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Earning the Right to Give Advice (from Stephan Abram)

Posted by Editor on June 29, 2011

Monday, 20 June 2011 Category Leadership in Ken Haycock’s Blog

I am honoured that Ken asked me to write a guest post. I decided that I’d leave the post’s focusing on authentic governance, leadership, strategic human resources management and research from a CEO and senior management perspective to Ken, and I’d share my perspectives on an issue I’ve been thinking about for a while now: the role of giving professional advice in librarianship.

As information professionals we are often asked to give advice and our professional opinion on a number of issues and projects. We recommend sources and databases. We advise on research processes. We comment on the quality and veracity of authors, serials, brands, websites, e-readers, and blogs. If we’re doing it right, we are sought out and asked for our considered opinions. . If we’re not sought after, we should identify opportunities to contribute our advice and opinions from an informed perspective. What we know and do matters a lot in this emerging knowledge economy.

The right to give advice starts with a well informed perspective. Professionals are asked for their opinions the first time because people assume their education and experience makes for better and informed judgments. Professionals are asked for their opinions subsequent times because their previous advice has been thoughtful, authoritative, respected and trusted. People earn the right to advise others because they have earned that trust.

This relationship with others is something that builds over the arc of a career or series of interactions with individuals and groups. All of these qualities can be lost in an instant with our users if we play loose with our opinions or they are not informed. That’s the quandary we face. There is a measure of risk in giving advice; risk aversion and lack of confidence inhibits developing trusted relationships quickly. Some librarians and information professionals seem to struggle with having the confidence of our opinions. That’s a problem. We must take a few risks and be informed to confidently position ourselves better in the knowledge-based economy. Also, the ‘library’ brand is not sufficient. Your personal reputation as an information professional matters equally.

As technology and content choices are an increasing dimension of our users’ life decisions, and information becomes an even more essential part of our enterprise’s DNA and decision-making workflows, we, as our organizations’ and community’s information experts, must step up to the plate and offer a professional opinion. It’s an even more exciting time in our professional lives that we can more strongly position ourselves for our personal and collective expertise as opposed to just our collections and databases. Expertise isn’t just limited to our information skills. It’s also about the role we play in advising our enterprises and communities about content, technology and what are the best choices for our environments, our mutual goals and our users’ needs.

Are we ready? I don’t know. I have had many conversations about this topic in the past few years and followed many conversations on discussion lists, conference panels, blogs, etc. I worry when I see statements that some new technologies have no place in libraries. I heard these sorts of blanket opinions, expressed by working information professionals, in the early days of AltaVista (remember that?) vs. online and I’m seeing similar opinions being expressed about social networking technologies and e-books. I am not truly appalled until I ask them what their experience is with these technologies. Too often, and actually the majority of the time, too many information professionals have little to no actual experience with the technology they are criticizing. It’s really an opinion based on assumptions or gut feeling.

Professionals, – and that includes us – can’t fall prey to media hype, by observing a few children, or by some other information process that resembles hearsay more than research. These processes don’t produce an “informed opinion.” We build trust by positioning our advice in the context of our professional opinion. We share this communication tactic with other advisory professions – doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, pharmacists, and others.

(On a slight tangent, I hear many colleagues comment on the quality of library schools and their graduates. Again, I ask when they were last there, saw a class or met – or interviewed – a student. Too often their opinions about today’s graduate programs are informed by their own experience decades ago and they’ve often rarely returned or even seen a range of library education programs. I find too often that they are basing their opinions on assumptions rather than fact but they still feel very strongly that they are right. That’s interesting and sad. Having actually visited dozens of schools, taught in a few programs and met so many student CLA, ALA and SLA members, I can only say I am impressed. I trust my own experiences. I trust research more – like the Canadian 8R’s project or the U.S. IMLS studies. Honestly, I fail to see how we build up a stronger profession by mindlessly criticizing our own roots and future colleagues.)

If we want to be seen as thoughtful, authoritative, respected and trusted we need to have the bona fides. If we want our advice to be sought after – and we want to confidently put forth our opinions, we need to inform ourselves with facts, experience and knowledge. In the case of new technologies, that means we should have at least have played with many of the most interesting and leading edge new technologies. We don’t need to adopt them all into our regular work lives – not at all. We don’t need to bet the enterprise on transient or in-development technologies either. We just need to have a better-informed opinion than our users and clients, host institutions and communities. They have a right to get the best opinion and perspective possible from their information professionals.

Currently our users are confused by the e-book revolution and are asking our advice. We should offer an informed perspective. We see our users being taken in by content farm and SEO manipulated search engine algorithms. We have an obligation to advise our users. We see social communication circles developing apace that will materially affect the course of history and scholarship. Excitingly we can offer advice on social networks, micro-blogging, information and learning technologies, and more.

Part of our professional positioning is having the confidence of our opinions. It also means signing our work and tying it to our personal and professional brand. Not positioning our skills, experience and talents well is to miss the biggest opportunity for an information profession in an information age. Indeed, nearly any information transaction can be automated – with the exception of making choices and providing advice. Are we ready to step up to the plate to increase our role in providing professional and informed opinions? It’s a critical time for our profession now.

We earn the right to have an opinion by being the expert. Combined with excellent and trusting relationships with key people, we can have a major impact on organizational success and society at large. When we have the experience and informed perspective, we earn that right and increase our value to the enterprises where we are employed. Indeed many of us may work independently as consultants and advisors. We have a duty to ensure our users are informed. We also have a duty to make sure that our opinions are informed too.

An informed opinion will take you far.

Stephen Abram, MLS, is Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Markets, for Gale Cengage Learning. He is a Past President of SLA, an SLA Fellow and the past president of the Ontario Library Association and the Canadian Library Association. In June 2011, he was awarded CLA’s Outstanding Service to Librarianship. He was awarded SLA’s 2003 John Cotton Dana Award, the AIIP Roger Summit Award in 2009 and the University of Toronto 2010 iSchool Outstanding Teaching Award. He is the author of Out Front with Stephen Abram and Stephen’s Lig…


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