Sunday, 24 June 2012

Information professionals providing information synthesis and analysis (value-adding)

A recent article in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science1 provides the results of a fascinating small scale study of Canadian business and industry librarians and their involvement in information synthesis and analysis (ISA). This prompted reflection on the extent of my work involving ISA, or what I had previously loosely termed “value adding”. It also encouraged me to consider whether my colleagues and I should be providing more ISA within a British devolved government library service. This blog structures my thoughts and reflections.

The study – a brief overview.

Patterson & Martzoukou (2011) surveyed 98 Canadian business and industry librarians in October 2007, with in-depth follow-up interviews with eight respondents. The study sought to identify:
  • whether business librarians were undertaking more ISA as part of their roles,
  • whether this was in response to increasing demand for this type of activity,
  • undertake such work by collaborating with colleagues, through team work; and
  • how have librarians equipped themselves with skills to perform synthesis and analysis.

The authors identified similar past studies and found a lack of clarity in the definitions for ISA. Indeed this activity may also be called information packaging / re-packaging, intelligence provision, or intelligence analysis. Patterson & Martzoukou therefore suggest these definitions:

    Synthesis was defined as the process of putting raw data / information together in a logical way, while analysis is the process of finding relationships between different pieces of information and then drawing inferences from the relationship to convert information into actionable intelligence” (p.50)

Patterson and Martzoukou found that 37% of respondents undertook both synthesis and analysis work, 35% did one or the other, while 28% considered that they didn't do any . Level of ISA undertaken was suggested to be associated with level of experience (length of time working in the organisation/ business information sector), as well as knowledge and understanding of the subject area. The study further investigated the nature of work roles (Figure 1). One third of Canadian business librarians (34%) reported roles that involved activities of collecting data or information; a fifth (21%) summarized literature, and nearly a fifth summarized market information (18%). There was lower activity in the more advanced ISA roles of drawing conclusions (13%) or making recommendations (14%).

Patterson & Martzoukou conclude that nearly three-quarters of business librarians surveyed are undertaking synthesis and analysis, and suggest that the demand for this type of work has increased over time. The internet provides an easily available source of information for end-user searching, and therefore requests received by business librarians tend to be increasingly more complex, and result because the user has been unable to find the information for themselves. The authors also conclude:

It is believed that the role of the informational professional as an intelligent provider will continue to evolve and therefore it is important to ensure that effective mechanisms that support this transition are present in the workplace.” (p. 58)

So how does this resonate with me?

I work in a library and information service within a UK devolved nation, providing a legal information service, supervising and providing backup support for the business librarian. This article was of immediate significance for me for three reasons:
  • As a comparator for levels of ISA undertaken by other business librarians;
  • As a further stimulus for reflection on levels of ISA in my own legal information work;
  • As a catalyst for evaluation of our whole service approach to ISA.

When I first considered the amount of value-adding or information synthesis and analysis work undertaken by my colleague and I it didn't seem terribly significant. However, delve a little more deeply into the nature of our outputs and it soon becomes clear that whilst we may not undertake much analysis we certainly do a wide range of synthesis. In terms of business information while much of our work falls within the traditional category of “collecting data / information” there are still elements of analysis and synthesis:
  • is this company report up to date, is it complete and accurate? We substantiate information where possible by providing several sources for the information. (Critical analysis)
  • Similarly with Director reports, is there variation in director name, do dates of birth, other business associations make sense? (Critical analysis)
  • market intelligence from a number of key suppliers, and also identifying what we don't have direct access to. (Synthesis + Critical Analysis). Evaluations of markets via different means: newspaper articles; complex searches within company information databases, journal articles etc. (Synthesis)
  • literature search results – carefully selected references, presented consistently, often with clear statements of limitation or perceived information gaps. (Selection and synthesis)

Similarly, in legal information work I spend time checking facts, presenting information as concisely and in a format that will suit my requester. Typical outputs include:
  • listings of relevant case law, prioritised by key cases where listings are extensive (selection and synthesis)
  • identify legislative provisions of relevance to particular queries, (analysis)
  • provide literature searches (Selection and synthesis)
  • undertake more detailed research looking at Hansard / National Assembly for Wales debate proceedings on a specific aspect of a bill. (Pepper & Hart research). (Analysis and synthesis).

Patterson and Martzoukou provide a framework for what they consider to be ISA roles. I have used this to reflect on our current provision and also to identify possibilities for future training and development (Table 1).

Table 1. Synthesis and analysis activities. What are they, do we currently do them and what is the scope for further development?

Work Process
Business Librarian
Legal Librarian
Potential for further development?
Reference Interview
Clarify client's information needs: keywords, type of information required. Wider context of request. How will information be used?
Re-look at process and supporting documentation. Many of these interviews are now conducted remotely, (phone / email interaction). How can we make this remote query taking more effective?
Thinking of keywords, sources and approaches.
Could be more collaborative?
Decide final search terms, search strategies, sources, Consider limitations, and how these may be overcome

Is this process done formally / at all – or do we skip straight to Pilot Search?
Pilot Search
Informal “quick and dirty search” - provides sense of what is available and how likely search strategy is to be successful. Can be more systematic / formal – with review and client feedback at the end.
Consider more formal approach with client dialogue for more involved searches?
Plan Again
Depending on results of the pilot search. Also an iterative process throughout searching stage
Opportunity for further client dialogue
Searching for information
Search evolves over time as new keywords / concepts are identified.

Distil and evaluate
Evaluation as the search progresses, with continuing refinement as required. Quality and fact checking / confirmation undertook. Selection of useful references in accordance with criteria. Bibliographic software may be used to collate results, de-duplicate.
Refining this phase, developing expertise / confidence.
Use of bibliographic management software.
Synthesis and analysis

“Synthesis was defined as the process of putting raw data / information together in a logical way, while analysis is the process of finding relationships between different pieces of information and then drawing inferences from the relationship to convert information into actionable intelligence” (p.50)

Synthesis: keeping most of raw data intact; highlighting relevant passages, text and data that are particularly pertinent; producing a reference list. Data extraction sheets / spreadsheets. Often undertaken in parallel with info gathering.
Analysis: only undertaken when subject knowledge / confidence is high. But may include evaluating information found, strengths / weaknesses of the search sources / results. Analysis also includes inclusion / exclusion of findings for relevance.
Promote this role. Recognise what we do in terms of synthesis and analysis, but also clearly differentiate how other professionals' expertise is vital.
Format and distribute
Creation of the report to transfer findings. Taken to a refined level could mean providing a “one pager” of significant findings, pin-pointing more detailed information sources. May also mean compiling information into formats that are quick and easy to digest (e.g. tables, charts).
Scope for really adding value in providing a “one pager” or key findings. Restructuring our literature search results files?

From this analysis it becomes clear that there are significant elements of ISA work currently undertaken. This quick evaluation therefore does much to dispel my original hunch that we don't do much value-add or ISA work. I feel confident that when evaluated against Patterson & Martzoukou's framework my colleagues in the Policy Support Library Team would also rank highly for ISA work.

Scope for further development?

Table 1 details many areas for further developing, from re-evaluating our practices in the reference interview, seeking greater and longer interaction / involvement with the requester and their information needs, reconsidering the pilot search stage, increasingly collaborative working within the library team, using bibliographic management software, redesigning our search results template to provide a brief summary or “one-pager”, and possibly a new focus on effectively marketing our information distillation, evaluation and synthesis skills.

So although we undertake considerable information seeking, synthesis and evaluation work, might we undertake more analytical work in the future? I would caution against such a role change for the following reasons:

  • Our organisation is large and we employ specialist professionals (e.g. social researchers, economists, statisticians, business analysts, lawyers etc). Much of our work involves providing these professionals with our findings so that they can undertake the complex and specialist analysis. In a recent survey of library users we asked if there was demand amongst our users for librarians to conduct analysis. A very clear response was received, along the lines of, “definitely not! That's my job”. This mirrors Patterson & Martzoukou's findings that half of librarians worked collaboratively with others. However, this fails to recognise the extensive work undertaken in information synthesis, and evaluation of sources, search strategies, limitations and strengths.
  • We aren't the experts, and therefore there is a real danger that we could draw incorrect or inappropriate conclusions. Our expertise lies in understanding the information landscape, in knowing how to gain the most from it, and understanding potential limitations and restrictions. Some of our subject remits are incredibly broad, preventing us from truly getting to grips with the full range of topics required. Business and legal librarians work across policy directorates, and exemplify the difficulties of being able to become fully competent within all subject areas.
  • Lack of training and confidence in undertaking analysis work, and a pressured work environment that doesn't encourage development in this direction.
  • Lack of time. ISA work would require far more time than we have available to us.
  • Requester confidentiality / reluctance to divulge the “full picture” to the librarian. This mirrors findings with Patterson & Martzoukou. We are often provided with broad search terms because were the requester to be more specific then confidentiality may be breached. However, do requesters appreciate how we value our Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, and how closely we work to this Code? Can we be more “assertive” within the reference interview in order to understand the real and full intent of the enquiry and the actual information requirement that lies beneath the initial approach?

So where to next?

This study has provided, for me, a fresh perspective on ISA. I had previously fallen into the trap of lumping all extended information handling skills into one “value adding” category, and in doing so underestimated and undervalued elements of this work. Patterson and Martzoukou provide a framework for considering aspects of ISA, providing stimulus for a revised consideration of how our service can move forward. This helps identify areas where we won't “tread on others' professional roles”, and where we can add real value to our organisation. It may also help in identifying activities that are viable given current resources and staffing, and those which are not. Crucially it will also hep us promote the extensive work that we already undertake!

One challenge will be in providing training and mentoring for colleagues to develop and expand their information synthesis and analysis roles. External courses may be suitable, but I also think closer dialogue with our users may provide an excellent opportunity for training and development. For instance working closely with a requester well beyond the point of information delivery will be helpful in allowing us to see, first hand, how information is used by the requester. This will provide us with direct experience of some of the problems of how to work with the information supplied, what conclusions are or should be draw, what additional information is required. This may therefore provide librarians with greater skills in structuring information so that it can optimally meet user's needs. The adoption of peer support and review of work undertaken by colleagues could also offer opportunities for development and advancing our practices

These aspects really aren't new or innovative but this reflection demonstrates the value of reconsidering service provision from time to time, using benchmarks to identify potential for service development, promotion and marketing.

Final thoughts

This was a survey of Canadian business librarians. Are there cultural differences that need to be considered? Does the role of North American librarians and information professionals differ significantly from those working in the UK? I suspect roles and expectations do not differ greatly, but nevertheless this would need to be proven.

Perhaps more significantly the survey took place just prior to the global economic recession that started in 2008. What impact has the recession and the associated changes in the library and information sector employment landscape had on the nature of work undertaken by librarians? There has been significant reduction of employment within the commercial, legal and financial sectors as a consequence of the recession. Many organisations will have reduced or totally removed librarians and information professionals from their labour force. For those who remain does this mean that pressures of routine work are too great to enable the same detailed focus and allocation of time to ISA roles? Or has the converse happened, acknowledging that greatest benefit can come through ISA output from librarians, requiring end-users to do more of the routine / basic information sourcing for themselves. The push for a growing “self service” culture within my own organisation, freeing up time for librarians to undertake more value-adding work, is still being considered as a viable, cost and resource effective model for future provision.

1Patterson, Liane & Martzoukou, Konstantina (2011). An examination of Canadian information professionals' involvement in the provision of business information synthesis and analysis services. JOLIS 44 (1) pp. 47-64

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