Last week, I was at the 15th Annual International IT Management Conference. The final session was about what the conference attendees should do first thing on Monday once they got back to the office. One of the points made during the session was that people in IT need to “understand their iceberg” meaning that they need to understand the invisible issues that are creating problems in moving forward. According to research by Pink Elephant, these issues constitute the top 10 causes of resistance to improvement efforts.
What was interesting about these points is that it most of them also apply to libraries. The same basic attitudes, behaviors, and cultural elements that impede IT also are present in librarianship and are getting in the way and impeding progress there too.
These issues are:
- The belief that a tool solves all problems. Consider how often we implement a new tool, piece of software, or hardware and expect it to completely solve a problem without any effort on the part of the organization to change or adapt. Clearly, that is not a strategy for success.
- Plan, do, stop is an approach that is indicative of no real commitment to an improvement culture.
Addressing these issues isn’t something that is going to happen in a month or even a year. However, the first step is acknowledging which of these issues are prevalent in your organization and beginning to work on solutions to address them today. That’s the first thing I’m doing tomorrow.
For the most part, I agree with Barbara Fister in her recent blog posting The Great Disconnect: Scholars Without Libraries. Our continuing reluctance to embrace open access publishing is slowly killing our academic enterprises. The cost of journals, which perhaps are an outmoded concept in and of themselves, continues to increase at a pace that is unjustifiable given advances in technology and the rate of inflation.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that articles like this do anything to meaningfully change that dynamic. “Why?” you may ask.
It seems that a great deal of traction in the open access movement is lost by the religious fundamentalist approach that is generally taken. The basic jist of this argument is that, “I’m right, you’re wrong and implicitly stupid for not seeing it my way. Because of your stupidity, you are destroying western civilization.” While this might be emotionally satisfying to the person making the argument, it doesn’t do anything to advance the argument. We know from many sociological and psychological studies that this type of argument just turns people off and can, in fact, entrench people even further in their current beliefs.
Perhaps a more useful approach would be to demonstrate the benefits of open access and how it benefits both researcher and institution. If these benefits can’t be demonstrated, then perhaps some rethinking needs to be done.
Rita McGrath recently wrote on her blog about squandering intelligent failures. Oftentimes, leaders will pretend that mistakes made within an organization are intentional (which doesn’t really fool anyone anyway) or try to hide the fact that a failure occurred. Both of these approaches are unwise and result in a “squandered failure” because they prevent people from learning from the failure. Leaders who operate from traditional mindsets failures have been ingrained with the mindset that failures must be avoided. As McGrath notes, quality techniques such as Six Sigma are predicated on a belief that all variations (i.e., failures) must be eliminated if there is to be quality in the product or service. While this is a noble goal, it also inherently assumes that the manager/leader must always be right whcih leaves no room for mistakes.
The problem with this is that research has demonstrated that organizations learn more from failures than they do from their successes. However, not all failures are necessarily useful to an organization. McGrath reminds us that intelligent failures are:
- Carefully planned, so that when things go wrong you know why
- Genuinely uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
- Modest in scale, so that a catastrophe does not result
- Managed quickly, so that not too much time elapses between outcome and interpretation
- Familiar enough so that what is learned can inform other parts of the business
Perhaps the most important point in all of this is that organizations should treat uncertain decisions as experiments and accept that failing intelligently can lead to quicker and deeper organizational learning.
Roberto Verganti recently posted an article on the unsustainability of user-centered innovation. For the past several years, many people have been proponents of fostering innovation by focusing on user needs and trying to better understand what they need to do. A lot of this work has involved intensive analysis of user behavior in their native environment. Verganti’s position is that this approach has led us to a place that is unsustainable because our current environment is unsustainable. Although other authors might not make the argument in this manner, Verganti’s point intersects with much of what we know about true innovation. Verganti uses the example of the Toyota Prius and how it was not created as a result of user-centered innovation. At that point, user-centered analysis would have indicated that gas guzzling SUVs were the wave of the future. The Prius, like many other innovations such as Post-it Notes and microwave ovens were never asked for and would never have been developed as a result of what user’s conceptions of what they needed were. The only way to move forward with sustainable innovation is to distance ourselves from current needs and envision new scenarios. As Verganti says “only leaders and designers who are driven by a vision and who explicitly search a priori for those sustainable behaviors can tune out the unsustainable needs of 99% of users and focus on the few exceptions.” Whether the answer is design-driven innovation or not, it is clear that we need to think about problems in new and creative ways and not continue to use the same paradigms that lead to stagnation.
One of the keys to innovative practice is finding out information. The main way we obtain infomration is by asking questions. However, there are some types of questions and ways of asking questions that are better for helping foster innovating thinking than others. In this article on the innovation tools web site, Jeffrey Baumgartner gives us some additional background on why some inquiry approaches are better than others. For those who want to “cut to the chase,” keep the following points in mind as you attempt to foster creativity:
- Open questions are best if you want to get real information;
- Focus on posing questions so that responses are positioned in positive or constructive ways, rather than talking about negatives;
- Ask questions that seek further knowledge rather than questions that will allow you to demonstrate what you know;
- Don’t ask questions that intimidate;
- Asking provocative questions can stimulate deeper thinking about issues; and
- Phrase questions so that they pose an innovation challenge, such as “how could we…?”
Don Tapscott, the author of Wikinomics, recently talked to CIO Magazine for their monthly “5 Things I’ve Learned” column. While his comments were directed to the corporate sector, there’s a lot that we in libraries and information agencies can take away from his remarks as well:
- We are under the microscope – like corporations, libraries are being scrutinized in ways we’ve never before imagined. Evaluation of our services and the sharing of that information is occurring at levels never before possible.
- Transparency is power – it is central to organizational success. Open organizations perform better. As Tapscott said, we need to “undress for success.”
- The benefits of mass collaboration are boundless – Leaders of old paradigms have the most difficulty embracing new ones and are the most likely to engender distrust and dislike in our rapidly changing environment.
- Practice what you preach – use the same tools internally as you do externally. Promote collaboration throughout the library; not just for external-facing services, and
- Thinking forward pays off – what we see and use today will be significantly different in just a few years. We can’t become complacent in thinking that we’ve done it all now that we’ve created an avatar in Second Life. We need to stay on top of what is happening and investigate the possibilities as they present themselves.
Recently, Working Knowledge (from the Harvard Business School) had an article on Jumpstarting innovation: Using disruption to your advantage. Not surprisingly, this article is geared toward the commercial sector, but many of the ideas can be adapted for libraries and information agencies. For example, the author advises us to listen to, and perhaps more importantly, learn from the people who use our services. This has been operationalized in research libraries by using this type of thinking to drive the specifics of institutional repository implementation with the repository as a way of (potentially) addressing issues related to the current model of scholarly communication. Further advice in the article to “expand your horizons” can been seen as a potential impetus for the creation of 23 things at the Charlotte & Mechlenburg County Public Library.
One question that remains is how the advice in the article can be applied to libraries and information agencies. Perhaps the best thing to do would be just jump right in. You can do this by using the tools provided to analyze the disruptive trends in your organization, analyze the ideas about these trends for potential value and then prioritizing and implementing the ideas. Even if it’s possible to only implement a few of the ideas, going through the exercise helps create an environment that values innovation and fosters an innovative spirit, which may be the most important thing.
While many of the details in a recent article from CIO Insight magazine on creative thinking are rather specific to information technology, one particular point in the article does resonate for anyone in the information professions, “…culturally you want a certain amount of complexity and churn because it creates a chemical reaction that jars creative thinking.” Thinking creatively is an important skill when dealing with complexity because it can help us deal in new ways with many of the issues our organizations face.
Think about things in different ways can help us work through the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that accompanies complexity. In doing so, it provides us with new ways of addressing critical issues, such as how to standardize and consolidate functions so we can decrease spending in less critical areas while increasing spending in areas that generate greater strategic return for our organization overall. An example of this from a library IT perspective would be investing in new data mining software. One of the potential benefits of doing so is it would allow us to spend less time tinkering with routine library management system reports and shift the responsibility for that type of reporting closer to where it belongs in the organization. It would also allow the systems development staff to focus on “higher-value” projects, such as developing enhanced user-interfaces that bring all our content together which is one of the most important issues we need to address today.
At Computers in Libraries a couple of weeks ago, Ellyssa Kroski gave a talk about Information Design for the New Web. What I found particularly interesting, in addition to the design tips, was how this presentation demonstrated so vividly the point that libraries exist within a complex system. While complexity in the sense of a complex system was never mentioned in her presentation, the clear dependency of our library environment on the external world was demonstrated in the fact that all of the examples on how libraries need to be designing their services were drawn from outside of libraryland.
The message from this isn’t particularly new, but it is clear: we must take our clues and directions from our environment. Libraries do not exist in an isolated or rarified world and our environment is being determined within a larger context that is not under our direct control. Even in the most traditional environments, the world expects differ things for us today. If we do not meet the expectations of the environment, the other systems with which we interact, such as our patron populations, will adapt and meet their needs in ways that are better suited to their needs. If that doesn’t include us, it’s not going to be a big concern for them, so it better be for us.