Ever since Stewart Brand declared that “information wants to be free” in
1984, he has been misquoted and misinterpreted.
What he actually said was: “On the one hand, information wants to be
expensive because it’s so valuable: the right information in the right place
just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free because
the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have
these two fighting against each other.”
When the web went public several years later and started to provide an
astonishing volume of information, the “free information” idea moved over easily
into mainstream thinking. Google and Wikipedia alone have produced the illusion
that anything anyone wants is right there, on tap. In this case, by tapping a
And a lot of the time, it works brilliantly well. Users get what they want,
more or less immediately. And good luck to them. After all, it means that you,
the information professional can save yourself for better things. Unfortunately,
it also means that you run the risk of receding from users’ consciousness.
Many users don’t think they need information professionals any more, even
when they’re wasting their time on interminable fruitless queries.
They may see you as a bottleneck, complicating information access in a
misguided attempt to preserve your own value. This doesn’t go down too well in a
changing world in which power derives more from sharing than hoarding. They will
sidestep you if at all possible, even though you still have much to offer.
In fact, their unwillingness to approach you becomes a bottleneck of their
own making. Users would do better to spend a little time briefing you than to
waste more of their own, or, worse, make do with poor results.
If you’ve not done so already, it’s time to carve out a value-based
proposition which, in cold business terms, shows how you can improve your
organisation’s performance and save it money into the bargain.
And, while you’re at it, you can create a much more satisfying career for
Look at people who are happy with their lot: they’ve found a way of getting paid
well for doing what they love and what they’re good at. It’s a case of matching
market need with your passion and your abilities.
Assuming that you are very knowledgeable and skilled in navigating the world
of information and that you enjoy doing it, then the passion and ability bits
are taken care of. Your challenge is either to articulate your value to others
in terms they understand or to carve out a new information-based role in the
Let’s start by looking at your clients and prospects.
Do you know who they are? Do you know why they come to you? Can you get them
to quantify the benefits they get? Are there more like them in your organisation
or in the community you serve?
Find the answers
Because you’re unlikely to have a sales and marketing orientation, it’s quite
possible you don’t know the answers to these questions. But unless you know
them, you are trying to operate with one hand tied behind your back.
If you can’t nail this sort of information from real people (using their
stories is always the most powerful way of attracting new customers), then you
will have to guess. Perhaps start with a statement that summarises the key
elements of your story. Choose your own words, but perhaps this could act as a
starting point: “My clients are people who value their time. They need
high-quality and relevant information packaged appropriately and delivered in
time for it to be useful to them.”
If their time is valuable, they’re not going to want to waste it on rummaging
through the web and other information sources when they can get someone else to
do it for them faster and cheaper.
Ideally you will have provided them with self-service options, perhaps in a
dashboard-style portal, which gives them ready access to all the predictable
information sources they might need. By the time they come to you it will be
for interesting and challenging searches that are beyond their capabilities.
Because they have tried and failed through conventional means, you are likely to
be presented with fairly articulate requests. They will know that the
information you present will come from reputable sources. And your results will
be highly valued as a consequence.
Your knowledge of your clients means you know how to package up your
Clients differ. A managing director is likely to prefer a summary in plain
English with a business orientation. An accountant will want hard numbers and
links to the sources. The more skilled you are at delivering results in the form
that suits your clients, the more time you will save them and the higher they
will value you and your service. Some people will be happy just to receive a
storyboard of related web pages. It’s all about horses for courses.