Larry Prusak & the Future of Librarians: Connections, not Information

I’ve been spending my evenings getting caught up on my library journal reading; tonight I read the December 2009 issue of SLA’s Information Outlook, which contains an interview with KM guru Larry Prusak.  In the interview, he is bitingly honest about how he sees our profession, and frankly, he’s not impressed. If we continue to insist on our roles as “information” professionals instead of focusing on the importance of how people connections create knowledge, we’re doomed.

I think he’s right. A few excerpts:

Q: Can there be too many of these codified pieces–too much information?

Yes, there can be too much information in the sense that there’s too much to absorb, but you can never have too much knowledge. That’s one of the differences between information and knowledge. Who would ever say they have too much knowledge of something? Would you want to go to a doctor who says, “I know too much about your illness?” You want people who help us in our lives–doctors, politicians, economists–to have a lot of knowledge.

Q: So, where does that leave information professionals? The common perception is that they bring information into the organization and it gets passed up the chain to the top, and along the way it gets filtered and distilled into knowledge.

I would disagree with the chain scenario–I don’t think that’s an accurate description of what happens. I think people at the top of organizations make their decisions based on all sorts of things, but information wouldn’t be at the head of the list. I think they make decisions based on peer knowledge–asking their bankers, their lawyers, their peer executives within the firm. They may read some things, perhaps an article or report, but generally, by the time something’s in print, they already know it. It’s old news. There isn’t that much in print that’s new for business executives.

That’s why librarians don’t have the–what’s the right word here?–the position, the respect, the authority that maybe they think they might, because what they’re dealing with is stuff that’s not absolutely essential to the running of the firm. If it was, it would make a big difference.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying that information professionals need to move away from procuring and maintaining content.

I coined a phrase years ago that I think is useful here: If you have a dollar to spend on either information or knowledge, spend it on connection rather than capture. That’s really an important slogan. You’re much better off connecting people, helping them find one another, than on capturing material. I’m not talking here about university libraries or public libraries–if you run the library at Harvard, you want to capture everything in different forms. I’m talking about organizations.

Q: So, 10 years from now, will we still be talking about information workers and information societies?

It already sounds old hat. Yes, there was a time when information was a hot topic, and it was very exciting, but the costs kept dropping. No one foresaw everybody having personal computers; no one foresaw Google. Information transactions have become ubiquitous, transparent, and almost cost-free. No one predicted this.

And, to be honest, a lot of the information hype was generated by vendors with a commercial aim. I remember when everyone was saying that if you get the right information to the right person at the right time, it will give an organization a tremendous advantage. That’s just not true. I had an economist model that for me, and it would give them some advantage, but there’s just not enough information out there to make a big difference. The real advantage lies in using knowledge better and in innovating. That’s where information professionals should focus their efforts.

The entire interview is available online at “You Can Never Have Too Much Knowledge“, SLA Information Outlook, December 2009.