Certification for Information Brokers

by Deborah C. Sawyer

History does not tell us when some of the older professions, such as law, first confronted the need for the certification of practitioners; what we do know is that just about every profession now requires certification or the equivalent to allow members to practice. Why, then, is one of the newer professions, information brokering, still lagging in the area of standards and certification for practitioners?

Certainly it is not due to a lack of numbers; with a dramatic increase in the profession during the last 15 years, there is now a sizeable body of practitioners with no common set of standards against which to practice.

Most of the individuals who have taken the step toward information brokering have solid backgrounds in information work and can competently serve the public, but where information brokerage is vulnerable (in ways that law, medicine, architecture and other professions with certification are not), is in its openness to those who have simply latched onto the idea and believe that, with a computer and a modem they, too, can call themselves information brokers. Few are the established practitioners who have not received a phone call from such an individual, gushing enthusiastically that they have joined the ranks of information brokers and, by the way, just where should they go to find information when prospective clients call?

Not only do these amateurs pose a threat to paying customers, they also can and do damage the interests of established, competent practitioners. Their existence points out why any group of professionals establishes standards and certifies to them. While extra protection for the buying public is a valid concern, the real reason professions adopt certification is to protect the interests of their members.

Yet it is precisely for this reason that many information brokers have hesitated to endorse certification. Information brokerage has been one of the last "frontier" professions, with "wide open spaces" for any who wished to enter. Even established practitioners with solid reputations to protect (those who would be the main beneficiaries of certification) have questioned the right of one group of practitioners (themselves) to keep others out, a possible consequence of certification. The idea that everyone should have a chance has persisted in overshadowing the certification agenda, threatening the ongoing viability of the profession as individuals with sometimes dubious backgrounds or unethical practices advertise themselves as information brokers.

Obstacles to Certification

One of the first obstacles in seeking to certify to common standards is the lack of a common background among established practitioners. Information brokers have come to the profession from fields as diverse as library science, law, science, education, nursing and art. As a result, there is no common body of knowledge, as there tends to be with most professions. Without a common body of knowledge or a common course of study, certification cannot be based on specific course work, in the way the bar examinations for lawyers can. To retroactively impose some common areas of study - for example, requiring all would-be information brokers to complete a two-year master's program in library/information science to be eligible for certification as an information broker - could cause upheaval for current practitioners who don't have this training. Would they have to drop everything and return to school? If they didn't, how would they fare 10 to 20 years down the road if the bulk of the profession, now possessed of a common body of knowledge, decided to "disbar" the old-timers? Approaching certification solely on the basis of a common body of knowledge is not an option in information brokerage.

Another obstacle is consideration of certification on the basis of the nature of practice, i.e., based on the type of service or business each information broker runs. Again, there is no commonality: some information brokers do just online searching, some specialize in document delivery, others provide value-added research, while another group emphasizes the synthesis, analysis and presentation of information in written or other forms. An outside observer may raise the question: Aren't these different professions? The answer is no: in the information age, all such activities involve being an information intermediary (or infomediary as some people prefer); as the name information broker implies, this is a profession of middlemen acting as matchmakers between those who need information and those who have it. This suggests some inspiration can be found in the certification practices of other groups, such as real estate brokers who, after all, act as middlemen in the world of real property. Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down insofar as real estate brokerages bear remarkable similarities to one another in all parts of the world. The variations which exist - such as in legal codes, contracts and local zoning bylaws - and which come into play in the work of a realtor are the reason brokers moving from one part of the world to another have to obtain new certification. But the nature of their day-to-day work is fairly standard. The lack of such universality in information brokerage - the practice of a document delivery specialist does not mirror that of someone who prepares written reports - suggests that certification based only on the day-to-day conduct of the practice is not workable.

A third obstacle or pitfall to achieving certification lies in the area of control. The idea of certification is that a certified practitioner is "admitted" to practice and "allowed" to practice, unless certification is revoked. (This means that regulatory bodies and established practices must exist for weeding out and censuring the "bad apples," but these issues are tangential to this discussion). The difficulty in establishing such control is how do you control bad practitioners in the era of networks? Knowledge is in a person's head; if you ban John Doe Information Broker from practicing, what is to stop him from setting up an e-mail or Internet account under the name The Information Prince and continuing to operate? At a time when many "Internet junkies" already have code names under which they communicate, how can you tell who is really whom? After all, censure has never completely stopped disbarred lawyers from going on practicing in some way, even if furtively, while many a doctor deprived of a license to practice as a medical doctor has found some other area of the health professions in which to set up a business. Electronic networks are especially conducive to protecting "fly-by-night" types. Control will therefore be more difficult to maintain while its lack will quickly erode the credibility of certification.

A further obstacle is just how difficult it might be for a certifying body, such as the "College of Information Brokers," to establish title to the term information broker. Other professions have had to wrestle with this issue; perhaps the closest parallel is found in library science where, at one time, there was much heated debate over who could use the term "librarian" - those who ran the library, regardless of background, or only those who held a recognized degree in library science? A truce of sorts was achieved by designating degree-holders professional librarians (as opposed to just librarians). Such a compromise will likely be required for information brokerage, since a strong case can be built that the term is now in the public domain, due to the length of time it has been in unfettered use. However, without a means of regulating the use of the professional designation - so that only certified practitioners can use it - much of the intent of certification will be diluted.

And, of course, a major obstacle is time; as much as existing practitioners might agree that there must be some way to regulate the profession, how many are willing to step forward and give up their time to form the body that sets and then administers the standards and the programs leading to certification? And, who is going to evaluate whom? Are there enough practitioners in the various subdisciplines to provide fair evaluation of newcomers, without themselves becoming overburdened? What steps need to be taken to avoid discrimination against potential competitors? Far from being rhetorical, these questions highlight the fact that if there is no one willing to step forward to do the work, certification will remain a pipe dream.

Is there hope for certification? The answer is yes and given the urgent need for standards and certification, there are ways to start moving forward immediately.

Opportunities for Certification

The first opportunity for information brokers lies in tiered certification. Since there is no common body of knowledge or common arena of practice, certification will initially have to center on what information brokers share (or should share): the core competencies of ethics, professional conduct and client care. Such a group of competencies can form the basis of Core Certification. For professional conduct (not naming clients without their permission, not betraying client confidences, not taking on work you are unqualified for, etc.) and for ethics (not lying or stealing to obtain information, not misrepresenting yourself to obtain information, etc.), codes to which practitioners become signatories and by which they agree to be bound must be developed. Such codes can even be drawn up as legal documents, akin to contracts, which practitioners have to sign and submit in hard copy to the central certification body, so as to emphasize the seriousness of the undertaking. (And should a prospective customer phone the central body, in much the way people phone the Better Business Bureau to check a potential supplier, they could be informed if the practitioner was a signatory to the codes or not.)

The third core competency, client care, is something which lends itself to examination. Using a case study method (or situations), would-be certifiees would have to evaluate and discuss in writing, the appropriate level of client care to be provided in a situation. The following are among the questions that might be represented by such situations: If a question you do not have the expertise to answer is presented to you, what will you do? If a client asks you to retrieve information that cannot be found in the timeframe available, how will you handle the matter?

A group of peers could then evaluate and score answers against a range of desirable responses; a pass/fail grade could be given. (If nothing else, requiring would-be practitioners to write an exam communicates the idea that, hey, existing practitioners are serious about this stuff!) For those who pass, the designation could then be given of CIB (Certified Information Broker).

Beyond core certification, there is an opportunity to certify specialties or to add tiers of certification tailored to individuals' own backgrounds and areas of practice. Everyone would have to obtain core certification; each practitioner would decide on the number of tiers to pursue, recognizing that the more obtained, the more competent the individual may appear to the public and his/her peers. Since setting up courses and exams for certification takes time, the regulating body might begin with a recommendation of a course or series of courses offered by library science faculties, community colleges, other professional groups or practicing information brokers that would qualify for a specialist information broker certification.

Another opportunity lies in how certification is phased in. One approach taken by other professions as diverse as aromatherapy and business valuation suggests an initial period of voluntary certification, allowing established practitioners a grace period to qualify. A timeframe of five years is perhaps reasonable, after which certification would become compulsory for everyone wanting to call themselves information brokers. An adjunct to this might be to consider certification voluntary for any practitioners within five years of retirement, even after it is mandatory for everyone else.

A grace period for established information brokers will allow them time to budget for certification, which must carry a price tag - both for administration and to confer value in the eyes of both would-be practitioners and the public. Dues, once established, will also act as a barrier to entry to some of the fly-by-night types of individuals, attracted by the promise of "all-you-need-is-a-computer-and-modem."

This leads to another opportunity, that of turning the late-in-the-day certification of information brokerage into an advantage when it comes to administration. With so many other professions well along in the development of standards of practice and their administration, whatever regulatory body is established to administer certification for information brokerage should not have to re-invent the wheel on how to proceed. Information brokerage can borrow from the best administrative approaches used by the older professions, saving the cost of a trial-and-error approach.

Although certification for information brokers may be viewed by some as counter to the spirit of free enterprise, the fact remains that the pioneer era is over. The nature of the work information brokers perform and the critical role of information in decision-making, particularly at for-profit organizations, means that there is no longer room for amateurs, dabblers and anyone with a less-than-serious commitment, regardless of whether their practice is full-time or part-time. While concerns about fairness and equality of opportunity are valid, and the desire to "get it right" is understandable, the future growth and prosperity of the profession depend on certification. Fine-tuning the process can occur later; what really matters is getting started.

Deborah C. Sawyer is president of Information Plus of Buffalo, New York, and Toronto, Ontario, and is now in her 16th year of information brokering.


How Tiered Certification Might Work
  1. Information broker agrees by signature to abide by codes of professional conduct and ethics and by examination to the standards of client care to achieve the designation Certified Information Broker (CIB).
  2. CIB successfully completes three designated graduate level courses in online searching, plus a determined number of vendor-sponsored workshops and a recommended continuing education course offered by a library association or private institute to achieve designation as CIB-O (online).
  3. CIB-O takes an approved continuing education course every two or three years to keep the specialist certification up-to-date.
Similar specialist certifications would be established for other subdisciplines or areas of practice, such as document delivery, competitive intelligence, translation, etc.