Product Management

By Smith, Rebecca A. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Product Management

Smith, Rebecca A., Reference & User Services Quarterly

A New Skill for Reference Librarians?

The broad range of offerings and the intense competition characteristic of today's marketplace present interesting challenges to the creators and providers of goods and services. Hammer and Champy said of service sector commerce, "consumers expect and demand more, because they know they can get more."(1) The rapid advances in computing and telecommunications, coupled with the far-reaching changes in work patterns in our society, have created a demand for services not only more rich in content but also more flexible in delivery. Retail customers, for example, expect to get their goods quickly and at their convenience. Generally, convenience is defined as being able to place orders for goods at any hour, on any day, using the desktop or telephone, and having the products delivered by overnight express to almost any location. The success in this environment of firms such as Land's End, Mac-Warehouse, and has fostered a heightened level of expectation among consumers.

This expectation generates pressure on service-sector organizations (such as banks, information services, and libraries) to act with equal speed and flexibility. These organizations have reacted in many innovative ways, none more important than emphasizing customer support. An important aspect of customer support often involves product management. Product management could prove to be a new competency for academic reference librarians/information specialists in the future, especially if they plan to be central to a university's priorities.

The Climate Changing Technology and Service Delivery Options

The rapid evolution of computing technology in financial institutions has revolutionized the nature of banking services. As recently as the late 1970s, the vast majority of customers had to go inside the main bank to check account balances, obtain cash, make deposits, and perform transfers from one account to another. In response to social and environmental trends, banks extended to their customers similar services at branch banks and drive-through facilities, but these innovations were fundamentally a limited extension of access to human-mediated service. Technology changed this in the 1980s. The automatic teller machine (ATM) offered menu-driven services, once exclusively provided by tellers, without the time restrictions of banking hours. Currently, banks offer such services as electronic fund transfers and bill paying over the Internet, so that customers can perform these duties at their home or office. The Gartner Group recently reported that financial institutions spent nearly $32 billion in 1998 on technology and communications, up 7 percent from the previous year.(2) Banks are now looking at technologies that support releasing data over wireless pocket-sized communications tools.(3) This immediate access to bank accounts has empowered customers, who now perceive opportunities in managing their resources more efficiently and without much cost.

The Internet has created parallels in the delivery of services for library and bank customers. In the library environment, the rapid evolution of electronic tools has made it possible for libraries to offer a full range of services. In the late 1960s and 1970s, corporate and academic librarians searched commercial databases, such as Lock-heed's DIALOG and Mead Data Central's LEXIS, to retrieve citations or abstracts of documents. The citations or abstracts were printed online at the librarian's computer or sent to the user through the mail. Document delivery modes evolved so that in the mid-1980s the content could be transmitted at higher data speeds, captured, downloaded, and then mailed electronically to the user's desktop. In the late 1980s, libraries began offering CD-ROMs so that users could come to the library and perform searches themselves, keeping online searching costs down. Technology in the early 1990s pushed the envelope with the advent of Mosiac and the World Wide Web.

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