Feature

Information Resource Center Management (IRCM)

by Edward B. Stear and Joel Wecksell

Driven by the forces of information technology (IT), information resource centers (IRCs), business information centers and corporate libraries are in the midst of an evolutionary change. No longer confined by the limitations of print material, the library's traditional function as an "information repository" has been dramatically transformed. IT has enabled new capabilities for the access, collection and redistribution of external information. Today, the corporate library functions as a center for distributed interactive electronic information. Tomorrow, the IRC will take on a new role as it becomes an active participant in the creation of enterprise knowledge management systems. This evolutionary process will elevate the IRC from a support function with overhead expenses to a strategic component for competitive advantage.

The Knowledge Management Era: An Opportunity for the IRC

We are now witnessing the beginnings of a crusade for organizational knowledge management. From a business perspective, knowledge management facilitates rapid, well-informed and effective business decisions required for the continued growth of the organization. From a technology perspective, knowledge management represents the systems and architecture necessary to capture, translate, analyze, reuse and distribute a combined knowledge base of internal and external data and information. Unfortunately, many organizations find themselves suffering from "infofamine" or "infoglut." This represents a tremendous opportunity for the information resource center (IRC) to become an active participant, if not the visionary force, for architecting a strategy for organizational knowledge management.

The information and knowledge management problems faced by the organization are analogous to the ones faced by the IRC in its efforts to implement enterprisewide delivery, distribution and integration of external content. Information has been rendered into a wide variety of data formats, creating problems of access, synthesis, distribution and storage. At the same time, client/server technology has created isolated "islands of information," which become lost, inaccessible and unleveraged. This is comparable to the information specialist knowing that the information is "out there somewhere" and jumping from one database or online service to another trying to discover the right location. Within this environment, IRCs, along with the rest of the organization, are in a constant struggle to create an integrated document-related architecture to provide end-to-end digital document strategies which support knowledge management.

The State of the IRC

The IRC has evolved from being an information depository to becoming a center for distributed, interactive information. IT has enabled new capabilities for information access, collection and redistribution. Everyone is connected to a network, and the ranks of the content providers are swelling daily as the information industry looks at enormous new market opportunities. At the same time, workgroup and intranet strategies offer possibilities for new ways of accessing and adding value to business information. That's the good news. The bad news is that the information revolution is in its infancy, and the IRC will be exposed to all the fear, uncertainty and chaos that surrounds a revolution as the IRC attempts to construct its future.

The IRC Is a Part of the Developing Electronic Workplace

Assembling a contemporary IRC is very much like solving a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces must fit together and present a unified vision for external information delivery and distribution (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

This is only the first layer of a much larger puzzle. The problems of information management faced by the IRC represent a microcosm of the challenges facing the entire enterprise as it changes from a physical location to a set of electronic capabilities that empowers users and workgroups to communicate, share, use, add value to business information and streamline business processes. Within this developing electronic workplace, the IRC must also ensure that its IT strategies are aligned with the rest of the organization (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Solving the Puzzle

The IRC as an information depository fits well with a physical workplace. However, in the emerging era of the electronic workplace, the IRC must support the dynamic, distributed and disbursed structures typical of a virtual organization, as the IRC actively works to manage the knowledge resources of the organization for competitive advantage. This will not be an easy task. The IRC must negotiate significant obstacles in its evolutionary path to become the champion for knowledge management. These will include

The Evolution of Knowledge Management

Within five years, knowledge management will be the single most important activity of the IRC. The IRC must coordinate its strategies with the organization's vision for the evolving electronic workplace.

The fundamental nature of an office is changing from a physical location to an electronic workplace. Creating the electronic workplace will require a high degree of coordination among all the participants. For the IRC wanting to integrate external information into the electronic workplace, these coordination activities will require an overall understanding of the IT vision for the entire organization, as well as a knowledge of IT capabilities and costs for its own area of expertise.

The Importance of Alignment: IRCs that choose IT solutions not aligned with enterprisewide office/document strategies will not be positioned to participate in the essential business processes of their organization beyond 2000 (see Figure 2).

The problems of information management and the electronic workplace faced by the IRC represent a microcosm of the challenges facing the organization as a whole. Change cycles for IT, management philosophies, organizational structure and budget priorities are frequent and often severe. In this environment, IRCs along with the rest of the organization are in a constant

struggle to assemble the pieces of an "electronic jigsaw puzzle." In this context, the IRC should not consider its solutions apart from the organization as a whole. All participants in the effort to create an electronic office must work in a coordinated fashion.

Demonstrating the Imperative for Coordinated Knowledge Management Efforts: On a very basic level, the IRC will provide and import electronic documents, or gateways to electronic documents, as a part of the enterprise office system embedded in the electronic workplace. The electronic workplace will likely result in the development of a "personal electronic workbench" comprising devices for profession-specific and generic administrative applications, communication services, and an entry point into the organization's infrastructure. This "electronic workbench's" evolution will be facilitated by these developments:

  1. The componentization and cross-platform availability of integrated document functionality will enable it to become a prevalent and mainstream service to a variety of applications.
  2. Text retrieval products will become inherent components of office information system architectures.
  3. Information retrieval will evolve from a technology that finds long lists of documents to one that answers questions.
  4. Current business intelligence (BI) tool categories (i.e., Executive Information Systems, Decision Support Systems, query and reporting) will experience convergence, with new classes of BI tools (e.g., guided analysis, data mining and statistical sampling) emerging through the remainder of the 1990s.

Conclusion

These developments in the evolution of the electronic workplace will have a tremendous impact on the IRC that seeks to integrate external information with the enterprisewide knowledge base. The knowledge management imperative of the IRC must be coordinated with the overall knowledge management activities embedded in the developing electronic workplace. IRCs that choose to go their own routes will not be positioned to participate in essential business processes.

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Communications to the author should be sent in his care at Gartner Group Inc., PO Box 10212, Stamford, CT 06904-2212; 203/316-6913; fax: 203/316-6280; estear@gartner.com

Edward B. Stear is Senior Research Analyst, Information Resource Center Management, Gartner Group Inc., a leading provider of IT advisory and market research services.

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