Stephen Abram has had multiple high-visibility, high-impact roles within the library profession the most recent with Cengage Learning, known formerly as Gale. His career history provides a terrific tour through the ways an information professional can continue to grow and add value in a constantly changing environment. Sort of like the one we’re in now.
Following is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Stephen. Be sure to also see Part 2, LIS Career Insights from Stephen Abram.
KD: Can you tell us a bit about your role as Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Markets, at Cengage Learning?
SA: I’ve only been in this role for just over nine months as I respond to this interview. It’s an evolving position. Cengage Learning, previously known as Gale, is one of the largest educational publishers in the world and the 13th largest publisher of any type. Gale is a solid division in the core library sector for all types of libraries. It’s an exciting place to work right now. The company has already undergone a major reorganization in the past few months to more effectively serve our customers in libraries, academia, colleges and K-12, among others.
My role is to bring a ‘librarian’s’ and the ‘library’ perspective to Cengage’s core strategies. We are on a major innovation curve to create new solutions for our clients. This is a very exciting time in the world of libraries and education as we engage in the invention of the next phases of knowledge portals, new content development, e-learning and e-books/e-textbooks. All of this change is happening in all parts of the world and every library and institution is struggling with the evolutionary and revolutionary challenges wrought by technology, changing expectations, and economic shifts.
My contributions are to create conversations and events that engage clients and libraries in discovering our combined future – quickly and with calculated risk.
The core of my job is to improve the communication between various parts of the library pie – vendors, technology companies, librarians, associations, and publishers. In addition I often work with the management teams of large library systems, associations, universities and colleges, national and state/provincial libraries and consortia on strategic planning exercises. I enjoy these sessions a lot.
Sometimes I am involved throughout the whole process and sometimes I come in at a critical step and contribute my knowledge, insights or expertise. One great benefit I have received from my last few positions is to have visited hundreds of libraries and talked with thousands of library staff and librarians. With this knowledge and network I can help by pointing to successful learning in other library situations and asking better questions. I like to help put more “stretch” in library goals and vision.
KD: Does your job also involve helping to identify new market opportunities?
SA: Yes, another part of my job is to do research, for example, conducting surveys and polls. I’ve been involved in major product initiatives in key areas of knowledge portal development for libraries by working with focus groups. I’ve participated in and lead focus groups of management teams and leaders. I’ve done polls such as one I am working on at this moment that focuses on where the new reference questions are coming from, what challenges libraries are facing, and what solutions are needed.
For example, if we know that career and job hunting questions are huge in libraries now and that good consultations can take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, what can we do as a publisher to design information solutions that allow libraries to scale to meet the demand and improve delivery? The same thing applies to the emerging new healthcare environment and demographic changes in healthcare demand. I assist the teams in doing research and communicating the results internally and externally.
On a corporate level, at Cengage Learning, I am fascinated by the emerging new e-learning environment and hybrid education delivery models for K-12, college, career and academic learning. My wife has written a number of major textbooks and I have a vested interest in understanding and contributing to the evolution of new pedagogical support systems for students, faculty, teachers, and administration.
I’m also excited to participate in the development of greater synergy in resources between the classroom experience and the library experience, which is tied into the role of traditional electronic database vendors in supporting homework, research, discovery, invention, essay writing and development, That is where my partnership activities take place, as we engage cross-functional teams of clients and Cengage Learning (Gale) in co-development activities.
I like to think of myself as a change agent. I also like to think that I am multilingual in that I speak libarianese, publisher, techie, vendor, teacher and author and I can bridge communications between these stakeholders in the sector. Connecting people and making connections is part of my job.
KD: As is a substantial amount of speaking and writing, as well?
SA: Yes, to accomplish making these connections I do a few things that fall under the silly phrase ‘thought leadership.’ It’s not really leadership but it is making sure that all stakeholders are engaged in the conversation as we explore the opportunities and test tactics and strategies.
I give speeches – a lot of them. Lately it has been running about 100-120 speeches a year, often the keynote at major conferences. I do webinars and podcasts. I write books or parts of books. My latest is a chapter in ALA Editions’ Boomers and Beyond and my bestseller is another ALA Editions title, Out Front with Stephen Abram (2007). I’ve also written columns and articles that have appeared in Information Outlook, Multimedia and Internet @ Schools, and SirsiDynix OneSource.
In addition, I write white papers for internal and external purposes on topics under discussion. I often express my opinion or take a position, which can sometimes generate good debate within the profession. And sometimes it can be a negative experience, which is a learning moment, too. When you’re on the cusp of change, people’s reactions can range from religious fervour to anger. I’ve experienced the full range.
I also blog a lot and I’m happy to say that my blog, Stephen’s Lighthouse, shows up regularly on the lists of the most influential and read blogs in librarianship.
I try to share with the profession the key research insights that are driving changes among vendors, libraries, education, and publishing. To this end I track and share technology trends, user behaviour studies, library promotion strategies, library best practices, and leadership and management strategies. Also, since some of this stuff remains a little scary and threatening to many of our colleagues, I try to make it fun by adding the odd personal or silly things. I really enjoy writing every day. I also enjoy the feedback I get via comments, emails and letters.
KD: Before your current position, you were VP of Innovation at SirsiDynix; in what way did that experience differ from your current one?
SA: I did many of the same things at SirsiDynix. Again, it was a software publisher in transition from being an internal workflow system that managed libraries’ internal operations to one that was challenged by the need to address end users in their experiences with OPACs and databases and websites.
As such, we invested in a lot in user research, focus groups, and usability testing. We learned a lot as the users changed along with us. It was an interesting time for me as we moved to open up the SirsiDynix software suites to more integration using APIs and building cloud-based computing to reduce TCO (total cost of ownership) costs. We also did some great work in building content experiences for various kinds of libraries and schools.
During this time, I had the opportunity to do some very interesting leading-edge research there on personas and user goals using the leading Cynefin research process and team. To this day I still refer to the insights we gained and the differences between the goals of end users and librarians’ perceptions of those goals.
At SirsiDynix I was involved in a couple of major acquisitions and a big merger. I had done this sort of management strategy before but this one was more interesting since I saw it from the executive-level planning environment instead of as an implementation change agent. Boy! These events are complicated and complex, and it gave me renewed respect for those who lead these types of strategic changes.
I started my blog at SirsiDynix and brought it with me when I left. I learned a lot from my experience there, especially the differences between software vendors and electronic publishers. I expanded my writing activities there and discovered more of my personal voice, too.
My favourite activity there was being in charge of the SirsiDynix Institute. We were able to put on a lot of regular, free programming for hundreds of library staff and institutions through that vehicle. I’ve done a few programs for SDI since I left, as well.
KD: What other types of work have you done related to librarianship?
SA: I’ve had a lot of diverse experiences since I graduated from library school in 1980. This was largely in special libraries and the private sector. Maybe I just can’t hold down a job! But really I always changed jobs when the new job provided learning and growth opportunities. I always tried to work in intensive information and knowledge environments with lots of people smarter than me so that I got stretched. Hence I ended up in large consulting firms a lot where the diversity of work addressed my short attention span.
I started right out of school in a contract position in an oil firm’s records management center and library. After that I took a contract with Currie, Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), which evolved into my first full-time professional position as the company’s national librarian. I brought them into online searching and built databases that allowed them to retrieve their corporate memory. I learned a lot about business research, accounting, finance, mergers, and consulting and that has stood me in good stead to this day.
I was recruited from CC&L to lead the development of a new information resources unit at Hay Management Consultants / Hay Group, a very large human resources, compensation and organization development consultancy. I loved it there and grew as a leader. I finished my first automation project and was given increasingly complex tasks including managing marketing, graphics, and administration in addition to the library/information resource centre. In the mid-80’s I even managed the company move, added networked office automation, and won a major interior design award. Again, I learned a lot from the smart people I worked with.
KD: And then you became involved in the early days of electronic publishing?
SA: Yes, I ended up in the publishing industry in 1991 when this sector was trying to address the early changes being wrought by digital content and the web. I was the first Publisher of Electronic Information at Thomson Electronic Publishing (which is now Thomson Reuters).
I learned a great deal as we worked to reinvent legal publishing and to stay ahead of the curve of change. And it wasn’t easy. Many of the challenges were as much cultural as they were technological. I started this project before the web arrived and focused on early online and CD-ROM products.
Eventually I did a lot of web-oriented work in strategy development. I started out in the domains of law, tax, accounting, HR, and business information for online and CD-ROM product management and development. This position built on my core knowledge of the subject but we were largely inventing the electronic publishing systems as we went along. During this time I had the opportunity to work with very early versions of SGML and XML and their creators, including Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML. It was a very exciting and tiring time.
I left to join Micromedia Limited, then Canada’s major electronic publisher, to help them migrate the company’s crown jewel products to the web as well as to move from index to full-text publishing. Again, my understanding of libraries and librarians helped us to build the products. At this point they were largely ‘librarian’ products and needed to be more user-friendly for end-users.
It was great fun but quite a roller coaster as we weathered a few recessions and quite a few mergers and acquisitions. I learned about the standards publishing business when we were owned by IHS (Information Handling Services) Inc., and eventually Micromedia was acquired by ProQuest.
KD: Were there a lot of librarians working with you on the vendor side?
SA: Overall I was always amazed by the huge number of professional librarians employed in the vendor side of libraries. I know at one point there were over 300 at SirsiDynix, dozens in Micromedia, and an uncountable number in IHS, ProQuest and Cengage Learning (Gale). It has been rare that I have been working in a company where we did not have more librarians on staff than our client libraries. As such, I was always in an environment where I felt comfortable being a librarian and was supported as a librarian.
KD: What role has being involved in professional organizations played in your career?
SA: Throughout my entire career I’ve been materially involved and engaged in my professional associations. Really should enter a 12-step program as an association junkie! I have been on the board of the Canadian Library Association, the Ontario Library Association and the Special Libraries Association (SLA). I have been president of each and these were great learning experiences and increased the size of my professional network.
I might be the only person who has ever endured all of the presidencies of his local, provincial, national, and international associations. Involvement in SLA, CLA, OLA, IFLA, ITAC and others has provided a great sandbox for me to learn and try new skills. I made efforts to move the strategies of our associations along – especially in the areas of the virtual association, e-learning, communication, advocacy and promotion of libraries.
I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in six of the ten editions of the Northern Exposure to Leadership Institutes (NELI) in Canada. We focus as a team on creating a dynamic generation of new library leaders in Canada. These are always transformational and I always learn more about myself at every NELI. I’ve been very grateful for these experiences and the friends I’ve made there.
Lastly, I sit on a number of advisory boards, including those of four graduate LIS programs. I advise three journals on their editorial boards and also sit on a number of advisory boards and planning committees for conferences, which I enjoy very much.
I volunteer, a lot. I rarely say no unless I absolutely can’t.
KD: What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?
SA: The most rewarding thing for me is to know the people in our profession. It’s as simple as that. These are smart people who are fun to be around. They’re doing not just good but great work. We’re on the edge of achieving something very important – the creation of a society that has information- and knowledge-based decision-making at its core. And it’s the people in libraries who will be a big part of that.
Secondarily, I enjoy being immersed in change and ambiguous environments. I don’t enjoy jobs with simple, pat answers and rules. I am not so good at the bleeding edge, but the bruising edge is fine for me. It is exciting to be in a profession that has a history of adapting to change and making strides with technology. Too many librarians forget that some of our innovations are what made Google, Yahoo!, indices, e-books, and searching possible. It’s great to be at the confluence of technology, content, community and service in our profession and to be involved in inventing the new modes.
Lastly, what can you say about a profession and career where you learn something new every day and get to help people in a significant way every day? We might not be getting rich in dollars but in every other way . . .
If anyone has any questions I’ll try to continue this conversation through e-mail. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.