School Libraries and the Knowledge Economy of the 21st Century

By Kerry Tanner

Just when we'd become accustomed to living in the Information Age, the Knowledge Age is upon us! 'The knowledge economy', 'knowledge management', 'knowledge work' and 'intellectual capital' are catch-phrases of the new era. How is 'knowledge work' and 'knowledge management' different from what we have always done? Haven't teachers and Teacher Librarians always been 'knowledge workers'? What is our professional role in the new landscape?

The evolution of knowledge management
Knowledge management (KM) is a relatively new field of study, popularised over the past four or five years. KM concerns the effective capture, utilisation and exploitation of human knowledge and expertise for business advantage. It involves planned decisions on how an organisation's 'know-how should be structured, organised, located and utilised' (IBM Consulting Group, cited in Broadbent 1997). While KM builds on earlier found lions (eg change management, diffusion of innovations, strategic information management, organisational learning), it integrates discrete disciplines in fundamentally new ways. Much of the current KM literature exhibits an evangelical fervour for KM's potential in organisational transformation.

In our increasingly global economy, an organisation's success is contingent on its skill in monitoring and rapidly adapting to environmental changes, generating innovative solutions, and swiftly producing quality, client-responsive, products and services. During the 1980s, an organisation's use of information technology (IT) was popularly presented as the key to gaining a strategic business advantage over the competition. By the early 1990s, writers such as Strassman (1990) and Keen (1991) were questioning the prevalent management assumption that large IT budgets correlated with competitive gain.

Factors other than the technology were evidently crucial. Hammer & Champy (1993), amongst others, highlighted the need for IT strategic ventures to tackle total business processes and not just isolated functions, and recommended radical business process redesign (BPR) projects as the way to maximise organisational performance. Associated with this total business process focus, many significant advances were made in organisational workflow and networking technologies. However, BPR projects experienced high failure rates. Sudden massive downsizing and indiscriminate outsourcing saw crucial skills losses from organisations, and remaining staff over-worked and under-skilled for tasks they were required to perform -with a consequent plummeting of morale in many organisations.

KM was one outgrowth from the mixed success of radical change management programs of the early-to-mid 1990s. People did matter-intellectual capital and not the technology per se was the most significant factor in business performance. Knowledge more than the traditional factors of production-land, labour and capital-held the key to business success. The human element needed to be central in any major organisational change program. KM sought to restore the focus on people and learning as vehicles for enhancing organisational learning and business performance. Information technology remains pivotal in KM, but ideally is the tool rather than the primary driver of KM programs. 'Knowledge technologies' are those that facilitate human interaction and knowledge sharing in ways that promote organisational goals and facilitate organisational learning and innovation. Examples are networking technologies (intranets, Internet), email, electronic discussion groups, collaborative groupware, videoconferencing, electronic workflow technologies and knowledge mapping software.

Knowledge management in schools
Although KM tends to reflect a corporate, 'big business' perspective, its principles can be adapted to public sector organisations, including schools. Certainly governments operating under an economic rationalist philosophy have treated schools as businesses, with an increasing emphasis on a corporate model of governance. Most state governments have placed a priority on the development of IT infrastructures capable of supporting the Internet and multimedia technologies in schools. Such an infrastructure is a necessary pre-requisite for a KM program, but the primary focus of knowledge transfer is the human dimension.

Effective KM programs adopt a holistic organisation-wide perspective, integrating all parts of the organisation and establishing global links. Such programs are directed by senior managers, but involve staff from all levels, and many distinct forms of professional 'knowledge work'. Teacher Librarians possess distinct skills sets that identify them as potential key players in a KM program. Briefly, basic elements of an organisational KM program include:

  • analysing, recording and categorising organisational expertise/ competence;
  • ensuring that there is an effective IT-based communications infrastructure in place that links staff within the organisation, clients, suppliers and other key stakeholders and the external world;
  • developing structures and processes, and establishing forums for sharing knowledge, for training, and research and development; and
  • establishing a knowledge culture where people are valued, where teamwork, shared visions, knowledge exchange and trust are the norm.

Teacher Librarians potentially have much relevant expertise to offer a school-wide KM program.

How will the role of an effective Teacher Librarian in the emergent 'knowledge economy' differ from traditional school library practice?
In considering our professional identity for the twenty-first century knowledge economy, it is important to articulate roles that are contemporary, reflecting current organisational realities and information and knowledge technologies, but also roles that are concordant with our distinctive professional background and training. While there is increasing emphasis on multi-skilling and generic work skills (eg written and oral communication skills, IT literacy, personal management skills) across the workforce, we need to recognise our distinctive professional expertise and to actively promote and demonstrate that expertise within our schools. Many other professionals, as well as students, have a very limited and dated view of a Teacher Librarian's job. Unfortunately, all too often Teacher Librarians have failed to educate others in their organisations about their professional expertise and have passively accepted, and reinforced, constrained traditional views. Perhaps this is due to a natural reticence towards self-promotion, or to an assumption that others already know. Whatever the cause, reprogramming of traditional mindsets is essential if the profession is to survive-and thrive-in the knowledge age.

In the knowledge economy, very narrow functional specifications are giving way to more expansive professional roles. School libraries set up as stand-alone, self-contained edifices are under threat. The future lies in networking (in both the interpersonal and technological senses of the term), and being an active node within a web of nodes that permeate the organisation and link to relevant external sources locally and globally. Let's explore what this means in the school context.

Education of students is the 'core business' of schools, reflected in various ways in different school vision and mission statements. All professionals within schools need to interpret their distinctive professional roles within the context of this educational mission. Teacher Librarians must redefine their roles, ensuring that al/their activities are centred on primary educational goals, and make a significant contribution to the educational process within the school. Any roles that do not contribute directly to the school's educational mission need to be reconsidered, and in most cases pruned. This is an essential first step towards ensuring that the library-and the Teacher Librarian-are central and not peripheral in school networks. For example, many of the traditional 'backroom' technical services activities in school libraries are better outsourced to specialist agencies such as SCIS at Curriculum Corporation, library suppliers or booksellers offering add-on services. Such vendors have high-level specialist expertise and quality control usually not available at the local level, and due to economies of scale can generally offer services more economically. Also, networking with other schools to facilitate resource sharing is a significant benefit of such arrangements. More and more, identifying good suppliers, building links and developing effective ongoing working relationships is a feature of organisations operating and thriving in the knowledge economy. The primary benefit of such outsourcing arrangements is that the Teacher Librarian can focus her/his work time on the 'core business', ie the education of students, and direct interaction with students and staff, maximising the potential for excellent performance in that role. A Teacher Librarian's professional success correlates more with being effectively integrated into wider organisational processes of managing information and knowledge processes, than with say, having developed an exemplary school library catalogue.

Libraries have traditionally been warehouses of information resources, and Librarians the custodians of those resources, with most of their work focused on various aspects of the processes of acquiring, processing and managing and controlling access to collections. In the knowledge economy, a very different ethos prevails. The warehouse function of libraries is rapidly eroding, with increasing emphasis on remote electronic resources. The Internet and the increasing sophistication of its underlying technologies (eg developments in natural language query searching) is reducing the need for a Librarian as an intermediary between information and the client.

What, then, are the emergent roles for Teacher Librarians?
Davenport and Prusak (1993, in Matarazzo & Connolly 1999) explored alternatives to the outmoded warehouse model, identifying two alternative models: what they called the 'expertise centre' and 'the network'. The expertise centre is a positive development over the warehouse model of library service, in that Librarians focus on clients, and promote their specialist expertise in providing information services and advice within a particular subject field. However, the authors claim that this service model does not go far enough-it neglects 'the fact that most of the people in an organisation with subject-matter expertise are not information professionals' (p.219). So much of an organisation's knowledge base resides in the heads of its employees. A preferable model of information service is 'the network'. This model adopts a much more expansive view, in that information is not contained within one information centre-it is pervasive, all encompassing. Its primary objective is to connect information providers and users of information regardless of where they are physically located, or the form in which they are contained (be they physical resources, electronic resources accessed via computer-based multi-media networks or human sources).

Davenport and Prusak's network model offers some valuable pointers for Teacher Librarians exploring the issue of emergent roles for their profession. Rather than warehouse custodians or even simple providers of centralised expertise, Teacher Librarians become: 'overseers of a multi-media network. They must be concerned with structure and quality of the content that goes out over the network (programming), in what form it is distributed (media selection), to what audience it is directed (broadcasting vs. narrowcasting), and how the receiver's behaviour changes in response to the content .... [Their role] should be to encourage wide participation in information creation and dissemination. Broadly speaking, the role of the information professional becomes the establishment of connections between those who have information, and those who want it. The library itself must be viewed as a virtual information network.' (Davenport & Prusak, p. 221).

The KM literature offers many further insights into changing roles for Teacher Librarians that cannot be fully explored in this brief article. Tapping into human expertise networks within and outside the school is one critical dimension. Expertise databases and 'yellow pages' directories can be compiled. However, a fully integrated information service would see more 'seamless' links between the user and the information sources. In response to a query, a user may be provided with a list of relevant physical and electronic information sources, links to full text of relevant documents, along with names and email links to people who are prepared to answer queries in a particular field. 'Knowledge mapping' is another area where Teacher Librarians have the potential to utilise their professional skills.

There are many exciting opportunities for Teacher Librarians in the new knowledge economy. The challenge is identify and to grasp those opportunities before other professional groups 'claim the turf'. There is no place for dawdlers in this new domain.

Kerry Tanner

Senior Lecturer Department of Information Technology