Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Are Libraries Managing Innovation in a Disruptive World?

Librarians apply traditional methods and models to everything we do, including technology innovation. We must do surveys, formal needs assessments, focus groups, usability studies, before deciding on a technology. However, this traditional approach may be leading librarians right down the path to the Librarian's Dilemma.

In his paper Central Problems in the Management of Innovation Andrew H. Van De Ven points out that there are four factors that faciliate and inhibit innovation:
  • people and organizations are largely designed to focus on, harvest, and protect existing practices than pay attention to developing new ideas. The more successful an organization the more difficult this is. (Christensen echoes this theory)
  • while the innovation of conception process many be an individual activity, innovation is a collective achievement of pushing and riding those ideas.
  • the process of transforming innovation into practice involves so many individuals that those involved may lose sight of the big picture.
  • Innovations transform the structure and practices of an organization. The problem is creating an infrastructure conducive to innovation.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to identify any of the requirements and needs for a potentially disruptive technology. This is because we do not know anything about the technology. Therefore, the goal of the innovation process in libraries should be one of learning and the exploration of new ideas and not meeting the needs of our current customers. In order to manage disruptive technologies, libraries need to adopt new organizations and processes that are much different than what we are used to. Where traditional processes consist of planning before action, managing disruptive technologies requires action before planning.

Like the hard drive manufacturers in Christensen's book, libraries need to create new organizations designed to facilitate innovation. These new organizations can be as simple as new emergening technology task forces or committees. There needs to be a deliberate reallocate of resources away from supporting routine services and towards supporting innovation. Libraries then need to adopt different standards for evaluating both routine work and innovation.

Innovation is based on guess-work, estimation, and hypothesis. To get technology innovations out much sooner short development cycles are needed. Rapid Prototyping is a development approach based on the assumption a library may know the objectives that they wish to address but not know all the nuances of the data or the details of the system features and capabilities. An assumption is made as to how the system might work and then rapid iterations are used to quickly incorporate suggested changes and build a usable system.

Below are some of the characteristic differences between managing sustaining and disruptive technologies:

Primary Question: What do customers need? What do customers do?
Needs Assessment: Surveys and focus groups Ethnography
Innovation Goal: Planning before action Action before planning
Innovation Outcome: Meeting current customer technology needs Learning and exploration
Innovation Process: Structured and linear Dynamic and spontaneous
Organizational Models: Traditional models and roles New structures and quick development cycles

What are libraries doing to create new organizations and processes? What are the best practices that we can look at? A visit to the Library Success: A Best Practice Wiki provided an interesting insight. While other sections of the wiki are built out, the section Management and Leadership contained virtually nothing.

Does this mean that there are no best practices? Or, are library administrators simple not contributing because they are not actively engaged in the use of potentially disruptive technology themselves? If library adminstrators do not understand the technology environment we are in how can they affect organizational and process change to foster innovation?


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Sutton, Robert. "Why These Ideas Work, But Seem Weird" Design Management Review, Winter 2004 15(1):43-49

Van de Ven, Andrew H. "Central Problems in the Management of Innovation" Management Science, May 1986 32(5):590-607 Sphere: Related Content

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