Valerie Sweeley, Manager and Information Specialist at Applied Materials, Inc., spoke at the 2020 Special Libraries Association conference about an initiative she led to bring AlphaSense, an artificial intelligence discovery tool, into the library. I was intrigued by her presentation and called her up to learn more about what drove her to consider utilizing AI search and what she learned from the experience. Following is a summary of the insights she shared with me.
Applied Materials' expertise is in modifying materials at atomic levels and industrial scale, so the kind of research required of the library is both sophisticated and highly focused, requiring creativity and innovative thinking on the librarians' part. In a time when many corporate librarians face the prospect of reduced budgets and headcount, Sweeley has had to focus on where she can make the biggest impact. As a corporate information manager, Sweeley has used AI technology to mine the e-library's proprietary and licensed data to better inform strategic decision-makers. As she says, "Our team is small but mighty, and we're powered by AI."
Her challenge was that, as her client groups were exploring very targeted market opportunities and pioneering innovations, she worried about missing a critical piece of information in the deluge of available content. As she described it, "It's important that we don't spend hours reading through search results, looking for that gem that mentions a new startup branching off from a university, or a new way our customer's customer is doing something. Our competitive advantage comes from spotting the needle in the haystack and, more importantly, knowing the significance of that needle." And while the professionals she serves are capable of doing their own searches, they know that the librarians can get better, more insightful results in less time with AI-assisted technology.
One of her boss's mantras is "Think big, test small, fail fast, and learn quick," which helped guide her initiative to find a better way for a library staff of two to serve 22,000 employees in an enterprise focused on bleeding edge technologies. When I asked Sweeley if she thought that bringing this kind of a discovery tool into the enterprise would pose a threat to the library, she said she didn't think that could be possible. As hard as it is to quantify the return on investment for information services, the insights and hidden gems that she can uncover through with AI have clear value to her clients. They know how much time it would take them to stay on top of new developments in their field, and they recognize the competitive advantage of using the library's discovery tools to identify an emerging opportunity or a new insight. They also know that the library provides context and guidance in interpreting the results of research, a factor that is difficult to quantify but recognized and appreciated by clients.
Sweeley noted that an unexpected benefit of incorporating AI technology in the library's information discovery toolset was that other groups within Applied Materials also using AlphaSense became aware of the library's services. As she said, "These are influential people with big budgets, so they're good friends to have." It also struck me that the fact that the library saw the same information need and technology solution as had corporate influencers indicated that she was well-aligned with the priorities of the organization.
An unexpected realization Sweeley came to during the process of bringing this new tool into the library was the value in questioning the usual choices and assumptions regarding information tools. In a time when one can feel inundated by sales pitches and marketing messages, it is easy to say no when contacted by a sales person; you probably don't have any available budget, you don't want to hear another sales pitch, and you already know what your options are. As Sweeley commented, "I put off the sales rep for months but once I saw the product, I realized that it had some great features and could solve some really challenging problems. I realized how important it is to be open-minded about new products and to remember that there really aren't a lot of bad products out there. If someone's pitching something new, I should at least give them 15 minutes; if nothing else, I might learn something new, and often the vendor will have looked at a stubborn problem in a new way." As information managers review the impact of 2020 and the strategic direction they will take in the new year and in a new information landscape, it is essential to maintain a sense of curiosity about possible solutions to their current information challenges.