I enjoyed the LIKE dinner the other Thursday. The speaker Tim Buckley-Owen spoke on the theme “From Walled Garden to Amazon Jungle” describing the changing environment that information professionals find themselves in. He spoke of how disintermediation is often perceived as a threat in the information world, but that this is a mistake, because out in the jungle, the services of an expert guide become indispensable if you are to avoid getting completely lost and falling prey to posionous snakes and other hazards. He pointed out that at least one other profession is facing a similarly shifting environment – the legal profession. We, however, should be in a better position than lawyers because they believe they are masters of the universe, whereas we see ourselves as merely useful. The Trafigura affair showed that information can act as a force that even the lawyers can’t contain.

Although I would never have dreamt of comparing myself to a lawyer, I could see the similarity in the way that disintermediation enabled by an online world is affecting the two professions. For lawyers, distintermediation arises out of the increasing ease of self-representation – e.g. the availability of online forms so that you can manage your own simple legal processes. As Tim pointed out, going to small claims court can already be handled online by the claimant alone. Conveyancing is becoming increasingly straightforward for non-lawyers, as it is largely a question of being able to search effectively (anybody need an information specialist – cheaper than a solicitor?). Perhaps even the processing of divorces and wills can be administered via online forms. (That might not prevent family disputes, but would certainly make them cheaper!) The smart lawyers are, of course, responding by focusing on tailor-made specialised services for unusual cases or one-off situations. This is exactly what information professionals are doing too. Librarians have always offered bespoke research services and the value they add over and above trawling through millions of results on Google is their knowledge of which sources are the best and what are the best sources to answer your specific question (and figuring out the question you really want the answer to, instead of the one you actually asked, which is much harder than it sounds). In a world where information is proliferating while the quality of sources is not necessarily improving, the knowledge of where to look is increasingly rather than decreasingly valuable.

Tim described some research indicating that the people who are least likely to delegate their research are the most senior executives (middle managers are too busy and like having people do things for them). In particular, top execs like to do their own competitor research. His hot tip for the information profession was to work with software developers to produce really effective competitior research services and tools.

Virginia Henry and David Holme have also blogged about the evening.

Like 9 is on December 3rd.