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The Personal Information Trainer

By Stuart Basefsky, Published on April 4, 2008

The following article in preprint form appears in Information Outlook (Journal of the Special Libraries Association), Vol. 11, No. 11, November 2007, pages 10-17 as the Cover Story.

Abstract

The Personal Information Trainer (PIT) can become a unique employee benefit written into the employment contract of key individuals (very few) deemed to be essential to the success of a firm or institution. This is a no-extra-cost (non-compensatory) benefit that can help improve recruitment and retention of top talent and enhance the library's value proposition. This concept is useful to human resource managers, libraries, and the institutions they serve. This article provides the fundamental concepts and constructs necessary to implement such a program with an emphasis on why and how this should be done.

Regardless of the fact-based optimism of our profession that sees itself at or near the center of the information age, others do not always share that perception. When we understand our value--but others only see the costs--our positions and influence are at risk. Consequently, we need to plant the seeds that will grow into a changed perception among the decision-makers with whom we work--our value needs to be evident.

The most effective seed is ourselves, in the form of a well-targeted and sparingly used employee benefit. (1)

This benefit is known as a Personal Information Trainer with the appropriate acronym PIT. After all, a PIT is a seed--even if the term has perhaps a negative connotation. (This does not have to be bad. Broccoli, for example, does not have the best public image as a term, but we all know it to be healthy. Likewise, in this context, the PIT should be known by all to be healthy for productivity, innovation, flexibility, and other elements of competitive advantage that help our institutions grow and succeed.)

My argument is below:

A PIT As An Employee Benefit

The PIT is a professional librarian or information specialist who is assigned to key individuals (very few) deemed to be essential to the success of a firm or institution. The PIT is part of the employment contract (2) with these individuals, a segment of a package designed to attract and retain these talented persons. The role of the PIT is to keep the individual and his or her office up to date on the latest resources useful for productivity and creativity and to provide training as necessary.

The PIT is not "owned" by the individual who has been given this benefit. Nor does the PIT work for the person. In fact, the PIT does similar work for everyone. The difference is that this targeted person gets individual attention and concern while others may be asked to get training as a group. The PIT has an obligation to focus attention on the needs of the target proactively.

Why Create This Entity? What is the Goal?

Most information centers or libraries (and the professionals who run them) are perceived to be part of the infrastructure of a company or institution. They exist for the benefit of everyone--not unlike a company cafeteria, gym, store, or other internal service.

Of course, an information center is linked to an institution's intellectual capital and, therefore, given higher regard. The respect received may or may not exceed that given to information technologists who service another element of what may be called the information infrastructure. The problem with "infrastructure" is people conceive of it as being free to any member of the institution. (Free from the perspective of users, but a major cost from the perspective of the institution's decision-makers). Things that are free are often taken for granted and, therefore, devalued. Herein is the problem: The library is devalued as a matter of perception by its users who in turn no longer place a demand on the institution to pay the major costs.

How then can decision-makers in an institution be persuaded to change how they conceptualize the role of an information center? In other words, how does one change the image of the information center or library from that of infrastructure for the users to one of valued service--valued enough to keep a demand for its continuance?

The answer is to move away from the egalitarian concept of the library or information center (excellent service for all) to one of exclusivity (excellent service for a few) in terms of user perception.

The emphasis here is user perception. After all, the key problem for libraries historically has been to set up a group dynamic among users in defense of the service value that information professionals provide. As I wrote previously:

"Nearly all library patrons will indicate that they are happy with library service. Unfortunately, none of them goes to lunch with the intention of asking the following kind of cocktail conversation question, 'How was your day at the library?' The reputation of the library and its quality services remain with individuals, not groups. There are no natural interest groups coming to the defense of libraries and the services they offer. Only the traditional, scholarly, and cultural imagery of libraries comes to their defense. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, in a cynical world where one knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, respect based on tradition or even knowledge of true value is little to rely on. 'What is your organization costing?' is the predominant question of the day. 'What does the institution gain from your existence?' is the parallel question. Without good answers, the future for libraries is not promising. Consequently, a transformation is necessary." (3)

With increasingly cynical decision-makers, it becomes more and more difficult for information professionals to defend their services. No amount of measurements that speak to return on investment or nifty metrics that support the bottom line will change the perception of the information center as fundamentally a cost center, unless users coalesce around this internal organization (the library) with true desire for its valued service.

So how does one create user desire so strong that a collective voice for a valued service will be heard? This is the goal.

The Essential Questions

Because of the above, two fundamental questions must be addressed:

  1. What is the value of the library to an organization and its employees?
  2. What is the value of any infrastructure that is thought to be freely available to members of the organization as both a commodity and a service?

In part, both of these questions have been answered already. However, additional nuances need to be drawn out.

As to the first, personal agendas and projects attract individuals to information services. They know that information professionals can help them save time, be creative, reduce redundancies, promote their careers, and, in a word, compete. Once in a while, managers using these services will encourage others to take advantage of them for the general good of the organization. But for the most part, individual experience brings usage. Whatever group dynamic may exist in support of the library, it is usually at a conceptual level. This makes the institution of the library vulnerable to workplace politics.

In response to question number two, it is human nature to ignore or to be unconcerned about those things that are perceived to be free. And it is human nature to desire materials and services perceived to be useful but scarce.

To draw on a parallel image, think of tap water and bottled water. Tap water is perceived to be free and bottled water has a fee attached. Most people know that there is, in fact, little significant difference in water quality between the two. Packaging and a price makes the product desired and valued.

So how can libraries and information professionals be repackaged so they become desired and valued? In answer to this question comes the key element: the employee benefit. It is the glass or plastic bottle holding the water for which everyone pays dearly.

Why Must a PIT Be An Employee Benefit? How Do All Parties Gain?

From a strategic perspective, it is important for an organization to attract and retain top talent. However, developing a unique and attractive compensation plan that is difficult for a competitor to copy is not easy. This executive viewpoint offers an opportunity to libraries within these institutions (all these libraries being different in terms of focus, specialization, and human capital) to step forward and argue that their specialized skills can offer competitive advantage if they could be turned into a employee benefit that is actually written into the employment contract of a few targeted individuals ("star" employees).

How is this done?

A conceptual framework needs to be developed and proposed in coordination with the top human resources officer within the institution. This requires an understanding of what constitutes an employee benefit.

A well-explained PIT in the employment package should be received enthusiastically by an existing or prospective employee. After all, when a PIT is offered, it signals the willingness of the institution to invest in and provide exclusive support for this individual's work. It validates the individual's worth to the organization.

From the information specialist's perspective, to be a PIT means that one is viewed as a valued investment in the productivity of key talent--essential to the long-term benefit of the organization. It validates the worth of the PIT not only in this specialized role and butin providing general service to the organization.

The "other employees" not given a PIT may feel slighted. This is precisely the intent. They will likely begin to acknowledge the services of a PIT are somehow special because they themselves are not "entitled" to this individual attention. What was once not special becomes prized. These others may ask themselves, "Why did that person get a PIT and not me?" and "What am I missing by not having a PIT?" They are now motivated to seek the assistance of information specialists because they equate their services with status and advancement in the organization. Of course, the organization's management is happy to have the service used by everyone. That is why they created an information center in the first place.

To be noted in particular is the perspective of the human resources department. Offering incentives for top talent that do not cost extra money is desirable. It is a tool that HR executives would love to have at their disposal. (George Milkovich, the M.P. Catherwood Professor Emeritus at Cornell University's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies and a world-renowned compensation expert, agrees with this assessment and encourages this innovation.)

Checklist For Implementation

To implement this kind of initiative, one must first make a proper case with the institution's management or the head of the human resources department. This may not be that simple. Many executives are neither aware of the vital role of the information center nor of its potential. Opening the dialogue may invite unwanted scrutiny. However, a suggested approach includes the following:

Real and Prospective Examples

I have tested this concept successfully on three occasions. While I have not formalized these tests with an employment contract, my services have been cast as an employee benefit during the time they were operational with the persons being served.

The examples above demonstrate effectiveness or at least its potential. What remains to be done is institutionalizing these efforts with the blessings of library leaders.

I have never been in a position of authority where I could institute the program that I am suggesting here. I am only able to show by my example how this can be done. Those in authority should be trying to do the same--but with an institutionalized approach. In my opinion, the best way to accomplish this is by creating the PIT employee benefit.

Long-term Consequences

If one were to institute such a program, what would be the long-term consequences?

When trying to solve a problem--in this case, turning the impression of information services from cost to value--the solution can often create new problems. However, in this instance the problems should be welcome. These include:

Policy Concerns

The notion of developing a PIT as an employee benefit may be enticing. However, there are a few major concerns that any library must take into consideration before choosing to implement such a program. Among these are:

The culture of librarians and librarianship

The need for the "visible librarian"

Staffing

The view of the decision-makers

I have spoken with numerous partners in law firms (8), executives in companies, and administrators in universities. They welcome forthright and professional librarians telling them what they want and need in order to make the larger institution more competitive. They would prefer to get away from the stereotypes of librarians. They want to think of their information specialists as change agents. All they seek is a professional attitude, good proposals, and useful experimentation. If they see evidence of progress, they will treat people in our occupation with respect. They will value them and their services. The differentiation of service--in the form of an employee benefit--is one of the politically appropriate ways of earning their confidence.

To conclude, the cost center image of our services must change. Librarians and information specialists should seek methods for making the transition to value. One such model is implementing Personal Information Trainer as an employee benefit. It may or may not be a good fit for any given library organization. However, the change has to come from individual efforts. It is best, from my perspective, if these efforts can be institutionalized in some form. The evidence of my own efforts tells me that this can be done.

What disturbs me is that when I am successful, the highest compliment that I get is, "Oh, you are no librarian. You are something different, something special." Yes, I am valued individually--but what about my profession, my information center. I wish it were something different, something special. Perhaps with this concept and similar ones, it will become possible to put the "special" back into special libraries.

Endnotes

  1. Employee Benefits are defined in Roberts' Dictionary of Industrial Relations (Fourth Edition, 1993) as "... any form of employee compensation other than direct wages.... [It] includes all the elements of an employer's total compensation system, direct and indirect, that the employer uses to remunerate or benefit its employees."
  2. According to Black's Law Dictionary (Eighth Edition, 2004), an employment contract is "A contract between an employer and employee in which the terms and conditions of employment are stated."
  3. This quotation is taken from my article, "The Library as an Agent of Change: Pushing the Client Institution Forward," in Information Outlook, August 1999.
  4. Milkovich and Newman, Compensation, 1993
  5. The MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics (Third Edition, 1986), edited by David W. Pearce, at page 145.
  6. See LLRX.com for the article, "Outsourcing in Law Firm Libraries, by Rachel Pergament, April 1, 1999 [excerpt] "On March 31, 1995, the Chicago office of Baker & McKenzie fired the entire ten person library staff. The firm announced that it planned to close its library and replace the staff with a library management company. Although these events occurred almost four years ago, and Baker & McKenzie has since hired in-house library staff, they continue to receive attention from law librarians and influence discussions of library management practices and procedures. Moreover, Baker & McKenzie's actions provide important lessons about librarians' perceptions of outsourcing and the pitfalls of entering into an outsourcing agreement without considering its impact on the entire law firm."
  7. See Basefsky, S., "The Other Client: Information Training for Administrators Pays Dividends for the Library" in College & Research Libraries News, 2000, vol. 61, n.2, pp. 100-101.
  8. Most recently with a partner at Kaye Scholer LLP in New York City.