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management

Management is Not the Decision-Making Team

While reading the post below, this caught my eye.  What do you think? Would this apply to libraries as in software development industry?

“The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management, which will keep them from getting too big for their britches.

Administrators aren’t supposed to make the hard decisions. They don’t know enough. … … … ”

Excerpt from “The Management Team – Guest Post From Joel Spolsky”
- http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2012/02/the-management-team-guest-post-from-joel-spolsky.html.

Making Years of Service Meaningful – My thought on #hlth

By now, I believe almost everyone in the library-land would have heard about the Harvard Libraries Town Hall meeting debacle. (If not, see this post by Tom Bruno.) Like everyone else, I don’t have an inkling about whether the reorganization going on at Harvard is going to succeed or not.  But the news somehow made me think quite a bit about this :  As the library staff work at the same library for many years, how can ‘____’ make the years or service meaningful as their contribution to the library beyond mere loyalty?

This is a tough question as years of service doesn’t necessarily equate with how much contribution you make to the library you work at.  It’s a tough question because improving on whatever you learned already is almost always more difficult than learning it first time. This is also a tough question whether you are a library employer or an employee (fill the ‘____’ above with either library or the library staff) as this is something both an employer and an employee should work together.

As a library employee, I think about this more and more as I am getting out of the new librarian phase. Being a professional librarian for more than 3 years now, it is hard to argue that I am still new at this point. I try hard not to settle in the everyday work that is familiar to me and not to get comfortable with the status quo. I try to keep taking up on a new project that would improve library’s services and operation even if no one is asking for it. I try to learn new things even if that would not affect the work I do immediately because I know that in the long run, there is a good chance that the stuff I am teaching myself today would be come in handy.

What I am trying to is to meet the challenge of how to make my years of service meaningful. I want it to represent the amount of experience and knowledge I have as a librarian, not the mere number of years I was staying at one place.  That is a tough call.  Many librarians face this challenge in one way or another, as they gain more experience at their workplace unless they are continuously hopping from one job to another for higher rank/salary, which will also make it inevitable to learn some new skills and assume new responsibilities).

Now shifting the focus from employees to employers, even to observers who do not know the internal workings of the Harvard libraries system, what made the librarians and library staff at Harvard most upset about the town hall meeting seems to be the feeling of betrayal, aside from the unclear meeting agenda and the lack of answers to obvious questions. It appears that many Harvard library staff were loyal to their workplace (legitimately perhaps considering its collection size and scale of service) and took pride in working there, which is reflected in many staff’s long years of service (i.e. low rate of staff turnover). However, the unclear messages from the top and the impending layoff announcement seemed to have demoralized them, as shown in one of the comments in this LJ article “After Furor, Harvard Library Spokesperson Says ‘Inaccurate’ That All Staff Will Have to Reapply” :

“I acknowledge that change is inevitable, but what I feel, after yesterday’s meeting, was the unnecessary devaluation of the librarians and library assistants, many of whom have worked at Harvard for decades and are experts in their particular field or have particular skills. I didn’t feel we were valued as employees or as persons. So many of us asked after the meeting yesterday, what was the point of the it? Why call a meeting when there are no answers ready for our biggest questions? Was the purpose of it to instill fear? Because, sadly, that was the main result. Fear for ourselves and for the future of one of the best library systems in the world.”

In her blog post “on #hlth and bearpoking,” Jenica Rogers pointed out why the years of service argument would work against the library staff in the re-organization situation rather than in favor. As she correctly notes, effectiveness, relevance, skills do not correlate to years of service by themselves. To the management, this argument has no real merit.

This is a valid point. In times in which permanent jobs are a joke, asking loyalty for employees is an absurd idea. The flip side of it is, however, that it would be equally silly for employees to think that loyalty itself would have any significant meaning (beyond maybe the fact that the low staff-turnover rate will save operating costs related to hiring replacements), particularly when the employer goes through re-organization (based upon the belief that the ‘past’ operation was not optimal ).

But nothing is ever so black-and-white. As a 100% observer, I would have liked to see what systematic incentives and measures Harvard libraries are creating in order to help its staff to continuously improve their skills and knowledge in their jobs. More so when they are planning a big layoff and asking all their staff to submit a summary of their skills and qualifications. (I am not even going to comment on how bureaucratic and utterly ineffective this sounds like. )

I believe that experienced library staffs are not just employees with the long-years-of-service tag on them. Some of them may be chair warmers. (Yes, we have all seen chair warmers!)  ‘But’ many of them are the precious enablers in library operation and the best deliverers of quality library service.  This is not a ‘sentimental’ argument. Losing these people will cost the organization no matter how hard it is to quantitatively measure its impact.

You may say those people with good performance will be saved one way or another. But what I am saying is that an organization has the responsibility to beclear about what it values in its employees.  As an employer, an organization may ask for and demand whatever qualifications it sees fit for employees to be equipped with. But it would help employees if an organization can state them clearly and, if possible, provide concrete steps to take to actually attain that goal.

So looking forward, I suggest any library that goes through re-organization should ask this question: What kind of system do you have in place to help and enable for your staff to stay relevant, skilled, effective, and efficient over the long period of time? What are the standards you would like to see in your staff in terms of skills and knowledge? Why are those relevant skills and knowledge in your organization in light of its mission and vision? What kinds of initiatives and activities would you like your staff to work on and be engaged in on a daily basis?  Communicating clear answers to these questions alone would greatly alleviate the concern of library staff during any reorganization process.  I hope that Harvard libraries staff would use this reorganization as an opportunity to ask these questions and get satisfactory answers.

Reorganization can be painful. But reorganization without a clear vision and goal and the road-map to achieve the goal would be disastrous. I am worried about the possibility of library re-organization done in the absence of clear vision and strategies. I am concerned about the possibility that libraries may dive into reorganization in lieu of establishing first assessing clearly where they want to go and how they plan to get there.

Sadly, the data from Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Academic Library Directors doesn’t make me feel so optimistic. (See this blog post “My peers are not my tribe” by Jenica Rogers and despair. 65 percent of US academic library directors confirmed that their library does NOT have a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits!)

I do so hope that this is not the whole story. But are you surprised at this finding?

Library and IT – Synergy or Distrust?

In my previous blog post, I asked why libraries are not actively encouraging those who are novice coders among library staff to further develop their coding skills.

I was surprised to see so many comments. I was even more surprised to see that the question was sometimes completely misunderstood. For example, I never argued that ‘all’ librarians should learn how to code (!).  Those who I had in mind were the novice coders/librarians who already know one or two programming languages and struggle to teach themselves to build something simple but useful for practical purposes.

On the other hand, all comments were very illuminating particularly in showing the contrasts between librarians’ and programmers/IT professionals’ thoughts on my question. Below are some of the most interesting contrasts I saw. (All have been paraphrased.)

Librarian (L)
– I am interested in learning how to code but I lack time. Most of all, it is hard to find guidance.

Programmer/IT professional (P)
– There are lots of resources online. Don’t make excuses and plunge in.

L is lost in learning how to code while P thinks everything needed can be found online! Interesting, isn’t it? Ls and Ps are likely to be coming from two completely opposite backgrounds (humanities vs. sciences) and cultures (committee and consensus-driven vs. meritocratic and competitive).

Librarian (L)
– IT distrusts the library staff and doesn’t even allow admin privileges to the staff PCs.
– IT people are overprotective over their knowledge. Not all but many IT tasks are relatively straightforward and can be learned by librarians.

Programmer/IT professional (P)
– Librarians require an MLS for even technology positions. That is crazy!
– You are arguing that librarians can learn how to properly program in their spare time without gaining the proper theoretical understanding of computer science and training in software engineering. That is crazy!

L thinks P should recognize that library staff do work in technology just as IT does and wants P to be more open and sharing instead of being mysterious.  On the other hand, P wants to see L value programmers and IT for their expertise and thinks that an MLS is an unreasonable requirement for a technology position at libraries. I think both parties make excellent points. About the over-protectiveness, I think perhaps it is half true but half likely to be a communication issue.

And here are some of the most valuable comments:

  • Librarians tend to miss that there can be an overlap in the role of IT and that of librarians and regard them as completely separate ones.
  • The management buy-in is important in promoting technology in a library. A nurturing environment for staff development can be quite helpful for the library staff.

I think these two comments are very close to answering my question of why libraries don’t actively encourage and support those among the library staff who know how to code albeit in a rudimentary manner to further develop their skills and apply them to the library context. Although almost all libraries today emphasize the importance of technology, the role of librarians and that of IT, librarianship and technology are often viewed as completely separate from each other. Even when there is an interest in incorporating technology into librarianship, both libraries and LIS schools seem to be puzzled over how to do so.

It is no doubt a tough problem to crack. But it explains up to a certain degree why there is not much collaboration found between librarians and programmers (or IT in a wider sense) at most libraries. Why don’t the library and the IT at a college/university, for example, form a closely-knit educational/instructional technology center?  While reading the comments, I kept thinking about the story I heard from my friend.

My friend works at a large academic library, and the university s/he works at decided to merge the university IT and the university library into one organization to foster collaboration and make the two departments’ operation more efficient. Two departments came to reside in the same building as a result. However, there was so much difference in culture that the expected collaboration did not occur. Instead, the library and the IT worked as they had done before as completely separate entities.

The university administrators may have had the insight that there is an overlapping role between the library and the IT and seen the potential synergy from merging the two units together. But without the library and the IT buying into that vision, the experiment cannot succeed. Even where a library has its own IT department, the cultural difference may hinder the collaboration between the library IT and the rest of the library staff.

How can the gap between librarianship and IT be bridged? As I have already said, I don’t think that the problem is to be solved by ‘all’ librarians becoming coders or IT professionals. That would be implausible, unnecessary, and downright strange.

However, I believe that all libraries would significantly benefit by having ‘some’ library staff who understand how programming works and so all libraries should support and encourage their staff who are already pursuing their interests in coding to further develop their skills and deepen their knowledge. (This is no different than what libraries are already doing regarding their paraprofessionals who want to pursue a MLS degree!)  Even when those staff are not themselves capable of developing a complicated, production-ready software system, they can easily automate simple processes at libraries, solve certain problems, and collaborate with professional programmers in troubleshooting and developing better library systems.

So, my question was not so much about librarians as individuals as about the strategic direction of libraries whose primary concern is providing, packaging, disseminating, and maintaining information, resources, and data. And I am glad I asked my half-baked question. You never know what you will learn until you ask.

What is your management style?

Jenica Rogers wrote a thoughtful post today about management at her blog, Attempting Elegance. In her post, “Lessons Learned: Micromanaging,” she reflects on her management style as a new library director. She talks about how her personal strength and talent at project maangement has unexpectedly become a problem in her work as an administrator.

I think it would be a good practice to reflect upon one’s own management style whether one is a manager or not as we all have to manage at least our own time and work. Furthermore, as professional librarians, we are also often put in a position to manage temporary, hourly, and student employees or even volunteers.

My own management style is actually a complete opposite to Jenica’s. I love delegating and long to delegate more of my work, so that I can focus on and spend more time on certain projects that really need me. Just unfortunately, right now I don’t have many people to whom I can delegate some of my tasks.

I confess when I was in library school, I didn’t pay great attention in my management class. I figured I would be a lay librarian and I wouldn’t have much need for management sorts of things. I soon realized that that was a pretty wrong assumption. I recruited a couple of students in my first year as a professional librarian after I realized that I could not keep up with all the tasks by myself. Since I worked with students before and it worked so well at my previous workplaces where I was a paraprofessional, I thought it would be a piece of cake. How wrong I was! (And also that made me realize how great a manager my boss was.)

A Very Young Dancer

"25/365 from 'A Very Young Dancer' by Jill Krementz" Photo from Dream Diary in Flickr

The problem I had was that, unlike Jenica, I didn’t do enough micro-managing. For example, I expected my students to read up stuff that I gave them and then to apply what they learned to work, which I showed how to do just a few times in front of them. Of course, I supposed that they would ask me any questions as they arose, work and behave professionally, and appreciate the freedom and trust I gave them. And by all means, the tasks that I assigned them were the simplest ones, at least in my mind.

What I was doing wrong was to treat my student assistants in the way I like to be treated. Not that there is anything wrong with the Golden Rule, the mistake I made was to think that my student assistants would have the same kinds of needs and work styles as I do. I love working independently and excel at setting up projects and getting things done without much direction or guidance. Whenever I spot a problem, I am happy to do my own research, solicit feedback without being prompted,  make decisions to fix the problem, and accomplish goals that I see as my responsibilities. On the other hand, I do not enjoy spot-checking others’ work or writing reports about things that have been done.

Now this tendency of mine would work great if I were to supervise someone exactly like me. However, you can guess this wasn’t the case with my student assistants. Now that I think about it, the freedom and the trust that I placed upon them could have been baffling and confusing to them. They may not have fully understood exactly what the tasks were and, more importantly, how meticulous their work had to be for it to be useful to others. A lot of things that I expected my student assistants to be able to do themselves and apply to their tasks may well have been simply beyond their capabilities. In retrospect, they would have benefited from personal attention and lots of directions and guidance as well as frequent check-ups to ensure that they were on the right track. But as a complete newbie manager with the natural tendency of macro-managing (if that is a word), I completely missed all of this for a while. The result was, well, not quite great. Some of the work that was done by student assistants had to be redone by me, and some of the projects didn’t get finished.

It took a while for me to realize that the failure came from me just as much as from my student assistants. I wasn’t managing them in the way that they needed me to. I treated them as if they were just like me. While this may well be a good rule in ethics, it certainly is not so for a manger.

I read somewhere that treating everyone equally is not a strength of a manger. A good manager treats everyone differently because everyone is different (with different strengths, needs, and work styles). I would probably never be a micro-manager as I believe that everyone should achieve a certain level of expertise (i.e. independence) in their areas by learning their work and doing it well through practice and that all of us do our best work when we are internally motivated, not externally. However, we all need different things at different times in different projects. A good manager is someone who can see the needs of those who s/he manages and can offer what is needed for each individual at a given time. And there, the distinction between micro-managing and macro-managing may well be irrelevant. That I now know from my mistakes. What is your management style?