Use every opportunity to let people, especially senior managers, know about it.
2. Identify Users Real Needs
This is the first of the marketing guidelines. It is essentially about market research. Therefore use the methods used by researchers - surveys, interviews, usage analysis. You already have users. Find out how they use your output and again what results and benefits they achieve. One particularly useful way of teasing this out (used, by the way, to justify office automation systems) is to ask what would happen if you did not offer that service.
Getting to senior management users and non-users is an important strand of this activity. You must also learn about their real needs, not the ones they may initially express. Some of these may be psychological needs such as "I want to impress our senior management team with the range of authoritative information I have at my disposal". Too often, information audits approach this activity from the wrong end by asking lots of questions about "information". The starting point should be discussion of a person's role, their organisational context, and what their critical activities and decisions are. One technique that I have found very effective is the use of a semi-structured interview recorded on tape. If you can 'shadow' a senior person for a day, so much the better.
3. Segment Your Market
This is the keystone of every marketing strategy - grouping customers into segments with common sets of needs. Too often, information unit providers offer a homogenous service to all. This tends to create averaging, of a mediocre service to everybody, rather than an excellent service to some.
Typically segments may be based on departments, product lines, or industries served. However, one attractive method of segmentation relies on the distinctively different needs of senior managers involved with strategic decisions, field sales people, and people in headquarters functions, such as product development and marketing. By defining a few distinct segments you can develop different service approaches and perhaps different resourcing and pricing. This will overcome the common pitfalls of a common approach that leads to conflicts between the 'urgent' and important'.
4. Create a Unique Product
Although you are offering a service, it has many features of a product - a look and feel, a function, and often a tangible manifestation (printed or electronic output). Therefore you need to think in ways of how to make this output more attractive. Your users can buy information elsewhere (and probably do). Your challenge is to customise and add value. Ways of adding value to generic information are shown in Table 1.
Table 1 - Ten Aspects that Add Value to Information
|TIMELINESS||Currency. Information is perishable. Different information has different half lives ('sell by dates'). Some degrades rapidly|
|ACCESSIBILITY:||Easy to find and retrieve - no long-winded searches, good 'hits'|
|USABILITY:||Ease of use; user can manipulate to suit application|
|UTILITY:||Is suited and usable for multiple applications|
|QUALITY:||Accurate, reliable, credible, validated|
|CUSTOMISED:||Filtered, targeted, appropriate style and format; needs minimum processing for specified application|
|MEDIUM:||Appropriate for portability and ongoing use|
|REPACKAGING:||Reformatted to match onward use|
|FLEXIBILITY:||Easy to process; can be used in different ways|
|REUSABILITY:||Can be reused; ideally extra use should refine its quality; the more people that can access and use, the better.|
A second aspect of improving the service to your customers is to broaden their scope. Look beyond the normal services of a library. Can you get in-house experts to add analysis and comment? Can you organise events around specific themes with outside speakers. Technology can also play an important part. It lets you reach more users effectively, and can reduce your information handling time. Increasingly it makes sense to let users have direct on-line access to information and even to encourage their use of external on-line services. Figure 1 shows a framework of the options to consider for broadening the scope of services offered.
Figure 1 - Framework for information services development
One caveat, though, is not to undertake activities that can be done as effectively by others or by the users themselves (such as ordering specialist books and journals). You need to package your activities as a set of products that are unique and distinctive. Articulate what this uniqueness is. An example might be your knowledge and access to sources, that lets you offer 'one-stop shopping'.
5. Sales and Marketing
There is no getting away from it. A successful information unit will sell and market its services. It will have promotional fliers that also serve to inform and educate users. It may well have its own identity and logo. It should also get out and meet customers at their events, such as a sales meeting or the in-house annual research conference. As well as helping the 'selling' it also gains valuable input that helps you develop and improve your services.
Pricing is another aspect of marketing that needs careful attention. Gone are the days when you can continually offer your services for free. Information is valuable - let your clients appreciate that! One approach that can be very effective in a sizeable unit, is to allocate different professionals as 'account managers' for different client groups. This helps their own personal development as they will learn to represent the whole of the information unit and not just their own specialist activity.
6. Evaluation and Feedback
Evaluation and feedback will help you fine tune your product offering, and your marketing strategy. It also links back to the first marketing phase, that of research, thus completing the management loop. Three simple but effective ways of gaining feedback are:
- include a feedback sheet with every item you send out; keep it short e.g. 2-3 questions, such as asking how they used the information provided, and how much time and money it saved
- maintain a call log (even easier with a computerised client data-base); use it to analyse the pattern of demand and identify any patterns over time
- publish the results; it generates even more feedback, and also maintains visibility.
7. Exploit Technology
One of the best ways to leverage scarce resources is to let technology (and your users) do some of the work for you! Many information professionals will already use information technology quite extensively and it is a theme I have touched upon in several of the earlier guidelines. However, there are certain developments that you need to keep abreast of, and offer opportunities for off-loading work:
- sales and marketing administration packages to improve client service
- multimedia and its potential for demand publishing as an alternative to purchasing hard-copy journals
- PC information retrieval packages, such as IdeaList that users can use themselves
- the internet and its search and retrieval tools
- electronic mail for mass distribution and information centre newsletters
- computer conferencing as a means of gaining feedback and developing plans and turning information into intelligence
The great benefit of today's technology is that it allows access to library collections from the user's desk top (the 'virtual library'). Networks allow you to promote and deliver your services more easily throughout your organisation, and to draw on outside resources. It could well be, if you are in a large organisation, that there are multiple information units, rather than a single central one. Networking allows access to common material, pooling of resources and greater opportunities for mutual help and support.
8. Selective Outsourcing
One of the current management fashions is that of outsourcing - contracting out of specialist, non-core activities to outside providers. Its attraction is that outside specialists can offer a broader range of skills and knowledge, and generally at a lower cost. However, before outsourcing organisations must think very carefully about what to retain and what to divest. Some recent lessons from the IT world are instructive.
Whereas facilities management, systems development and upgrading systems are typically outsourced, what tends to be retained in-house are:
- policies e.g. for buying
- standards and quality assurance
- user requirements identification
- user support
- some development
Despite its attractions recent research  has surfaced several problems:
- outsourcing suppliers are not inherently more efficient
- many of the promised savings have not materialised
- the interface with users can revert to one of 'contracts' rather than one of 'relationships'
- there is no shared profit motive: extra costs for one party mean extra profits for the other
- information needs are idiosyncratic not homogenous
Generally, the more 'commodity-like' the service on offer, the better it is as a candidate for outsourcing. On the other hand the more organisation specific or strategic it is, the more the arguments favour retention in-house. Even with outsourcing it is necessary to retain some specialist information skills to select and manage the external contractors.
9. Building Partnerships
Building effective partnerships with clients and suppliers is paramount. There are several means by which partnerships with the business can be strengthened. They operate at three levels:
Organisation level - the reporting structure can have a positive influence. An information unit that is a corporate function, rather than embedded within one department is generally better positioned. Also treating it as a separate profit centre. The strategic influence is increased when the head of the information unit report to a member of the board - in my case it was the director of marketing and strategy.
Teams - there should be teams and task forces that bring information professionals together with business managers. If the account manager approach is adopted, ensure that the information professional becomes an integral part of one of the clients management teams. Also why not have user representatives on your own management team.
Individual - opportunities to improve partnership occur when individuals develop good working relationships with each other. One way of achieving this is through co-location e.g. of an information professional into a user department, or of secondments, say for six months, between a business unit and the information unit.
10. Develop Hybrid Skills
Although you may have trained as an information professional, to bring improved benefits to the business you will need to broaden your skills i.e. become something of a 'hybrid'. A hybrid manager  has a mixture of business knowledge and general management skills as well as that of their speciality. Some of the key skills they possess are:
- knowledge of the industry in which the organisation operates
- awareness of business issues and pressures
- organisation 'know-how' and 'know-who'
- communication skills
- inter-personal skills
Therefore, unless you want to remain a specialist, you should take time out to develop some, if not all, of these skills. This can be achieved by management training, going to industry events and courses, and being assigned on secondment to a business units.
Information is becoming a strategic resource. It is an exiting prospect for the information professional to add real value to information and contribute more directly to an organisation's strategic decision making. A number of guidelines that help to develop this new strategic role have been outlined. They have been based on my own experience with a marketing approach and a service/customer orientation. They are development processes that rely on activities beyond basic information service provision. Properly implemented these guidelines should improve the strategic positioning and visibility of information units, enhance client satisfaction, be cost effective, and help to anticipate opportunities and threats. Above all, they will works towards securing the prosperous future of the in-house information unit. I hope they prove useful to you and I look forward to hearing from any readers of their personal experiences.
I would like to thank Graham Robertson for his comments and suggestions during the preparation of this article.
1. Nonaka, Ikujiro The knowledge creating company, Harvard Business Review, pp96-104 (Nov-Dec 1991)
2. Drucker, Peter E. The coming of the new organisation, Harvard Business Review, pp45-53 (Jan-Feb 1988)
4. Skyrme, David J. From hybrids to bridging, Research and Discussion Paper RDP92/2, Oxford Institute of Information Management, Templeton College, Oxford (Jan 1992)
6. Skyrme, David J. 'Developing successful marketing intelligence: a case study', Management Decision, Vol 28, No. 1, pp 54-61 (1990).
7. Earl, Michael and Skyrme, David J. 'Hybrid managers - what do we know about them?'Journal of Information Systems, Vol 2, pp 169-187 (1992).
Last updated: 29th March 2011