45 years of managing information
Forty-five years ago this week I started out on my career in information science. My first post was as an information officer at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association near Euston Station in London. I could not have started in a better organisation. The BNF was a pioneer in information management in the period up to WW2 under a former Director, Professor R.S.Hutton and continued to invest in a large team of librarians and information scientists. My two colleagues, Clive Mitchell and Brian Perry, were alumni of the Centre for Information Science at what is now City University. Over the next three years I learned both the theory and practice of information science, including the use of 10,000 hole feature cards for information retrieval from a large collection of research and production literature. I wrote around 10,000 abstracts at the BNF and the emphasis was always on the quality of the metadata I applied rather than the quality of the abstract. Along the way I learned to speed read technical articles in English, French and German, a skill that has been of considerable use over the years!
When the BNF moved out to Wantage I stayed in metallurgy and engineering at the Zinc/Lead Development Association, running a virtual team of staff in seven offices around the world without the benefits of email. My career then moved on into patents and trademarks, technology forecasting, electronic publishing, market research in the IT and telecommunications industries, knowledge management consultancy and finally intranet and information management consulting in 1999. Computer-based search services arrived in 1975 but was not until I was working at Reed Publishing in 1982 that email, CD-ROM and mobile phones all started to be a part of the technology mix, along with IBM pcs. I’ve lost track of how many companies have been clients since first venturing into consulting work in 1979, the same year I started up a newsletter on Information Management with Helen Henderson. It must be of the order of 300 or more, giving me business experience of 39 countries and the confidence to write seven books. Without doubt the most memorable project was working on an intranet strategy for the IMF in Washington; we started two days before 9/11 and finished on schedule. With the IMF as a reference client selling Intranet Focus Ltd services suddenly became much easier and led to projects for the United Nations and the World Bank.
I am very fortunate that not for a single day have I regretted my choice of career. I have been able to use my information science skills (and sometimes my undergraduate chemistry!) in every organisation I have worked for, though often in quite different ways. That has been immensely satisfying, especially since the fundamentals of effective information management are the same now as they were in 1970. Focus on understanding user requirements before providing information, make sure that the information quality is as high as possible, and follow up to learn from the way in which the information was used. My only disappointment is that organisations still fail to appreciate the value of information and the impact that information management can have on business success. So there is still plenty of work to do!