Being business-like: the path to mediocrity

Lorcan Dempsey’s post today about libraries being run “like a business” struck a chord with me. If you persevered through my earlier post on Bob Sutton’s No Asshole Rule, you know that I don’t subscribe to the idea that libraries should run more like a business. That is why I was excited to hear someone making the case that the idea that libraries should operate “more like a business” is “well-intentioned, but dead wrong” and should be rejected.

At a former place of work, being “more business-like” was a very popular concept. In fact, it was so popular that during strategic planning activities “being more like a business” was listed as the organization’s number one “value“. It was one of the many things that suggested that the library and myself were not a good fit. I alway puzzled over how being “business-like” could be a value. I’m not even sure what holding “being business-like” as a value means. I think the idea came from people who were frustrated with the way decisions were made and thought that being business-like meant streamlining the process. I’m all for streamlining processes, but you can do that and remain “library-like”. In addition, the people calling for the library to be more business-like ignore the fact that businesses can be just as poorly run as libraries. As Jim Collins writes, “Most businesses – like most of anything else in life – fall somewhere between mediocre and good.”

I haven’t read the book/essay by Jim Collins, Good to great and the social sectors, yet. We don’t have it in our library, but I found it at the local public library and will be checking it out as soon as I can get down there.

Disposing of the Disposable Librarian

There has been a lot hand-wringing and blogging about a recent article in the New York Times, along with an earlier article in the New York Sun. The gist of the complaints is that the articles trivialize librarianship, may be sexist, and ignore the fact that librarians have been “hip” for a long time. If you missed it you can get started here. I think it is much ado about nothing. Around the same time, the American Association of School Librarians blog had a post about Disposable Librarians. The gist of this post is that school librarians are leaving their jobs, to take new jobs or retire, and their positions are not being filled. According to the author of the post, disposable librarians are partially to blame for these positions not being filled, or being filled by people who are not degreed librarians.  The post focuses on issues specific to school libraries, but it isn’t difficult to see similarities in other libraries. In short, these are librarians that are not adding value to their libraries. I’m sure you know them. They enforce rules for joy of enforcing rules. They are afraid to do any assessment, unpleasant truths are best left in the dark. And things worked fine before all this technology, why should they waste their time learning it.

These disposable librarians are a bigger problem for librarianship than an article in the style section of the NYT. Every disposable librarian makes it harder for the rest of us to do our jobs. They perpetuate the stereotype that librarians sit around all day and read. They give librarians a bad name. As a result we end up fighting against perceptions of librarians. If we had confidence in our colleagues, that they weren’t disposable, we wouldn’t feel the need to defend ourselves. Of course, if there weren’t so many disposable librarians, we wouldn’t need to worry about it.

The good news is that people are fighting back against the disposable librarians. For example, Laura Cohen, at Librarian 2.0, has written a Librarian 2.0 Manifesto. The contrast between the disposable librarians and the librarians follow the manifesto is easy to see. One point that stood out to was: “I will validate, through my actions, librarians’ vital and relevant professional role in any type of information culture that evolves.”  It really hits the nail on the head.  This is how we avoid becoming disposable librarians. But I can’t help wondering, is it really a 2.0 phenomena?

The manifesto is a useful tool for librarians to read and think about how they are providing services. Am I putting the library before the users? Am I holding on to practices that are no longer applicable? Am I moving my library forward? But are these things really something new. Shouldn’t librarians have always asked themselves these questions? Haven’t they?  Shouldn’t the manifesto apply to Librarian 1.0, 3.0 or even 0.1. I don’t think you need to be a librarian 2.0 to move your library forward or to show the value of librarians. Is it really that important to get your administrators to blog? (For that matter, are there really people that fear Google?)

On Library Garden, Tyler Rousseau had a post that asked, “Why do we have professional librarians who refuse to keep up with the professional and technological requirements?” Laura’s response lists 3 possible causes: “our culture of optionalities”, “2.0 is a great leap”, and “the speed of change”. I won’t dispute that change is quicker, but I don’t know that if change were slower, people would be any more comfortable with it. Two point oh is a big change. Big enough that sometimes I really don’t get some of it (Twitter? Really?). The biggest change is that for much of the 2.0 stuff to work, you need to have a substantial community of users.  To see an example of what happens without the community, check out this post on fauxonomies.  And, truth be told, if my friends were on Twitter, you could bet I would be too. For that reason, a lot of it may never touch the majority of people. Which is to say, I think this 2.0 stuff looks bigger when you are part of it. And it looks like it came out of the blue, but these things have been creeping up on us for decades. Lack of agreement in our standards is a major problem. But it isn’t the “aspirational standards” that are holding us back, we wouldn’t want everybody moving lockstep in the same direction anyway. It’s baseline standards. What is the minimum level of service a library should achieve? What do we expect as a minimum requirement from out librarians? I started this post talking about disposable librarians. We need to enforce a minimum level of competency, so there is no such thing as a disposable librarian. So that when a librarian is changing jobs or retiring, their administrator begs them to stick around to train their replacement.

So this is my answer to Tyler’s question: we need to not allow disposable librarians in our institutions. How do we do that? First, we should look at the quality of the graduates of our library and/or information schools. Are schools exchanging a diploma for the cost of the tuition? Next, we need to look at management. Does management treat it’s employees as professionals by both giving them professional responsibilities and expecting professional results? Lastly, we need to look at ourselves and our colleagues. Do we have the support and the training to move the library forward? Do we have the interest and the will? Ultimately, it up to us to keep setting the bar higher so that our colleagues will join us in providing services that users need and want; our management will give us the leeway to do what we think is right and expect that we will get results; and our library and/or information schools will need to produce graduates who can keep up. And no one will need to worry about disposable librarians or how hip the librarians are in Brooklyn again, because our actions will speak for themselves.

Admitting You’re an Asshole is the First Step

I have just finished reading The No Asshole Rule: building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t by Robert Sutton, PhD. Dr. Sutton uses 2 questions to test whether someone fits the description:

  1. After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
  2. Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

I was surprised to find that when I applied this test to various people I have worked with over the years that they fit the description more than I would had thought. I recognized many former co-workers in the stories that Dr.Sutton shares in the book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Research shows that assholes are everywhere.

Bad for business

The main point to take away from the book is that assholes are bad for business. Organizations are much more productive when they are not wasting energy dealing with these people. To start with 20-30% of an organization’s workforce is likely to leave the job to get away from the jerk. That doesn’t include the time spent dealing with, recovering from an attack by, or avoiding the person. There is also the opportunity costs that are lost when the employees in an organization spend more time covering their asses than doing their work or coming up with new ideas. In short, organizations can’t afford to hire assholes.

What about me

For the individual, the message of the book is that we all potentially meet Dr. Sutton’s criteria, some of us may temporary assholes, while others are permanent. Sutton’s advice to avoid falling into this category is to “treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.” It sounds easy, but as Dr. Sutton points out, assholishness is a communicable disease. When you work with assholes, it is easy to start acting like one. If behaving like an insensitive jerk is rewarded, the temptation will be strong to act like one. And if the people around you are acting that way, then it can look normal. It is important to keep on your guard, so that you don’t join their ranks. You can check to see if you are a “Certified Asshole”.

Framing

Framing is one technique that Dr. Sutton offers to avoid becoming an asshole. To not catch the disease, Sutton suggests that you resist the urge to frame situations as “I win, you lose”. The book gives examples of how framing a situation in a certain way can influence the outcome. When people are told that they are in a competition, they are more like to act like competitive jerks. Another example that Sutton gives is an experiment where one group was told that they were playing the “Community Game” and the other was told it was playing the “Wall Street Game”. People who were playing the “Community Game” were noticeably more cooperative.

This got me thinking about past jobs and people who were always trying to make the library “run more like a business”. I started to think about how does this frame impact how people work together? Why are these people interested in the re-framing the workplace? Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of business processes that libraries should adopt. And there may even be aspects of running the library that should be framed in business terms. But I think most of “be more business-like” crowd want to bring competition into the workplace. I’m sure that many would not even dispute that. The problem is that we are not in competition, especially not with one another, and, as Dr. Sutton points out, competition in the workplace breeds assholes.

So, why do some people want to frame the library as a business? They could really believe that there is something to be gained by being more business-like. In fact, there could. But as I read The No Asshole Rule I couldn’t help thinking that many of these people were trying to frame the workplace in way that would benefit them. That these people were trying to spread their poison. Maybe I am being too hard on them. Maybe they came from places that were more business-like or just lousy with assholes. But most of these people never have a real plan for bringing business processes to the library. Too often, they seem to want to create a workplace where it is OK to belittle and harangue their co-workers when they don’t get what they want.

The No Asshole Rule

Life is too short to spend it with assholes. Life is also too short to be an asshole. Dr. Sutton’s book is plea to implement a No Asshole Rule, where they are not allowed in the workplace or if they are in the workplace, that they are contained. We can’t control what other people do, but we can enforce the rule by not being one ourselves. We can also work to keep them from being hired. If they are already in the workplace, we can punish their behavior and to isolate them. But if you are dealing with them in your workplace, there may be little you can do beyond trying to not be one yourself.

ALA’s 2007 Annual Conference

Last weekend was the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC. It was the usual mixture of good things and bad things. I was sorry I didn’t run into more of my colleagues while I was there. But I did make it to a few programs that were more interesting than the usual fare.

The first program I attended was The Balanced Scorecard: the Results Please. I am always interested to hear about what libraries are doing to gauge the effectiveness of their services. While the Balanced Scorecard(BSC) approach was not really a revelation (and businesses and other organizations have been using it for years), it was interesting to hear libraries talk about how they had implemented it. There were speakers from UVa Libraries and Georgia Lomax from Pierce County Library System (Tacoma WA). Georgia Lomax told an interesting story about when her library was looking into getting their DVDs from their vendor preprocessed, so they wouldn’t need to barcode, label, etc. the DVDs when they arrived. The decision had been held up by competing concerns within the library. When they started to implement the BSC approach, they took a step back and asked, “how will this impact our users?” By reframing the question they were able to easily answer the question. If they chose to get their DVDs from the vendor already processed, they would be able to make those DVDs available to the library’s users the same day the DVD was released to the public. Although it would cost more per DVD to get them preprocessed, they determined it was worth it for the improvement in service.

I like this story for 2 reasons. First, it shows that if you aren’t asking the right question, you will never get the best solution. Second, it frames the question the way that it should be framed, “how will this change impact our users?” All too often we make our decisions on what is best for the staff and completely ignore what is best for our users. Sometimes we don’t do new projects because they mean extra work. Sometimes we do new projects because the staff or the administration thinks it is a really great idea, but no one has thought how it will really impact the users. Both of these approaches miss the point that we are here for our users and our business decisions need to made based on their impact to the users, while taking into account budgetary concerns.

I also we went to the Do Libraries Innovate? session. I have to admit, I was hoping for a livelier session. For the most part everybody was on the same page – although, I’m not sure what page that was. Something that was glossed over – and I wish had been addressed was the role of either Library (and Information Science) Schools or the vendors in innovation. There was a little bit of finger-pointing in both of those directions, but nothing ever heated to the point of what I would call “debate” as the program had been billed. Joe Janes did mention that fewer application essays focus on how the applicant likes to curl up with a good book – and made a point of how he didn’t work at a library school anyway – it’s an “Information School”. Both of which duck the question of whether library schools are graduating the kind of students that are going to make libraries innovative.  You can hear the podcast over at LITA.

Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge was Steven Bell’s returning to the “culture of victimization” that he saw as pervasive throughout libraries. I do agree that low self-esteem is rampant in librarians and that we seem to be fixated on the negative things that happen to libraries. Doesn’t this point back to the kind of students that are graduating from our library and/or information schools? Too often the bar is set very low, so most libraries don’t even know what they are capable of. Low standards in the library profession is a topic better saved for a later date.

On Sunday, I attended the Building the Next Generation Public Library Web Site with Drupal program. What I appreciated most about the presentation is that they had a clear view of what they wanted to accomplish and how it would be achieved using Drupal. I also appreciated John Blyberg’s discussion of why they chose to use a Content Management System, because it “invites participation and elicits contribution.” He was referring mostly to staff participation, but it also included the participation of their users. This is where we need to take our library websites. You can see the slide here.

I stuck around Monday morning to see Peter Morville speak at the ALCTS President’s Program (see the PowerPoint). Two things stuck out about Peter’s talk. First, he talked about the “User Experience Honeycomb“. Peter pointed out that there is more to the user experience than usability. The honeycomb consists of six cells: useful, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, and usable; around a single cell: valuable. Peter emphasized the cells that are often overlooked. That although usability is a necessary part of website design, being a desirable, attractive website is also important. Take a look at usability guru, Jakob Nielsen’s website to see what a usable site looks like when it sacrifices desirability. Libraries still enjoy a great deal of credibility with their users, so that wasn’t really addressed. Findability, as you can tell from the title of Peter’s recent book, is his passion. His example of the importance of findability was the website of the National Cancer Institute. The website had lots of great information for patients and the family and friends of cancer patients, that information was not easy to find. Searches on Google only returned articles from the NCI website deep in the results list. So the information was effectively hidden from many of its potential users. Lastly, on top of the honeycomb is the all too often overlooked, useful. It is important that the website does something that the user wants. Morville stated some law about the relationship between how much effort the user will put in vs. the pay off – I don’t recall it right now ( I even searched for it a bit and still couldn’t find it). The gist was that users will only expend their energy in relation to the perceived reward. In the end, all of these pieces of the honeycomb make the website valuable to the user. It is a good lesson to keep in mind.