Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Single Business Model and Emerging Library Systems

Lorcan Dempsey's recent post Moving to a 'single business' systems environment provides a nice summary of a report from The National Library of Australia entitled National Library of Australia IT Architecture Project Report, March 2007. [pdf] Since I could not have summarized it any better than Lorcan has, please visit his site. Any librarian that has aspirations of leading an innovative library should read this report.

Here are a few parts of the report that I found interesting:

" The benefits of treating discovery and access as a single business cannot be overstated. It is here that most of the Library’s development effort is spent and here that there is most duplication of functionality and most need to improve the user experience if the Library is to remain relevant in a digital age.....Instead of redeveloping the same Contribute / Search / Alert / Harvest paradigms for each new application, the Library would be able to invest resources in improving the finding and getting process across all business contexts and in developing support for personalisation and user participation."

" With a single national discovery service, developers would only need to support one application. Staff would work closely together to identify priorities for the service. Users would have the same opportunities to find relevant information whether they had started the search from a generic search box or from a manuscript or pictures context or from an Internet search engine."

" The main enabler for taking a single business approach is that the Library itself has been looking at ways in which it might re-organise itself better to meet its directions and to do more with less. A physical restructure is probably needed less than a new way of sharing ideas, communicating what is happening across the Library and building up the IT literacy of all staff. The single business approach provides a way of doing this by bringing people together to work on solutions to shared problems and by enabling all staff to be involved in testing and evaluating prototypes. " Sphere: Related Content

Citizendium: A Peer-Review Wikipedia?

A new online wiki encyclopedia named Citizendium (sit-ih-ZEN-dee-um) was finally unveiled on March 25th. The project, started by Larry Sanger (Interesting. I had to use a Wikipedia entry for Sanger since one does not exist on his new service), aims to improve on Wikipedia's model by adding "gentle expert oversight."

The site states that the "project is expert-led, not experts-only." Contributors are referred to as "authors," not editors. Most of the current authors lack advanced degrees with many lacking a degree. All entries require the contributors to use their real names.

To get involved one must first register as an author. Editor applicants must send a CV but the project asserts that one can get involved as authors relatively quickly. Authors then can join the project forums and contribute their thoughts and ideas.

Citizendium is very late to the market. Despite its flaws, Wikipedia already has the brand recognition and the user base. Citizendium will need to come up with some interesting innovations besides using the real names of contributors in order to separate itself. Besides, it doesn't bode well that they needed to use a phonetic pronunciation when promoting their name. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, March 23, 2007

An Internet of Objects

At the recent CIC "Getting in the Flow"conference Peter Morville discussed many interesting topics. One that caught my ear was the concept of an "Internet of Objects."

One of the examples he provide were devices being market by the company Ambient Devices, including the Ambient Clock and the Ambient Orb ( pictured ). The former provides a glancable view of a Google calendar while the later changes color based on changes to the stock market or the weather. While these are more fun than practical there are some interesting Internet objects already out there.

There is a line of Internet connected refrigerated stoves manufactured by TMIO. One can connect to the stove using any web browser (or cell phone) and make changes to the settings. There are two models that are refrigerated. Food can be placed he stove for cool storage. The owner can instruct it to begin cooking then re-cool the food when finished. While most people are likely to view an Internet connected stove as being pure luxury today, I suspect that in five years most of our major appliances will have some sort of networked presence.

There are some very practical uses for this type of technology. Another example that Peter provided was a hospital that put RFID tags on all its wheelchairs. Using a Cisco wireless location appliance they were able to keep track of where the chairs were located. The hospital calculated that it saved them $28,000 a month by recovering time spent hunting for the chairs. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Google's Culture of Innovation

I just returned from the CIC's "Getting in the Flow"conference.Keynote speakers at the conference included and Peter Morville ( ambient findability ) and Lorcan Dempsey ( OCLC ). Since more attendees are likely to react to Peter and Lorcan's presentations, I wanted to focus on the comments of Ben Bunnell of Google. While Ben is a part of the Book Search team his discussion focused on the culture of innovation at Google. For other discussions on the conference please visit the conference blog.

Ben discussed how all Google engineers are required to allocate 20 percent of their time working on any project idea of their choosing. The resulting "20 percent projects" will most often than not have nothing to do with Google's current core business (one engineer's project is to buy Iceland). Some may evolve into "Googlettes" and land up in Google Labs or discussed on the Google Blog. Google services such as Gmail and Google News started as 20 percent projects. (Ben pointed out that Mendel's discovery of generics was a 20% project).

The innovation culture at Google is all about coming up with an idea, getting it out there for people to use as quick as possible, and having it evolve quickly through iterative process. The cultural response to a new idea is brainstorming. Why an idea can't be done (such as buying Iceland) and inneroffice politics is rarely an issue. Their culture is one that reduces friction between idea and implementation.

This is in stark contrast to that which exists in many libraries. Our project and service ideas must be properly vetted through time intensive committee and administrative review. They must be reviewed over and over again, go through usability testing, and can only released when "complete." It is not that libraries can't innovate, but we trip over ourselves as we try to innovate with our desire for structure and process. We spend mush too much time coming up with reasons why we can't do something.

I suspect that the majority of Google's 20% projects are simply abandoned. They would be lucky if 2 out of 10 of them even work. Libraries on the other hand are very reluctant to abandon projects/services that do not work. Instead, we have a tendency to keep pumping more resources into them long after the project/service is useful. Our rationale is that we have put so much money into them already. This drains resources away from potential start up projects which may in the long run prove more beneficial to our customers.

Now, Google is certainly at a distinct advantage since as a new organization they could establish their culture from the start. Libraries have some interesting legacy sub-cultures to deal with which, well, I will leave it at that. Still, we have a lot to learn from Google's culture and the success it breeds.

Photo copyright 2007 by CIC Library 07 Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Does Breaking Social Networks Encourage Innovation?

In doing some background work on innovation I came across an article by Chris Trimble (Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth) publish last year on the impact of social networks on the ability of an organization to innovate.

More often than not, innovation results from an unexpected combinations of ideas, or chance meetings of people with complimentary perspectives. Within most organizations innovation is not viewed as an organizational process but the focus of a work group of individuals that comprise their own social network. However, aspiring innovators within organizations can often be handicapped by existing social networks. This is not because these individuals lack the creativity or other skills to innovate, but instead are functionally out of the innovation loop because the nature of their jobs keeps them from interacting with the "innovative" social networks.

Once an organization has reached a level where it is sustaining itself the focus changes to becoming efficient. Employees are pulled into specialized roles and tasks and are gathered together in social groups based on processes. Each employee's web of social connections therefore mirrors the way their work is organized. As Trimble points out, most social connections are made with others with closely related specialties, who share similar perspectives, and are shaped by the demands of the same customers.

Being a part of a social network for a prolonged period of time influences individuals in significant ways. Individuals that have been in a specific social network for a long period of time has likely internalizing the "ways of thinking" (groupthink) of that network. Yet, innovation initiatives are often most successful when there is an unusual interaction between employees. How many brainstorming or strategic planning sessions start off by counting off and creating new groups? Trimble therefore argues that while enriching existing social networks accelerates idea generation, the breaking of social networks is often required to convert vision to reality.

Trimble states that "Breaking networks is the only way to prepare an organization to take innovation efforts beyond mere ideas. You can train an individual about what an innovation is and why it demands different behavior, but you can't retrain an organization simply by training the individuals within it. The individuals may acquire knowledge, but organizations are more powerful than individuals..."

Yes, organizations are more powerful than the individuals from which they are comprised (the whole is greater the the sum of its parts). Therefore, organizational leaders that are serious about building an organization with the capacity for strategic innovation cannot simply keep a few innovators close by that "do" innovation. They need an organization built to innovate. Reorganizations are an opportunity to break those involved with an innovation out of their existing social networks, and force them to forge new relationships and new networks from scratch.

Breaking networks takes a deliberate effort and is tricky because networks are made up of relationships between people, and relationships are cultivated over time. Social networks are often built upon relationships that often go beyond work and becomes the foundation for trust. Breaking these social networks would mean disrupting the social capital that has been built within parts of the organization. The challenge is that any group of people that have invested time and effort into a relationship or social network and have built a 'circle of trust' are reluctant simply to walk away.

Still, one can build a strong argument that innovation is more likely to occur when an organization moves from one that aspires to enhance existing social networks to one that breaks them, then rebuilds them over again. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, March 02, 2007

What Makes an Organization Innovative?

In an earlier post I discussed how an organization's learning style could affect its ability to innovate. In stepping back a bit, I decided to read a bit more on the characteristics of an innovative organization (with learning style being one of them). There is certainly no shortage of theorist in this area of study including the likes of Tom Peters.

There are many common attributes regardless of the theory one aligns with:


Leadership sets the tone for everything that a library does. While a library director may be the most visible leader, most library organizations have some sort of leadership team. Participative, visionary and transformational leadership seems to be the most identified with organizational innovation. Different leadership styles are also required for different innovations as well as during the various stages of the innovation process. Innovative organizations would also seem to have a higher number of change agents and idea champions. While they may not be leaders in the hierarchical sense, they are extremely important leaders in gaining staff buy-in and moving ideas ahead.

Organizational Structure, Climate, and Culture

There are many different prescriptions for how an organization should be structured for innovation. Common themes include flat structures, project-based work teams, and lateral communication which are all characteristics of Burns and Stalker's "organic" structure theory. Idea ownership and the sense of autonomy over one's work are also common characteristics. A climate and culture that has favorable conditions will generally be open to change, willing to take risks, tolerant of debate and disagreement, playful, stresses flexibility, adaptability, and individual and group achievement.

I will be discussing many of these characteristics on a panel session at the 13th National ACRL Conference (Baltimore March 29 - April 1) that will be discussing innovation in libraries along with Nancy Davenport and Jim Robertson. Sphere: Related Content