Strategic Positioning of Information Services in a Competitive Environment

by W. David Penniman

Managers of information services must come to grips with four necessary elements for survival of their operations in today's harsh business environment. These elements apply as well to other environments (e.g., academic, not-for-profit, community, etc.) that previously enjoyed protection. The four elements are

Having a Clear Sense of Mission

We have heard so much about missions and visions that I suspect many people are tired of them. But they are important and without clarity in both areas, we could be lost in the sea of tremendous changes occurring now and in the future. Exactly what is a mission statement, and how does it differ from a vision statement? Mission focuses on here and now. It is a clear description of what you do, for whom, how and why. Vision, as I will describe later, is more about the future you hope to shape.

Last summer I taught a course on management of information systems and services. The first third of the course was devoted to managing oneself, on the principle that without that skill, the students could not expect to manage others. And much of that segment of the course was devoted to helping the students develop their own personal mission statements. What a thrill it was for me to see the commitment and passion that was in those statements. My hope is that those students will not lose that passion as they participate in the tremendous changes that lie before them and that they will not lose sight of their missions.

Organizations, too, must have clear mission statements. Everyone associated with the organizations must be able to understand and remember the statements. Long diatribes just won't do here. In one organization where I worked not too long ago the mission was one sentence: to provide technical, business and marketplace information to individuals and groups throughout [the enterprise] at a competitive cost.

That mission was new and stating it specifically was significant because it broadened the scope of the old services to include information about business and markets, as well as technical information, and it broadened the service audience (market) to all of the enterprise, not just the R&D portion of it. Further, it introduced the idea that we would know the cost of our services and the cost of comparable services available from other sources.

Just as that mission represented a change of focus, libraries in general need to examine their missions for a potential change in focus. Despite the changes in this profession due to technology, economic forces and other social factors, the future mission and past mission seem to continue to be the same in much of the literature I read -- to facilitate access to documents. The real key for creating the library of the future rests with redefining this mission.

I see a different mission for libraries and for the librarians of tomorrow that goes beyond document access and places the profession in the midst of significant social and educational change. And that mission is to help current and future generations of citizens become independent problem solvers -- who have available, and know how to use, information tools to address the challenges that face them, whether they are scholars, technicians, professionals, students, parents or lifelong learners of all ages. You must develop your own mission, as I have.

Having a Vision of the Future

The mission statement, as I've described it, tells what we might do and for whom. A vision, on the other hand, tells what we wish to create and what we want the future to be. The future does not unfold like some preprinted road map. We create it -- and we do so by having a clear vision of what we want. We may not achieve all that we seek, but how can we ever plan for the future if we don't know what we want?

An example of a vision statement might be "to create an electronic window to the vast array of available internal and external information services and to treat the underlying information resources as strategic assets contributing to the competitive advantage of the enterprise." A vision implies change from the present state. Certainly the creation of an "electronic window" so that access could be had by all throughout an organization (and on the road, as well as at home) would represent a change for most organizations. Furthermore, to view the information resources as strategic and something contributing to the competitive edge of an organization also represents change.

My vision for libraries and librarians during the next decade is that they will create a universal window to the vast array of information they share and offer that window to the widest possible audience. This universal window may take the form of a digital virtual library as many are describing or it may take a form I can't even describe today. A year ago, I was giving talks about the unfulfilled promise of personal digital assistants (PDAs). Now I carry one to access the computer system at the University of Tennessee from virtually anywhere. I wouldn't try to predict how I will gain that access in years to come, but one thing is clear: a universal window is needed with access available to all. The information industry has said its vision is to provide information anywhere, anytime. Librarians, I believe, must pursue yet a broader vision and assure a third component -- for anyone.

My purpose in saying this is not to prescribe any particular librarian's vision, but to challenge all librarians to stretch their own thinking about the future and to develop their own visions.

Using Strategic Positioning

To understand the phrase strategic position, one must understand strategies. Strategies are the policies that guide decisions. They relate to the nature, direction and basic purpose of an organization (or an individual). They have a lot to do with that organization's mission and vision. They are not always explicit, but strategies can usually be deduced by the actions of a person or organization. Positioning is closely related to this deductive process because it is the result in the mind of the customer, or key stakeholder, of how well an organization's strategies align with theirs. If actions (and strategies) communicate that an organization is vital to a customer's interests and strategies, then the organization is well positioned for survival.

Contributing to the competitive advantage of an organization also has to do with positioning. If you are not vital, in your customer's eyes, then you are not strategically positioned for survival. Simple as that is to describe, it is not so simple to execute, for positioning is fundamentally a communication problem. It also requires establishing alliances with strategic partners who can help convey the message of the essential nature of your services. You simply can't operate in isolation or without explicitly portraying the value you contribute. You cannot "not communicate." Inaction has as much to do with positioning as action does in the minds of customers and other important stakeholders.

It is also very important to identify all the key stakeholders in your community. Some may be customers. Others may be funders who get to choose how much resource you will get. They may not be the direct users of your services. It is important to be positioned well with both the users and the choosers.

Let me go back a few decades to a time when the government tried to satisfy scientific and technical information needs with the effective, but expensive to operate, information analysis centers. These centers relied upon a combination of skilled information professionals working with skilled subject-area specialists to provide information packaged in a practical and solution-oriented manner. Unfortunately, the cost of such user-oriented centers was explicit while the benefits were seldom measured in dollars. Although the users enjoyed the services delivered, the choosers were concerned with the cost of such services with little insight into the value they delivered. This made these centers vulnerable to the promise of emerging online retrieval systems in the 1970s, though retrieval was only a small part of the picture then, as it is now.

A modest article appearing in Special Libraries in November 1959 described what an ideal system should deliver. The author, Harry Goodwin of Battelle Memorial Institute (a pioneer in the development of information analysis centers), provided the following list of user needs:

Unlike Vannevar Bush's Memex, this description was grounded in reality of available technology of that time. It relied on people to provide the screening and quality control, and thus appeared to be extremely expensive -- unless the cost was compared to the benefit in dollars of the service it provided. Because these benefits were seldom, if ever, measured in dollars (or any other metric related to outcome or benefit), it was easy to displace this highly effective information delivery system with online technology that promised so much, but could deliver so little at that time. In other words, the information analysis centers were not well positioned for survival. Now, we are faced with a similar dilemma.

The promise of the World Wide Web, and its ubiquitous nature, offers an apparent panacea for administrators looking to cut the costs of information delivery systems relying on more traditional means. When we map the user needs articulated by Goodwin so many years ago against today's libraries, the World Wide Web, and the now almost defunct information analysis centers, we can tell where the problem lies. The Web doesn't appear to cost very much, and it seems to deliver a lot (and even prioritize it in a simplistic sense). In other words, it positions well in the minds of stakeholders, especially if they are not well-versed in the full range of benefits that more complete information services can deliver.

Unless the real benefits of libraries are articulated in a clear manner, the situation could become worse (especially in corporate and special libraries where cost-cutting often drives radical decisions). The problem is that the costs of our libraries are explicit, while the benefits are not. When the World Wide Web is promoted as a replacement for these institutions, it is seen as a low-cost alternative. This is because the benefits of the Web are explicit (it appears to cost very little compared to the budget of an information center, and it can reach directly to the user), while the real costs are hidden (time of end users in locating information in poorly structured knowledge domains with little or no quality control). I should add that when I map the World Wide Web vs. today's library against Goodwin's user requirements, I am also struck by the absence of quality-related functions in the all-electronic system. We have a real challenge here -- and I see it as one of positioning and communication by information professionals.

In summary, strategic positioning requires a clear understanding of your strategies and those of the community in which you reside and which you serve. It has to do with identifying the choosers as well as the users and aligning your strategies with all key stakeholders. And, finally, it has to do with communicating the value of your organization to those you serve.

Forming Strategic Alliances

Positioning also has to do with establishing alliances with strategic partners who can help convey the message of the essential nature of your services. The best way for that to happen is for you to work closely with them in helping them to achieve their goals. They will then support you in achieving yours through mutual self-interest. An alliance, then, is a "union to promote common interests." It can also be a collaboration to find solutions that go beyond the capabilities of any one party. Finally, it can be a means of survival in a competitive environment.

Alliances can help to provide basic or special resources. The growing alliance between information service and information technology organizations (sometimes resulting in actual mergers) are of this type. Sometimes alliances may be for political support or to provide credibility. Gaining the support of the executive suite (e.g., through specialized services tailored for them) is an example of this type of alliance. Forming an alliance with another unit of the organization or another geographic branch may provide access to new services or new markets. Forming alliances can lead to totally new ways of viewing the information organization.

In 1994 I gave a presentation at the ASIS Annual Meeting in a session concerned with the economics of research. In that talk I drew heavily from the book, Third Generation R&D: Managing the Link to Corporate Strategy, by Philip A. Roussel, et al., regarding the generational evolution of research and development within the corporate environment. I argued that the evolution of this activity was a perfect model for the needed evolution of information services in the corporate environment as well. The three generations identified by Roussel illustrate why strategic alliances will become increasingly important to corporate information services.

The first generation involves the treatment of R&D as an overhead cost. This model still applies to many R&D operations, as well as most information support services today, yet this view is primarily a holdover of the 1960s and 1970s and lacks a strategic framework in which the overhead operation can function. Work provided is often outside the business context, resource allocation is not programmatically driven and evaluation of services is out of context and tends to be ritualistic, according to Roussel.

The second generation treats R&D as a business with the rest of the enterprise as an external customer. This can be thought of as a transition state through which many R&D operations are moving, but with only a few internal information service providers yet operating at this stage. Cost recovery is through internal service transfer pricing. While there is some cooperative consideration of products and services, this model can still lack enterprise-wide strategic direction. Partnerships tend to be project focused and the supplier/customer model is operative. It is here, however, that quantitative measures of service begin to be used heavily to provide evaluation of performance.

The third generation sees the enterprise treating R&D as an integrated partner balancing investment in the operation to reflect overall enterprise strategy. It is reliant on alliances or partnerships. It is, furthermore, responsive to the needs of the business and integrates its plans with the current business plan. This dictates that funding policies and levels must be flexible. Very few information services are yet at this stage, though they do suffer downward swings in funding which reflects only one aspect of flexibility.

It is time to begin to think about third generation information services that have many of the same aspects as third generation R&D activities. And, it is time to create alliances with other parts of the enterprise to cement the vital nature of information services. If such alliances are not created, then the information service will suffer the same fate as any other overhead and/or separate activity suitable for downsizing, outsourcing and/or even elimination.


I have borrowed heavily from talks given in 1994 and 1996 at the ASIS Annual Meetings for this article. The stimulating reactions from audience members at ASIS meetings and other similar gatherings lead me to continue to think, write and speak on the topics of change and positioning. The changes in enterprises in which information services reside serve as a precursor and model for the changes that will occur to information services as well. I believe the model reflected in corporate research and development is worthy of study, as are other models of change we see around us. I also believe in the necessity of active, not passive, marketing and positioning of the services we offer.

Without the four elements (mission, vision, positioning and alliances) we will come to a day when "information analysis centers" as described earlier will not be the only historical artifacts of a past information era.

W. David Penniman is with the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee.