v31 #3 Squirreling Away: Managing Information Resources & Libraries — Finding Your Beat: Rapidity and Change Management

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Corey Seeman  (Director, Kresge Library Services, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan;  Phone: 734-764-9969)  Twitter @cseeman

It’s Spring-time and change is in the air.  So maybe this is a perfect time to write my second column on change management in libraries.  I have long thought about this as an important topic that seems to be under-appreciated and under-explored in the professional library literature.  Having recently navigated my own operation from a traditional library a few years ago to one that is virtually virtual, the time is definitely now to think about this important topic with the vantage point of what we did well, what we did poorly, and what we might do differently.  

As a structure for these articles (and hopefully something a bit more), I have broken down change management into six key terms: inevitability, rapidity, flexibility, hospitality, accountability, and empathy.  These terms are particularly important to use in the context of your institutional culture and identity. Through these six terms, I hope to explore how to best manage your operation in even less than optimal conditions (and lets face it, most libraries are operating in exactly that “place.”)  For this column, I am going to write about the rapidity of change and what it all means at individual libraries. By rapidity, I want to explore the pace and speed with which an organization can pivot. But first, a diversion.

Finding Your Beat

Back in March 2007, I had an opportunity to chaperone a middle school event that really changed some of my thinking about management.  Now when you think of many of the mistakes that parents make in their lives, many of them start off with a decision to chaperone a school event.  But this is not going in that direction — I promise.

My son has played the cello since the 5th grade and has introduced me to an entire new world (as I am not as musically adept as I wish I was).  In middle school, back in 2007, my son and a number of his classmates from 8th and 9th grades were invited to participate as a demonstration orchestra for the American String Teachers Association Meeting at the RenCen (or Renaissance Center) in downtown Detroit, Michigan.  The purpose of the session was to showcase to other string educators how to find the ideal tempo for any student orchestra.  The piece they chose was the beautiful Percy Grainger Molly on the Shore and it was lead by an educator from another state who needed a student orchestra to showcase.  The orchestra, under the direction of Saline Area Schools’ Erin Hansen, demonstrated principles of how fast a piece could be played.  While I do not have a gift for music, and I might be missing something here, the premise of the talk was that an orchestra can only play as quickly as the musicians with the most difficult part can play.  So if the most difficult part goes to the cellos, the entire tempo of the piece must be set by how fast that group can play. If an instrument section cannot play at the pace set by the conductor, then the entire orchestra will sound horrible and out of sync.  So the task of the conductor is to find out what that tempo is and adjust accordingly to present music that is in sync and in perfect harmony (but not NSYNC). This is the main work of the conductor in order to prepare the musicians to play beautifully. But a key aspect (especially as it relates to this column) is that the conductor needs to find the right tempo or speed for his or her orchestra.

I remember sitting in the back of that room and thinking about that very concept.  It has stuck with me these past 12 years as an important part of my thoughts on how organizations work.  In particular, this whole notion that we have a singular sound coming from an orchestra, and yet it is made of many different components, each working at different degrees of difficulty to produce a beautiful (hopefully) sound.  Like many people before me, as the music filled my brain, I was also thinking about how it all comes together. How do you bring together a variety of parts to create a singular sound from multiple parties? How do you marry different abilities and tasks into a single organization?  How do you balance out the different demands of an operation to make it seamless to the end users? This is the very nature of good management of any organization.  

There have been a number of articles and other readings connecting the work of the conductor with the work of a manager.  One piece was written by SkyeTeam CEO Morag Barrett and linked four leadership lessons that she drew from the conductor.  These four entrepreneurial leadership lessons (that could be applied to any organization) are:

  1. Have a clear vision.
  2. Establish roles and responsibilities.
  3. Provide coaching and feedback.
  4. Lead from the front and be visible.1

She wrote this not only from her perspective as a CEO of a leadership development consulting firm, but also as an orchestra member herself (she was the principal bassoonist for a community orchestra in Broomfield, Colorado).  These four lessons are key to any organization — including both established and entrepreneurial ones. The exact same lessons could be also identified as those coming from a team sport coach who has to get a group of athletes to work together to (hopefully) be successful on the field, court, rink or wherever the team plays.

But what is really key in the context of this column is one element that is not listed — speed.  How fast does the conductor lead the orchestra to perform the piece? While the notes and the tempo (think Adagio or Allegro for starters) provide a sense of what the music is supposed to sound like, it does not prescribe the exact rate.  While we might use a metronome to keep the tempo steady, there is not an exact timing that is applied to a piece. The actual timing of the beats per minute is set by the conductor and he or she alone is the person who maintains that for an orchestra.  So when you look at different recordings of a common piece, say Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D (one of my favorites), you will likely see a variety of timings.  These might be caused by edits to the piece or by the speed with which the orchestra plays.  One might see variations based on the artist’s vision of the conductor as well. While recordings are a somewhat narrow basis of timings, given that these are mostly accomplished musicians, the variance in how long it takes in performance by a variety of different orchestras might reveal a greater time range.  

Two other ways to think of timing include the great Gilbert and Sullivan song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from the 1879 operetta Pirates of Penzance.  This patter song requires the actor playing the Major-General Stanley to be able to perform the song at a very quick pace.  But the entire song really can only go as fast as the actor playing the Major-General can. On the other hand, if you give the conductor some animal medication designed to make them more efficient, like in the 1963 Dick Van Dyke movie Bye Bye Birdie, you end up with a comically fast production.  But the upside is that you have time for Conrad Birdie to sing One Last Kiss on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Choosing the right tempo might be one of the most important things that a conductor does.  Figuring out the right tempo or pace might be one of the most critical elements that a manager or director does in an organization, especially during big changes.

How Quickly Can You / Should You Change?

So with that introduction, I hope to make a pivot to the world of libraries and, in particular, change management.  While we tend to think about change management in libraries as a very modern problem, the reality is that we have been in a steady state of change for the past 50+ years.  We will continue to see dramatic changes in our field and (for many of us) in the higher education environment in the coming 10-15 years. We would be foolish to think that academic libraries of 2029 or 2039 will look identical to the libraries that we have today.  Furthermore, it is foolish to think that academic institutions of 2029 or 2039 will look identical to the colleges that we have today. In the United States, we have a higher education system that was built on post-war boom in students. However, we are faced with new challenges that have seen some schools close or struggle to remain afloat (like Hampshire College).  The threats that come from larger online schools and shrinking population of school-age children (especially in the Midwest) will have a huge impact on the future of our institutions, let alone our libraries.

Having said all that, the pace of change of the modern library is similar to that of the orchestra.  The tempo used by a conductor should be based on the quickest speed that the group with the most difficult part can play.  In thinking about this concept, the library has a variation in difficulty among its many diverse tasks. This is especially true for libraries that are being asked to make big changes.  There will be service units that might have an easier time than others through these changes. There might be work that goes away, and other work that multiplies. Keeping balance and a steady hand on the baton is critical for an organization to thrive in the new conditions.

But there are two distinct timings or tempos that might be used for change.  Much of that hinges on who controls the pace of change and how much time is afforded to the library.  When a library does not control their own fate, they are often left to move more quickly than would be optimally taken.  Many librarians tell the stories of the visit to the library (conveniently during the quiet hours) by the University administration and the ensuing desire to use the central location of the building for a more important purpose.  Sometimes, these changes can take place very quickly, with library administrators being consulted only after all the other pieces (including funding) are in place. The library administrators often have little choice but to move quickly and figure out the best way to make lemonade out of these lemons.  

Conversely, when libraries control their own fate and are managing the direction and the pace of change, we often find that the pace is slower and more deliberate.  Another word here is thoughtful. A library managing self-directed change will likely move at a slower pace of change that positions the organization more deliberately and effectively for the future.  A self-directed pacing will enable the library to have sufficient time to deliberate on the required actions and community reactions. This might be a best case scenario for change in the library.

Festina Lente (Make Haste Slowly)

Maybe the ancient saying here makes sense.  Our job (ideally) is to make haste slowly (or deliberately).  Alas, if we only had the chance. But there are few library directors who would not love the opportunity to do just that and to make the best of the situation.  In thinking through these two scenarios, we have two tales of change and the rapidity that a library can take on.  

The first example above, in which the library is not in charge, we have had that situation at my library recently.  Back in 2014, when Kresge Library Services at the University of Michigan had to quickly change from a traditional library to a virtual one, we had a number of tasks in front of us.  Under normal circumstances, this work would have taken a few years to complete. However, we only had four months.  When libraries are forced to manage through decisions that are already made, the directors have little choice but to move through as best as they can.  In many regards, this makes the work a bit easier, since there is simply not enough time for lengthy deliberation. However, there are groups that have a more difficult job and that will very much drive the decisions that the director needs to make.  From a managerial perspective, one had to ensure that the people who have the most difficult transition have the greatest support. Much as an orchestra director cannot ask a musical section to play faster than their abilities, he or she slows down the entire piece to match their skills.  This is exactly what the library director needs to do.  

In the second example, I am drawn to a story that is unfolding as I type, but represents one of the most important changes in the library environment of the last year.  In February, the University of California system announced that they would cancel their ten-campus deal with Elsevier, one of the global leaders in scholarly communications and well known to the readers of this journal.  The driving discussion in the contract renewal hinged not on the usage of the resources on the University of California campuses, but on the inability to secure open-access rights for faculty published works.2  The University of California’s Office of Scholarly Communication posted a guide to help faculty find works from Elsevier post-cancellation.3  Of particular note is a one page sign with the different paths to get the full text:4 

  • Install browser plug-ins
  • Search for open access copies
  • Get it from the Library
  • Use your network
  • Note: The UC Libraries do not endorse using Sci-Hub for article access.

This library-driven change is truly bold and the University of California needs to be recognized for this move to break this unsustainable scholarly communication financial crisis.  The decision to move in this direction clearly had the support of the university and the system’s president Janet A. Napolitano was quoted as stating: “I fully support our faculty, staff, and students in breaking down paywalls that hinder the sharing of groundbreaking research.  This issue does not just impact UC, but also countless scholars, researchers, and scientists across the globe — and we stand with them in their push for full, unfettered access.”5

Like many people, I will be watching this closely.  But from the lens of library change, the real challenge will take place once the new issues are not accessible any longer by the faculty on the University of California campuses.  What happens next?  That is the million dollar question.  One thing that is likely to happen is that Inter-library loan requests could skyrocket.  Are the libraries in the University of California system prepared for that?  These are already large departments (I assume) because of the research appetite on these campuses.  However, if they are now being asked to supply Elsevier titles as well, their work just became more difficult.  To that end, I trust that the library administration is considering the work being asked from the people in this department.  And while this decision was years or months in the making, the change being asked of those in ILL will be swift and needs to be supported.  Additionally, the work of the reference librarians also became more difficult because now there will be more road-blocks on the way to supporting faculty and student researchers.  I hope that the euphoria over this decision is not lost when faculty complaints about access drown out the applause from the library community.

The speed with which an organization can change hinges on what they are asked to do and how that relates to the current mode of operation.  With every complex organization, there are many moving parts, of which only a few are visible to the end user or outsiders. To enable the library to be effective in its new situation, the pace of change needs to match the difficulty of the individual work units with the library.  If a director or dean can do that, then these disruptions can be more efficiently managed. The ultimate benefit is to the school or community that the library serves. And when that happens, it really is sweet music.  

 

Corey Seeman is the Director, Kresge Library Services at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  He is also the new editor for this column that intends to provide an eclectic exploration of business and management topics relative to the intersection of publishing, librarianship and the information industry.  No business degree required! He may be reached at or via twitter at @cseeman.

Endnotes

  1. Barrett, Morag.  4 Leadership Lessons Learned From Orchestra Conductors, Entrepreneur.com, May 20, 2015.  From https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/246194, accessed April 9, 2019.
  2. Ellis, Lindsay.  “U. of California System Cancels Elsevier Subscriptions, Calling Move a Win for Open Access,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2019.  Accessed at https://www.chronicle.com/article/U-of-California-System/245798 on April 10, 2019.  
  3. See https://osc.universityofcalifornia.edu/open-access-at-uc/publisher-negotiations/alternative-access-to-articles/.
  4. See https://osc.universityofcalifornia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/AlternativeAccess_UC.pdf.
  5. Ellis, Lindsay.  “U. of California System Cancels Elsevier Subscriptions, Calling Move a Win for Open Access,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2019.  Accessed at https://www.chronicle.com/article/U-of-California-System/245798 on April 10, 2019.

 Saline (Michigan) Middle School ASTA Demonstration Orchestra (March 2007)

Fox Squirrel on a Warm, Spring Day at the University of Michigan (April 9, 2019)

 

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