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The role of the information scientist and specialist librarian in the 21st century

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Building a knowledge strategy for Shell

Dennie had just [at the time of writing this viewpoint in December 2008] moved to a new job with Shell – Global Knowledge Manager for Corporate IT. This is a completely new role, and is proof, if any were needed, on how Shell sees information as a key asset.

It's a job with a blank sheet of paper, but once his feet are under the desk he will need to answer such questions as,

  • "How do we make sure that the programmers store the right information?"
  • "What happens when people retire – what do we need from them, and in what form, reports or a wiki?"
  • "How can we create an information sharing and knowledge sharing culture?"

Dennie believes that you need to build a culture of trust before people can be persuaded to pick up the phone or send an e-mail to someone they don't know. One of his first ideas is to have virtual sessions with different groups in different locations, in which people would just talk about what they were doing, what projects they were working on. Once people know one another, it will be easier to make personal contact.

Previously, up to December 2008, Dennie's role was divided between managing electronic licences and building a global virtual library for SIEP. The former was essentially a procurement role, and involved obtaining, by the best deals possible, the essential books, journals and databases that people in Shell need, and making sure that the funding is in place – "which" according to Dennie, "is an enormous challenge because budgets are expected to go down when prices and demand both go up".

Building the global virtual library involved merging the European libraries with the US one – at the time, the two libraries talked to one another but there was no shared strategy – and replacing some of the smaller libraries with an electronic presence. Dennie tells us:

"Sometimes, it's reasonable to close small libraries because it takes a lot of money to maintain a physical library, and that's not justified if it's not used a lot. The easiest thing would be to cut it and leave people on their own, but that's not a good choice, so we provide an alternative."

As an example of this strategy, Dennie cites the time when Shell opened a major new research centre in Bangalore, India and took the conscious decision to provide a virtual, not a physical, library:

"If this had happened 15 years ago, I would have sent them lists of the books, reference works and journals that they needed. But on this occasion, we served them virtually, training them to use the relevant e-books, search engines, etc. We don't envisage there being a physical library although we hope to place an information scientist at their disposal."

The new library proved very cost-effective, and management was very proud that the new research lab could be got up and running so quickly, and with the right content. But that happened because the right content was already there, on Shell's intranet – it just had to be tweaked to meet the particular demands of this client group.

Shell's virtual library exists as a portal at the highest level of the intranet, with a top-level URL, , which is easy to remember (most Shell URLs are hierarchical, and therefore long).

The portal guides people towards the content that is relevant to them by a series of subject-based headings – geosciences, engineering, etc. Once you get into a particular cluster, you can find journals and other resources, search advice, and a listing of information professionals across the world, with telephone numbers.

"I found out that a lot of people feel comfortable using the portal, providing there is someone where they can go for help," says Dennie.