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Articles: Information Management

In the Trenches with Frank Ryan of the EBRD
Author: Martin De Saulles, Researcha
Source: www.competia.com Issue 16 - April 2001

Competia would like to present the following interview with Frank Ryan, Manager of the Business Information Centre at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Martin De Saulles of Researcha Ltd. conducted this interview.

Where do you work , what is your title and what do you do?

I work for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD for short. I run their Library and Information Service that is known as the Business Information Centre or BIC. The name of the unit was changed in 1993 from Library to BIC to emphasize the active role that external information plays in the business of the Bank. The word Library brings with it many misconceptions in the minds of users that can cause problems. For example, I was once asked to justify the existence of the Library when it was 'possible for staff to buy their own books and newspapers'. The questioner was very surprised when I told him how little of the unit's time was taken up with books and newspapers - about 5%!

We now have the problem that many people believe that all information is now available free on the Internet. I usually explain that the commercial Internet - Reuter Business Briefing, Dow Jones, Lexis-Nexis etc. - is far greater in volume than the freebie part and much better organised but the doubts persist. I would welcome help from readers.

How long have you worked there and what did you do before that?

I have been at the EBRD for just over 8 years. Prior to that I worked as a Senior Consultant at ASLIB, the Association for Information Management, for two years. My last consultancy project with ASLIB was to set up the EBRD's Library catalogue after which I 'went native'. I have very fond memories of my time at ASLIB. There are some very good people there and we keep in touch.

I ran my own information consultancy / publishing business for two years before that and from 1983 to 1988 I was Head of Information Services at the Johnson Matthey Technology Centre. Before that I was not an 'information anything' at all!

How long have you worked in the information sector and what made you choose this career?

I have been in the information profession for over 17 years. My doctorate in 1972 was in Chemistry - not Information Science - and was sponsored by the US Air Force as it was in a field related to rocket fuels. I have done the 'rocket scientist' joke to death so I will not repeat it here. Amazingly, however, I later worked for Johnson Matthey on fuel cells that are the power units for the Space Shuttle so I can claim the title twice over.

In a way, the information profession chose me. I was asked to take over the running of the technical Library at Johnson Matthey in 1983 by the newly appointed Research Director. He wanted a much more proactive service than the existing one. It was a challenge at a time when I was looking for something new. Science is great. There is a big buzz when you discover something that nobody else knows but as you inevitably climb the tree it becomes more about managing people and less about discovery.

It was time to move on and I am very glad now that I moved into 'information'. Electronic publishing took off in the early 1980s with Lexis-Nexis, World Reporter and, of course, Textline. Most are called something else now but they were the 'brave new world' in those days.

Describe a typical day at the EBRD

My office hours are 'sandwiched' between two long commuting journeys. I am writing my answers to these questions on the train to and from work. I am not a workaholic but I treasure the time my travels give me to work 'in peace'. I use the time to learn new software, catch up on my reading and prepare papers and presentations.

Many days include a meeting with an information provider. We work very closely with our suppliers. The Bank, being a public funded organisation, has to be very careful with its money and I need constantly to prove that the BIC is providing 'value for money'. That does not mean getting the cheapest deal - that is impossible as all providers are monopolies and information is not like baked beans. It does mean matching the price paid with the value gained and for that we always have to involve users. We try out all new services on groups of relevant users. If enough like the service then we put together a mutually beneficial deal.

Another regular part of my day is involved with some aspect of what is known as 'knowledge management' but is better described as knowledge sharing. I am jointly supervising a student from City University who is undertaking a doctoral study in knowledge sharing in international organisations. We currently have a very exciting pilot programme with two of the largest units in the Bank that could fundamentally change the way we work together in groups or communities. I have to read a lot on this topic to keep up with my student.

For the rest of the day I run a 'fast food information restaurant'. Making sure that I am there when my staff need me, bouncing ideas off them and talking to the many visitors.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

People! Seeing my staff grow in confidence and ability. Talking to users. Solving their information problems.

Every 15 months or so we commission a formal feedback survey of users. It is anonymous - usually it is done by a student on placement from City University or the University of North London. Only he/she knows the identity of respondents. We get a good response to questionnaires, greater than 40%, and for the last three surveys we obtained satisfaction ratings for the services provided and the overall quality of the service of more than 98%!

This does not mean that we 'rest on our laurels'. Each survey highlights areas needing attention. The real feedback is in the comments where you have to look beyond the polite phrases to see the messages they contain.

What is the most frustrating part?

It would be nice to have a bigger budget. It is an unwritten law in the information world that everyone needs information but nobody wants to pay for it. I spend a great deal of time organising joint deals with departmental information budget holders. The electronic side of the industry has been consolidating slowly over the years - for example, Factiva uniting Reuter Business Briefing and Dow Jones. This means that 'bulk' deals, i.e. a flat fee for unlimited, organisation-wide use, are a reality. I have done one such deal so far but it took 3 years and required the co-operation of 11 units in the Bank.

In what ways, if any, do you think the information profession has changed since you started in it?

Electronic publishing has had the greatest impact. The Internet, or rather the widespread introduction of browser technology in the mid 1990s, has accelerated the pace of a revolution that began in 1972 with the launch of Medline on Dialog. The greatest impact has been on the so-called special libraries, the non-public ones and, of those, the ones that have benefited most are the ones that embraced end-user empowerment early on and ran with it.

What will be the most important changes over the next ten years?

The personal computer as a 'radio station' will have a profound effect on information research and delivery. Imagine a true work anywhere / anytime culture supported by powerful laptops with in-built mobile communications connected to a broadband Internet network with much increased XML functionality. Your pc would have the full panoply of information, messaging and transaction services. It will be a library, a daily newspaper, a video-phone, a laptop cinema, a chat room, and a shopping centre plus a lot more uses as yet un-thought of. This coupled with software that enables real-time collaborative working will spell the end of the 9-to-5 office as we know it.

The second bit - collaborative working - is here already. I strongly recommend readers to check out www.quickplace.com and sign up for a 45-day trial. My personal view is that the more you get into this 'Notes for Everyman' system the more you will be impressed. There are competitors such as eRooms, HotOffice and, an unusual new entrant, Groove - all worth a look.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the industry as a researcher / information manager?

As a researcher, never promise what you cannot deliver. A research service is like a restaurant. You can serve 99 good meals but you will always be judged on the 100th bad one. It's unfair but that's life! For woolly requests, use the 'requesters do not know what they want / need until they find it' rule. Do a preliminary search then discuss the results with the requester to provide the data for a second more precise search. Try to meet your requesters in person early on so that you can both 'put a face to a name'. You will never be criticized for enthusiasm and having your heart in the right place.

For managers, first be truly customer-driven. Listen to them. Ask them what they think of the Library and Information Service. Try out new information products and services with their help. Try never to say no to your customers. You may have to say yes in a modified way but use their enthusiasm to drive the service. Second, develop a team of bridge builders not gate keepers. As far as possible fund, facilitate and 'get out of the way'. Put as many appropriate information services on as many desktops as possible. Provide full back up, training and hand-holding. Monitor usage.

Keep a very tight rein on budgets and provide your manager with regular updates, on both the use of the service and costs, even if he/she does not ask for it. I have a host of Access databases that turn out the necessary statistics painlessly.

What are your three favourite work-related Web sites?

I have always used Reuter Business Briefing, even when it was Textline and even when it was not a website. It is an excellent all-round news service. I cannot wait to see what will emerge from the tie-up with Dow Jones. The Financial Times and BBC websites are also well worth a browse. They are amongst the top 10 best designed and most interesting websites I have encountered. I always recommend www.bbc.co.uk/webwise to new Internet users.

In addition there are two invaluable tools, which I strongly recommend. Both can be downloaded from their respective websites. One is 'free with adverts' and the other can be tried out for 21 days and costs about 100. The first is the Internet search 'system' Copernic and the second MindManager.

Copernic uses other search engines (Altavista, Lycos etc.) to execute a composite search but unlike other composites like Google and DogPile the results are listed in ranked order, pages are retrieved once only and the whole search is saved on the C drive for future use. It has a lot of additional functionality but there is not the space here to expand on that.

MindManager is based on the work of Tony Buzan. It enables users to combine both sides of the brain - logical and creative - to solve problems such as planning a presentation or a report. It uses 'spider' diagrams. Luckily I had been taught the technique 'on paper' before I discovered the software. From my own experience I can say that these are excellent tools to get complex messages across fast.

How significant for established information vendors do you think is the growth of free information available over the Internet?

Totally insignificant! There is far more information available commercially and it is far better organised and always will be. Established information vendors, as long as they rise to the challenge, have nothing to fear and everything to gain.

What will you be doing in five years?

Heading for retirement and full-time grandfatherhood! I will be nearly sixty which is the Bank's mandatory retirement age. I cannot conceive of a life without information and computers but then, at one time, I could not conceive of a life without test tubes and chemicals. I would like less rain and more sun somewhere!!

This interview represents the views of Frank Ryan and not those of the EBRD

Martin De Saulles is the founder and Managing Director of Researcha Ltd., an online community for information professionals. Martin worked for a number of years as an information manager at Mercer Management Consulting and, before founding Researcha, was a senior analyst at Analysys Publications where he wrote about the B2B e-commence sector. His first degree was in Library and Information Studies and in 1999 he completed a PhD that looked at the impact of electronic trading networks on the retail sector.
Martin can be reached at info@researcha.com