audit, needs assessment, knowledge inventory — all are names for a process
that examines the secret life of information within an organization. Where
does the information come from? Where does it go? How is it used? How transformed?
Who keeps it? Who shares it? Perhaps most importantly, the process may
identify the information that gets away, leaving workers and decision-makers
to rely on hunches and the way things have been done in the past. An information
audit can also reveal time and money wasted on information sources that
no one uses and show why no one uses them.
The problem with
all the names for the process is that they're too narrow. Audit implies
an analysis of what's been reported; a needs assessment looks at only the
first half of information's organizational life; and inventory assumes
all needs are met. What we'll talk about here is an information checkup.
Compare it to an annual physical. How is the organization feeling? Are
there symptoms that indicate a problem in one of the information systems?
What does a complete examination of the organization's information show?
Can tests discover maladies that haven't caused problems yet? Like a medical
exam, a periodic information checkup can provide benchmarks that can serve
as early indicators of illness. "Hmmm, visitors to the library Web site
have increased, but article retrieval from one service is down by 20 percent."
Just as medical
exams vary according to the age and physical condition of the patient,
an information checkup should be customized to the organization. The focus
changes depending on the goal of the checkup and the status of information
services. If you're setting up a new library, you want to pinpoint needed
resources, discover gatekeepers (those people who can answer nearly any
question from their personal knowledge or individual library), and find
out how the organization will use information once you provide it. For
existing information services, you should focus on awareness, relevance,
usability, and unmet needs. If you're developing a knowledge management
system, you'll need additional data on how information moves within the
Just what can an
information checkup do for an established corporate library? You already
know what people need. You have the statistics to justify your budget.
Your people know that they can't get truly reliable information only from
the Web and that they shouldn't waste time trying. That may all be true
today, but what about next week? Let's suppose one of these scenarios occurs:
You get a new boss
who never worked for a company with a library.
You get a new boss
from a department that has never used the library.
A vendor sells management
on desktop delivery of information so easy it doesn't require an information
The company hires
a new batch of MBAs/Ph.D.s used to doing their own research.
The division that
encompasses your primary customer base is sold.
a 15 percent across-the-board budget cut.
The IT department
gets the OK for a knowledge management system that will provide "all the
information anyone needs."
Do you really
know all that your customers need? Do you deliver information the best
possible way? Do you serve the right people? What evidence do you have
to prove your claims? It's time for an information checkup.
The first step
is to define your goal for the checkup:
Although you may want
to, you can't get the answer to every question in your first checkup. Checkups
take time, not just yours, but that of users who have to answer survey
questions. Write down the questions you want answered and then rank them.
Make sure you ask "big" questions. You don't want to ask, "Should we get
ProQuest?" You want to ask, "What types of information do workers need?"
and "What characteristics make electronic resources easy for employees
to use?" or "What kinds of research should employees do themselves and
what kinds should be handled by library staff?"
discovering why some
usage statistics have dropped
guidance for collection
new policy emphasizing
concern over why your
marketing efforts don't produce more business
input for a strategic
support and ammunition
for upcoming budget battles
establishing a benchmark
to measure against in the future
Once you have your
goals clearly defined, you can approach your manager. Obtaining management
support for the information checkup is essential. Chances are you will
need to hire a consultant and will need budget approval for the expenditure.
More importantly, however, the checkup will require cooperation and at
least minimal time commitment from lots of very busy people. An e-mail
from the CEO or a vice president will do much to encourage that cooperation.
How do you obtain
that level of support? Put your goals in terms management understands.
"Guidance for collection development" may become "a study to insure that
resources are expended for the areas of greatest need and potential return
on investment." Use the corporate lingo. Convince your boss first and then
ask him or her for help in framing your proposal. Don't be shy about asking
for a consultant. Other departments in the organization probably bring
in consultants regularly. Even if a consultant only confirms what you know,
the consultant's opinion will carry more weight than yours. Somehow the
act of paying for advice and opinions imbues them with tremendous validity.
Next, you need
to identify consultants who conduct information checkups. The Special Libraries
Association maintains a searchable online directory of consultants — CONSULT
Online [http://www.sla.org]. Currently
the directory lists 43 consultants under "Audits." The Library Administration
and Management Association, a division of the American Library Association,
publishes an annual directory of consultants as an insert in the fall issue
of Library Administration and Management magazine. Postings to electronic
discussion groups will often yield responses from consultants themselves,
as well as suggestions from those who have hired consultants. Once you
have a list of candidates, you're ready to write the Request for Proposal
on your current library operations and a description of your organization.
Be as explicit as
possible about what you want and how you plan to use the results of the
checkup. Once you have drafted your RFP, you may want to talk with someone
in your purchasing department. There may be standard clauses that any RFP
from your organization must include. The purchasing agent can also review
your document for clarity.
the number of employees
in the library, at the site, and around the world.
the line of business
of your organization.
at least a few details
on how the library operates.
who within the organization
constitutes your primary clientele.
why you want to conduct
an information checkup now.
the specific goals
for the checkup.
when you would like
to begin the process.
when you would like
to have the consultant's report.
when proposals must
how you want to receive
them, i.e., e-mail or postal service.
You may want to
include a ball-park budget. From a consultant's point of view, having a
budget makes writing the proposal much simpler. We can tailor our recommendations
to fit the budget. If the budget is inadequate for the specifications,
we don't have to respond at all. If it seems generous, we have the freedom
to expand on what we think the client really needs. If you include a budget,
be sure to do some careful research on costs. In general, the larger the
organization, the greater the cost. Talk to other librarians and talk to
a few consultants. Most will be willing to provide at least a range of
If you decide not
to include a preliminary budget in your RFP, you will probably receive
proposals with a wide range of prices. Take a careful look at the proposals
and be sure that you understand how the consultant would approach the project.
The low bidder may not do enough while the high bidder may offer more than
you need. Evaluate the proposals based on whether the approach makes sense
for your organization. You can always ask for a revised proposal if the
budget and/or scope is off.
Before you make
your selection, talk with the consultant. Make sure you get good vibes.
If you can't communicate effectively with your consultant, you won't get
the results you want. While the basic techniques for conducting a checkup
don't change, their application to a specific situation does. Be sure that
your consultant will customize their approach to fit your goals and your
There are three
basic techniques for conducting a checkup: one-on-one interviews, focus
groups, and surveys. The goals of the checkup dictate which technique or
combination thereof to use.
work best for evaluating information needs, staff responsiveness, and attitudes
toward the library and information services in general. Interviews are
the best technique for tracking the flow of information within the company
for knowledge management projects. In the interview, the consultant may
start with very general questions: "What do you do?" "What information
do you use?" "How do you find it?" In the course of the conversation, we
probe deeper, suggesting information that might be useful, asking about
library services, checking the validity of client perceptions.
The specific questions
and the direction of the conversation depend on the goals of the information
checkup. The benefit of interviews is that they allow us to look beyond
initial reactions. The employee who has all the information he needs at
his fingertips may have given up on the library in the days when document
delivery took 2 weeks and he never had time to wait. He may not realize
that the majority of the articles he needs can be obtained online. Unless
you do a terrible job, interviews are the only effective way to investigate
problems. Most people will be reluctant to voice criticism in the public
setting of a focus group, and a survey may gauge unhappiness but not reveal
the causes. A good interviewer will extract examples of service failures
so that you can determine if the problem was a one-time incident or evidence
of a system failure.
questions. Take comprehensive notes but do not use a tape recorder. Promise
anonymity when requested. Do all you can to create an environment that
will yield a candid and relaxed conversation. We are always amazed at what
we learn about the inner-workings of a company. If you conduct the interviews,
make sure you have time to review your notes immediately after each interview.
You'll want to clarify and expand areas where you couldn't write down everything.
You'll also want to make sure your notes are legible.
Even though a consultant
may conduct the interviews, one important key to their success resides
with you — selection of those to be interviewed. You always want to include
at least a few gatekeepers. These individuals may be your biggest supporters
or your main competition. These are the individuals who have been with
the organization long enough to know why things are done the way they are.
They are often the sources others turn to for information before
they call the library. They hoard information and they share it. They can
give the consultant a good understanding of how the organization works
candidates will depend on the goals of the checkup. You may decide on a
mix of library users and those you have never seen. You should include
the highest level of management available. This is where support from upper
management is essential. Interviews last from 30-60 minutes. Without a
directive from management scheduling interviews can become extremely difficult.
Although the opinions of potential and current users are important in developing
your services, the attitudes of vice presidents are critical to whether
you'll be able to deliver those services.
We conducted an
information checkup as a first step in setting up a library for the R&D
department of a medium-sized company. Every scientist we interviewed told
us they wanted the librarian to conduct the research. They didn't have
time to do the research themselves. Their idea of desktop information delivery
was a report sent to them by e-mail. Management, unfortunately, decided
they could save the salary of a research librarian by having the scientists
do their own research. You will need management support to implement the
changes that result from the information checkup. Including executives
in the interviews can give them a stake in the outcome.
are a good technique when the interaction of participants will generate
ideas. Focus groups produce terrific results for strategic planning. If
you can get one person to voice an opinion, others will react to it, criticize
it, improve on it, and move the conversation in new directions. Focus groups
are also excellent for evaluating existing or proposed marketing materials
and techniques. They make good sounding boards for ideas for new services.
We discovered the
"two-click rule" in a focus group. The librarian was investigating different
ways to deliver information electronically. He had been sending a biweekly
synopsis of industry news by e-mail and was considering eliminating the
e-mail and posting the newsletter on the library Web site. As the discussion
evolved, a consensus emerged. If the participants received an e-mail notice
that a new issue of the newsletter had been posted and could click on a
link in the e-mail to reach it, they would read the newsletter. If they
had to go to the library site, click on the newsletter, and then click
on the issue, they probably wouldn't bother. This is the kind of critical
information that only a focus group can generate.
As with the interviews,
your key role is in selecting participants. The ideal size for a focus
group is six to 10 individuals. Too small a group doesn't create the energy
needed to generate ideas. Too large a group and not everyone can participate.
Usually you will need to invite a few more people than you want for the
group. In general, participants in a focus group should be on the same
organizational level. You don't want supervisors and those they supervise
in the same group.
Review the discussion
guide with the consultant to make sure that the most important issues are
discussed at the beginning of the session. A focus group can usually address
three to four primary topics. Most sessions last from 60-90 minutes. Select
a comfortable, neutral setting. A consultant will be able to move the discussion
from one topic to another without the constraints of the usual meeting
dynamics of your organization. You may want to observe and take notes.
Although most focus group sessions are recorded, an observer can note body
language. Careful notes also help in interpreting the tape by identifying
speakers. If you know the participants, your understanding of how they
interact will also help in analyzing the session. The analysis of the focus
group results will note both ideas on which the group achieved consensus
and those supported by fewer participants.
is the checkup technique that yields quantifiable information appropriate
for benchmarking, as well as the graphs so beloved by management. The most
important limitation of a survey is the mental effort expended by the survey
respondent. Few people will spend 45 minutes on a survey, and the level
of attention given to a particular question will be far less than for an
interview or focus group. Surveys work well for measuring awareness of
existing services, for gathering usage statistics, and for investigating
the market share of your competitors. Surveys do not work very well for
evaluating the value of your services, identifying usage barriers, or discovering
deficiencies in your services or collection.
must be short and have very simple questions. Never survey for information
you can find another way. You don't need to ask people if they have checked
out books, ordered documents, or requested research — you already have
sources of statistics for these. Your Webmaster should be able to supply
statistics for hits on your site and possibly for duration. Information
services vendors can provide a variety of statistics that measure use of
services available to end-users. If you already know the answer to a question,
or if having the answer won't change the way you do things, don't ask it.
If your consultant
develops the survey, be sure that the questions use terminology recognized
within your organization. Use "unsatisfactory," "satisfactory," "great"
rather than 1, 2, or 3. Convert the answers to numeric values when you
receive the responses. It's too easy for rushed respondents to reverse
a numeric scale. Avoid asking respondents to rank things. Inevitably respondents
get confused. Multiple questions, such as those on importance in the sample,
can accomplish the same objective as a ranking question without confusing
Before you send
out a survey, test, test, test. Ask someone who has never used the library
to take the survey. Do they understand the questions? Did any terminology
confuse them? Do they know how to return the survey? Paper surveys may
get more attention than electronic ones, but cost more to send and process.
If you use an electronic survey, be sure it works. What happens if a user
skips a question? Can they go on to the next screen? Can they go back and
change an answer? If they get interrupted, can they get out of the survey
and go back later? At the beginning of an electronic survey you should
reveal the total number of questions. Otherwise, respondents may get discouraged
on the third screen and give up.
Make sure the due
date is obvious and reasonable. If employees travel frequently, you will
need to allow more time than if they do not. If at all possible, provide
an incentive for those who respond by the deadline, such as entry into
a drawing for an airline ticket, dinner at a fancy restaurant, or gift
certificate. If your sales department provides incentives for top sales
people, they may be able to help you out.
You can have your
consultant handle the survey results or you may seek in-house assistance
on sending the survey out and processing the responses. Then you and your
consultant can analyze the results.
Getting the results
of an information checkup is a lot like that part of the physical where
you get your clothes back on and go sit in the doctor's office. The consultant
will review the findings. He or she will show you the graphs depicting
the survey results, review the focus group discussions, and provide a summary
of the interviews. Then the consultant will relate all this information
back to your goals and the specific questions you wanted answered.
conclusions and recommendations may surprise you.
If this happens,
take time to review all the data provided. Make a list of questions and
call the consultant. You may not agree with everything the consultant recommends,
but you should understand the basis for the recommendations. Of course
the consultant doesn't know that the IT department will never agree to
make the library site the default home page. How do you know it? One of
the reasons for any information checkup is to validate your assumptions
about how information is really gathered and used within your organization.
Don't be afraid to acknowledge that your assumptions were wrong. If they
were, you have the opportunity to change your direction and make sure your
services are relevant to your organization. If your assumptions were correct,
you now have the evidence of that from an impartial expert. That clean
bill of health should give you the confidence to take on new challenges.
Do It Yourself
or Hire a Consultant?
Some aspects of
the checkup you may be able to handle yourself or turn to other departments
within your company for help either in whole or in part. Some critical
tasks, however, are best performed by an outsider.
Depending on the
goal of your checkup, you may be able to conduct some or all of the interviews.
If you only want to know what information people use or want, you may get
the answers. However, if you want to know how people perceive you, your
staff, your resources, and the services you provide, you'll need a consultant
to ask the questions. Most people will not say anything negative directly
to you. They don't want to hurt your feelings or there may be other political
reasons for being reticent. A consultant can promise anonymity, is not
part of the political structure, and is not affected by criticism. You
will also need a consultant if you want to gather evidence of the value
your library provides. A report filled with compliments that you have gathered
yourself will be dismissed as self-serving. One written by a paid consultant
should carry more credibility.
You will obtain
much more information as an observer than as a discussion leader. Your
familiarity with the participants will allow you to learn much from body
language and the interaction of participants. However, if the discussion
may become critical of the library, participants will be more candid if
you are not in the room. There may be individuals in your human resources
or marketing departments who have experience in conducting focus groups.
As long as these departments and individuals are well-regarded and your
organization is not rife with interdepartmental rivalries, you can utilize
such internal consultants.
This is the technique
where using in-house expertise makes the most sense. Your internal market
research department may be able to construct an electronic survey for you
and may have the software to provide sophisticated statistical analysis.
You may still want to run your questions by a consultant to be sure they
are unambiguous and will yield the results you seek. Your consultant can
also help you interpret the results.
The most important
reason for hiring a consultant to conduct the information checkup is time.
Interviews take 30-60 minutes and require twice as much time for transcribing
and analyzing notes. Focus group discussion guides require thoughtful development.
Transcription and analysis of the session take much more time than the
discussion itself. Designing and testing a good survey takes time as well.
Don't you already have a full-time job?
Hiring a consultant
does not mean you will not be involved in the process. Be sure your consultant
has a clear understanding of your goals. Don't be afraid to share information
on the individuals to be interviewed or invited to a focus group. The more
the consultant understands your organization, the better he or she can
probe for information and interpret responses. The consultant should be
willing to listen to your suggestions. If interviews are spread over several
days, the consultant should share impressions and preliminary results with
you to insure that the right questions are being asked. Don't be alarmed,
however, if the consultant disregards some of your corporate taboos. That's
one of the reasons you bring in an outsider.
Wrong Survey Questions to Measure Importance
Please rank the
following services with 1 being the most important to you:
the book collection ____ Receiving routed journal issues ____ Access to
ProQuest from my computer
How important to
you is the ability to browse the book collection?
____ Not important
____ Somewhat important ____ Extremely important
How important to
you is receiving routed journal issues?
____ Not important
____ Somewhat important ____ Extremely important
How important to
you is having access to ProQuest from your computer?
____ Not important
____ Somewhat important ____ Extremely important
Speaking of Surveys...
While we're asking
questions — What about a career checkup?
When you wake up
in the morning, do you want to go to work?
Did you learn something
new this week?
In the evening,
do you tell your significant other, roommate, spouse about your day?
Are you sleeping
Do you laugh frequently?
If you answer "no"
to any of these questions, it may be time for a job change, career change,
or changes to your job. None of these is easy, but do you really want to
live this way?
what's wrong with your current situation. Is it your boss? If you like
your work and like most of the people you work with, but are just tired
of battling for your job, your budget, and recognition, you have two choices.
You can wait and hope your boss gets promoted (or demoted) or you can change
jobs. I know one librarian who has worked at the same company for 15 years
and outlasted at least nine really horrible bosses. Along the way she's
also had a few great ones. If supervising the librarian is where your company
lets new managers train, you may want to stay put and hope the next boss
will be better. Or, you might want to take a look around. Looking for a
job is a lot easier when you already have one and you're not totally depressed
Is it the work?
When was the last time you enjoyed your job? What were you doing then?
Did you really like being a reference librarian, but now all you do is
deal with personnel problems? If you've been pushed up the ladder into
management, think about climbing down. If you stay with the same organization,
you will have to give up control and let someone else make the decisions.
If that would be too difficult, look for another job where you can be a
contributor rather than a manager.
Are you just bored?
No matter how challenging your job used to be, at some point you may just
need to make a change. One of the downsides of developing expertise is
the ability to do your job without thinking about it. If you work in a
large organization, you might be able to change jobs without leaving. Do
an inventory of your skills. What are the things you can do that you like
to do? What are the things you've heard about and longed to do? Talk to
people in other departments. Investigate opportunities for using your skills
in a new position and acquiring new skills.
No job is ever
perfect but you shouldn't let one ruin your disposition or deaden your
brain. We spend too much of our lives at our jobs to settle for ones that
don't challenge us, reward us, and give us some fun...most of the time.
e-mail address is email@example.com.