Benchmarking on Information Services: Methods and Participants
Wednesday, 22nd August 2012
How are information services configured in today's organisations? Who "owns" work relating to information? How do organisations manage and support different priorities with regard to their information strategies? What principles drive spending of content budget? These are large questions in our industry, but they can be answered by conducting one interview at a time. This introductory article explains the background, methodology and respondent pool of FreePint's Benchmarking on Information Services, with more in-depth chapters to be found in the FreePint Subscription.
Information is notoriously slippery when you try to pin it down. Ask three different companies how they define their "information staff" and you'll get at least three different answers – probably more if you ask more than one person at each company. When asking questions about how much organisations spend on information and content products, respondents almost invariably begin their responses with, "It depends on what you mean by….", "Should I include….", and "This is how I would answer, but…."
Information is essential to everyone's business. We may have a shared general sense of what the word refers to. Like other notoriously slippery concepts, we "know it when we see it". And yet we do not have shared norms and definitions against which everyone can measure their activities.
FreePint strives to provide organisations with at least some shared norms and definitions. Our Benchmarking on Information Services project gathers information about the size and configuration of information staff, information-related project priorities at a range of organisations, available budget for acquiring content, and the principles that drive budget usage in organisations.
Methods and Planning
Data is collected through telephone interview. Unlike online surveys, which can exacerbate problems with vague or unclear definitions, a structured telephone interview ensures that everyone answers the same questions in the same way.
As Director of Research for FreePint, I have the pleasure of designing and directing Benchmarking on Information Services, as well as conducting most of the interviews to date. These conversations are always fascinating: They offer a glimpse into the way organisations think about information, how they support the value of information, and how information supports their business objectives.
In 2011, I conducted a project to benchmark law libraries in the United Kingdom, based on size, number of fee earners supported, spread of budget and priorities. As a relatively homogeneous group, UK-based law libraries proved to be an excellent testing ground for the benchmarking methodology based on structured interview.
Since that project was published nearly a year ago, I considered very carefully ways to expand that methodology to cover more of the industries that make up the FreePint customer base, in particular:
- Banking and financial services
- Professional services, including management consulting
- Biotech and pharma
Some of the variables "translated" very easily from law libraries to other areas. Priorities, for example, were very easy to map from one interview protocol to another.
Other variables were harder to carry over. For example, it's relatively clear within a law firm who the information professionals are there to support: The solicitors and particularly the fee earners. These people can be named and easily counted. In other industries and types of organisations, it's much harder to define and count the people who are supported by information professionals and the services they provide.
So for each section of Benchmarking on Information Services, my challenge was to come up with a set of variables, and then questions to extract the right data relating to those variables, that would be meaningful across a range of industries. The key themes covered in Benchmarking on Information Services include:
- Staff Size and Configuration: What is defined as "information services" and how many full-time equivalents do that work? How large is the population they support? Are they centralised or decentralised in their structure. Furthermore, who does the work that might once have been called "information services" and now is "owned" elsewhere in the business?
- Priorities and Resources: Of the many important issues facing organisations with regard to their information strategies, which issues have the highest priority and attention within the organisation? How are these priorities addressed through the allocation of money, time and talent?
- Content Budget and Spending: What is the size of the budget to acquire or license content? What are the trends around that budget in terms of allocations or principles of spending? Who has authority over the content budget?
As of this writing, 20 companies have participated in data collection for information services benchmarking, and I conduct more interviews every week. The spread of industries represented in this initial pool is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 2 shows the spread of organisations in the data pool based the number of full-time information services professionals on staff.
Figure 3 shows the total headcount of what we described in the interview as "knowledge workers": e.g., members of staff that are or could reasonably be directly served by information professionals.
For each participating organisation, I completed the interview with an information manager with a senior-enough role to understand and comment on the organisation's strategy and planning. Whenever possible, I spoke with the most senior person in the information service centre, division or equivalent.
These 20 organisations make a useful starting point for benchmarking. Even relatively small clusters of respondents -- by industry, by number of FTEs or by number of supported workers -- start to demonstrate how different types of organisations incorporate information services into their operations. The following series of in-depth analysis articles in the FreePint Subscription provides us with different lenses through which to understand and interrogate the data.
However, it's only a beginning. With this initial report, the project enters a "rolling reporting" phase, providing participant companies updates every three months.
I welcome your interest in participating, and in growing the pool and our understanding. Participating organisations receive reports for two reporting periods as a thank-you for their time, regardless of their status as FreePint Subscribers.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about participation.
Articles in series: