Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Librarian's Dilemma

I recently had the opportunity to begin reading Clayton Christensen's 1997 book Innovator's Dilemma. While an overly simplified summary, the book details the problems with innovation in the disk drive industry due to demands placed by current customers and resource allocation.

Christensen states that with few exceptions businesses that have great managers who listen intently to their customers often fail. This is in part because an organization's structure is designed to facilitate the design and support of its dominant product and current customer base. Resources are allocated towards sustaining the current technologies rather than investing in the development of disruptive ones.

However, managers that choose to set up autonomous organizations charged with building a new and independent businesses around the disruptive technologies were more successful. Companies that created new organizations that ensconce themselves among a new set of customers who want the disruptive technology enabled those companies to establish themselves in a timely position.

Libraries can learn from the disk drive industry. I was only 20 pages in I began replacing the words "manufacturer" with "library" and "management" with "library administrators".

If one applies Christensen's theory to libraries, many of our organizations are following the path that the unsuccessful disk drive manufacturers. The concern I have is that many library Internet innovations have been to simply sustain current service paradigms, such as document delivery, reserves, etc. We are listening to our customers and continue to allocating our resources to sustain current services.

We can only expect disruptive changes to increase in their frequency. Libraries need to reorganize themselves and reallocate their resources to address disruptive technologies more quickly. Otherwise, commercial organizations will address the information seeking behaviors and needs of our customers and place libraries at risk of becoming irrelevant

At the CNI Spring Task Force meeting I heard a presentation by Barbara Dewey and Julie Little from the University of Tennessee which discussed the creation of "The Commons" at the Hodges Library. The project was designed to deal with the changing the tools required to be successful learners and teachers.

Like the successful disk drive manufacturers, the UT library and Office of Information Technology reallocated resources and essentially created the Commons as a new organization. They reallocated 20 staff; half from the Office of Information Technology and the other half from the library. To do this, the library eliminated their periodicals reading room and all the associated services.

I suspect that customer surveys would have revealed that the UT periodicals service is one that their customers enjoy and would want sustained. A good library administrator that listened to their customers would have not reallocated those resources. Instead, UT reallocated resources from a sustaining service to support a disruptive one.

Under Christensen's theory this project has a high probability of success. Sphere: Related Content

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