A Strategic Roadmap for Professional Sustainability?

SLA’s Competencies for Information Professionals can help you chart a sustainable career, but you must set the course for your professional journey.

By James M. Matarazzo, MLS, PhD, and Toby Pearlstein, MLS, PhD

This article is published in the November-December 2017 issue of Information Outlook.

In April 2016, the SLA Board of Directors approved a revised set of Competencies for Information Professionals that articulated six “core competencies” (Figure 1) and nine “enabling competencies” (Figure 2). Together, these core and enabling competencies recognize that “data, information, and knowledge are critical to the functioning of modern organizations and today’s society” (SLA 2016).

David Shumaker, chair of the SLA task force that promulgated the revised competencies, stated that the overarching value of these guidelines is their ability to be used by information professionals (and those with whom they work) at all stages of their career, whether as a student “trying to make sense of their school’s curriculum and select the right courses” or as a manager working with their Human Resources Department to craft a job description for a new position (Shumaker 2016). (The revised competencies were not solely the work of the six task force members—input was invited from all SLA members, both online and in person at open meetings during the 2015 Annual Conference.)

This article focuses on the revised competencies and how they might provide not just a strategic roadmap for your professional sustainability, but a framework that can help you react and adapt to unexpected road closures, detours, construction, demolition, and expansions. Whether you are a current practitioner, a student in an LIS program, or someone contemplating entering an LIS program, you are devoting at least some of your time to trying to discern whether a career as an information professional is sustainable, especially in special libraries. We should state plainly, up front, that we believe it is, but we hasten to add two caveats: (1) given the pace of change in the world of information management (a pace driven by the exponential increase in the amount of information that needs to be managed to make it usable) and the increasing tendency of every person who uses information to fancy himself or herself a researcher, no career-mapping strategy can be left to run on autopilot; and (2) neither practitioners nor students should assume that it is someone else’s responsibility (e.g., the responsibility of an employer or professor) to drive their careers. Certainly, others can help navigate, but it is up to you to set the course of your professional journey.


In his 1988 sociological study The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor, author Andrew Abbott examined how modern societies institutionalize expertise and how “the common form of that institutionalization [is] professionalism.” Abbott identified several characteristics that are common to fields of work that evolved into professions. Theoretically, these characteristics tend to occur, if not in an exact sequence, close upon each other.

The first action in the sequence is disruption, which occurs when people in an organization start doing things that need to be done. The implication is that these things are not already being done by someone else, so by filling the vacuum, the workers are effectively staking out a new “jurisdiction” for themselves. Abbot argues that this disturbance or disruption in how things get done is part of a profession’s development.

Sometimes the disruption is driven not by the need to fill a vacuum, but by an internal dispute among competitors for a particular jurisdiction (something that should be familiar to IS professionals). The disruption may also be caused by external factors, such as “the opening of new task areas for jurisdiction and by destroying old jurisdictions” (Abbott 1988). Here, the reader can give some thought to the rise of knowledge management and competitive intelligence or to newer, non-traditional opportunities to apply IS skills, such as in data analytics, text mining, talent acquisition, or development or fundraising support.

The path to sustainability lies in taking actions
to align your jurisdiction with what your employer
needs and values.

Overall, Abbott identified two specific sources of disruptions in a jurisdiction, both of which will be familiar to IS professionals. First, in a particularly prescient comment for the 1980s, he noted that “[t]oday, new technologies create potential jurisdiction both rapidly and often.” The second source is change within organizations.

After the disruption occurs, other events leading to professionalization occur quickly thereafter:

  • Training issues lead to the creation of schools.
  • Higher standards develop, followed by longer training, earlier commitment to the profession, and the rise of a group of full-time teachers.
  • A professional association is created.
  • Specific attempts are made to separate the competent from the incompetent.
  • Routine work is delegated to paraprofessionals.
  • An ethics code is created.

We should not be surprised, given all of the above, that Abbott devoted an entire chapter to testing his theories on the information professions. He concluded that “members of various professions continue to enter the [Information] area, and while some are trained directly for it, there is no indication of a single group capable of general jurisdiction”—an assessment that has been further exacerbated by the increasingly broad definition of “information worker” or the more frequently used term “knowledge worker.” Abbott described the information professions as extremely permeable, with no coherent set of people having emerged to take jurisdiction.

We clearly hear echoes of this statement in 2017. Whether this is a good or bad thing for information professionals is hard to assess. Do such permeability and lack of jurisdiction still exist today in the information professions? We believe so, depending on the type of organization in which the information service operates; however, we would argue they represent more of an opportunity for information professionals than a threat. This makes the revised competencies an extremely beneficial tool, regardless of the stage of your career.


The value of referencing Abbott’s research with respect to SLA’s revised competencies lies in how he sums up the professionalization process as roughly three steps—disturbances, jurisdictional contests, and transformations leading to balance—that often overlap and inevitably continue in an evergreen cycle. Using Abbott’s terminology, the core and enabling competencies provide a framework for establishing jurisdiction, although the reality for information professionals today is that their jurisdiction is often characterized by fluidity.

The path to sustainability lies in taking actions to align your jurisdiction with what your employer needs and values. For students and practitioners, the competencies framework articulates the skill sets needed to compete for one or more jurisdictions, depending on the desired career path. Opportunities abound, but the competition is relentless.

For example, Anand Swaminathan and Jurgen Meffert, in their new book, Digital@Scale: The Playbook You Need to Transform your Company, write about how the “digital thought process” fits (or doesn’t) into the overall culture of a company. Their focus on reinventing the core of a business and the key elements of digital transformation is just one small example of the many discussions taking place in businesses today (and in the business literature) about how companies can effect a digital transformation. Not coincidentally, three of the six core competencies (see Figure 1, above) address technology-related capabilities, and all nine of the enabling competencies (see Figure 2, below) pertain in some way to new opportunities for employment or job enrichment (and, therefore, sustainability) related to the digital thought process.

The digital thought process may already be well established in many organizations, so getting on board with it is crucial to information professionals’ sustainability. Equally critical, at least in organizations that are behind the curve of this transformation to digital, is the ability/willingness of an information services professional to be a thought leader in this area (by utilizing most if not all of the enabling competencies shown in Figure 2). Without mastering the six core competencies and infusing them with enabling skills (both through specific course work and practical job experience), this sustainability will prove elusive.

Why do the core competencies matter? One might argue, as Abbott did, that these six competencies are not necessarily unique to librarianship; rather, they might be valued in a variety of information-related professions. We think this is a benefit, not a drawback, and it should be exploited. Mastering the six core areas of expertise (information ethics being unique in that it is a competency that permeates all the others) broadens your opportunities as an information professional to compete for a variety of jurisdictions within an employment situation. As a student, mastering these six competencies makes you much more attractive to a prospective employer because it allows your “fit” and skills to be viewed from a much broader perspective. Regardless of your professional status, the competencies can encourage you to think strategically about your skill set rather than define yourself by a job description.

The nine so-called enabling competencies are primarily related to soft skills and, unlike the core competencies, are not unique to librarianship or the information professions. So why do they matter, and how do they relate to professional sustainability?

We believe you cannot position yourself to compete (e.g., for a job or promotion or resources) without acquiring at least a working knowledge of these interconnected skills. You may initially be more proficient at some than at others, but it is a mistake to minimize the importance of working on each during the course of your education and career. Your proficiency in each of them can differentiate you from the competition and, perhaps, even reinforce why your mastery in a particular jurisdiction will make the most valued contribution to the organization’s success, however that is defined.

It is our strong belief that one of the enabling competencies, keep learning (also known as lifelong or continuous learning), deserves greater attention. Today, the workplace continues to change, and we all need to be ready and willing to adapt. Artificial Intelligence, in particular, is going to replace much low-skill work.

Some knowledge and skills required by many employers today might well become irrelevant in a few years, if not months. Twenty years ago, the profession was abuzz with continuing education (CE) classes from many providers, but over time, interest in CE has waned. We speculate that there are many reasons for this—some driven by individual information professionals unable or unwilling to understand the many changes happening in the workplace and their profession and to commit their own time and (if necessary) money to remain current, others driven by employers reluctant to provide time and/or funding for continuous learning. This has led to a drop-off in the availability of CE courses offered by both professional associations and MLS programs, even in an environment when other opportunities for continuous learning abound. (For another view on the importance of continuous learning and its contribution to your sustainability, see the accompanying sidebar by Susan DiMattia.)


It is often difficult for customers of our information centers/services to understand precisely what we do. In our research, we have heard the following phrase: “It seemed old-fashioned.” It has not been clear whether “it” meant the place or those who worked in it. Regardless, with all of the changes taking place in how information is produced and made available, we librarians and other information professionals have found it ever more difficult to explain how we contribute to the information process.

This sets up the question of whether the information specialist is needed at all, whether as an intermediary or in some other capacity. Moreover, if information professionals are needed, what knowledge, skills, and abilities should they possess, and in what way can basic and continuing education to this end be most effectively and productively offered? These questions must be answered by the faculties of our schools of library and information studies (with the input of practitioners and employers, of course), for if the questions of need and relevance are answered in the negative, the role of these schools and their faculties becomes unsustainable.

When our contribution is not demonstrated in ways aligned with
our employer’s needs, our relevance is called into question
and we are unable to compete for those jurisdictions
where we can make the most impact.

Therefore, it is not enough for SLA simply to create the competencies framework and send it out into the IS universe, hoping that professionals and would-be professionals will incorporate it into their plans or that LIS and related programs will institutionalize it as part of their curricula. In fact, it is foolish to hope that by just posting the competencies framework on a bulletin board (real or virtual), students and faculty will read it and actually internalize its message. The world of special libraries as we know it has been in transition—sometimes for the better, too often not—for at least the past decade, if not longer. When our contribution is not demonstrated in ways aligned with our employer’s needs, our relevance is called into question and we are unable to compete for those jurisdictions where we can make the most impact. When we are not able, or do not choose, to seek out and seize new opportunities to contribute to organizational success, our relevance is called into question.

At the beginning of this article, we asked whether the SLA Competencies for Information Professionals are a strategic roadmap for professional sustainability. The six core competencies will not likely be found as the titles of courses in any LIS program; rather, they represent knowledge and skills that are expected to be acquired during the course of pursuing a master’s degree. The required courses in most LIS programs are usually mapped to the goals and objectives of the overall program, not to the competencies recommended by various information professional associations. This means that it is up to students (and their faculty advisors) to keep all of the competencies, both core and enabling, in mind when selecting their course of study.

It also behooves the curriculum committees of schools offering the MLS degree to link their courses to these competencies. It might even require the American Library Association (ALA) to make its Accreditation Standard II.4 more aggressive than simply stating, “Design of general and specialized curricula takes into account the statements of knowledge and competencies developed by relevant professional associations” (ALA 2015). Yes, these programs must state “learning outcomes” as part of meeting ALA’s Accreditation Standards, but whether “learning outcomes” and “competencies” are one and the same, we cannot say. Further research into this relationship is highly recommended.

We believe the SLA Competencies can provide a roadmap to sustainability. What is required at the present time is for each of us to acknowledge that it is not solely the responsibility of our employer or professors or professional association to create our individual roadmap. The competencies are in our hands; the framework is there for us to exploit. There are all sorts of folks who can help us navigate our professional careers, and their input is critical to our success. Ultimately, though, it’s on us.


Abbot, Andrew. 1986. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

American Library Association. 2015. Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies. Chicago: American Library Association.

Shumaker, David. 2016. SLA’s Revised Professional Competencies—and You! Information Outlook, 20(4): 22-23.

Special Libraries Association. 2016. Competencies for Information Professionals. McLean, Va.: Special Libraries Association.

Swaminathan, Anand, and Jurgen Meffert. 2017. Digital@Scale: The Playbook You Need to Transform Your Company. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Jim Matarazzo is dean and professor emeritus of the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. He served on a task force appointed to revise SLA’s Competencies for Information Professionals in 2014-2016. Toby Pearlstein was director of global information services at Bain & Company until retiring in 2007. Toby and Jim are co-authors of Special Libraries: A Survival Guide (2013) and the forthcoming Emerald Handbook of Modern Information Management. Inquiries should be directed to james.matarazzo@simmons.edu or toby.pearlstein@comcast.net.

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