Monday, November 24, 2008

Moving Towards an Innovative Library

I have been working for a couple months on a graphic that represents the elements of innovative library organizations. The one I came up with was inspired by that which appeared in The Game Changer.

The graphic below depicts a continuum of six concepts which are vital to building a more innovative organization.

Inspiring Leadership

In trying to determine where the continuum in the above model begins, I decided it begins with leadership. Leadership sets the tone for everything that a library does. Innovation is all about change. During times of change an organization will be unstable, characterized by confusion, fear, a temporary loss of direction, reduced personal productivity, and a general lack of clarity about the organization's direction and mandates. A time of change can be a period filled with emotion, with employees focusing on what is changing and being lost and therefore unable to look into beyond the present and into the future. Employees not only need to have confidence in their leadership so they have someone to look to during times of change, they need to be inspired by them.

While a director or formal management group may be the most visible leaders, most library organizations have leaders throughout. Innovative organizations would also seem to have a higher number of change agents and idea champions. As Helene Blowers points out, Innovation starts with 'I.' The challenge is identifying innovation leaders, cultivating their potential, and empowering them to act. While these individuals may not be leaders in the hierarchical sense, they are extremely important leaders in building staff buy-in and moving ideas ahead. It therefore takes inspiring leadership to spot and cultivate organizational leaders.

Courageous Culture

If leadership is the starting point of the innovative continuum, then creating a courageous culture is the foundation. A climate and culture that conducive to innovation will generally be open to change, willing to take risks, tolerant of debate and disagreement, playful, will stress flexibility, adaptability, and celebrate both individual and group achievements and failures.

When it comes to implementing innovative change, there is an inevitable resistance as individuals discover that they may be giving something up. In many organizations, simply suggesting a change is often met with a negative attitude. Nothing is more deadening to the innovative process than having idea shot down even before it has a chance. A change in culture, behavior patterns and how change is approached are critical to moving towards an innovative organization.

Training and Development

Sir Francis Bacon is quoted as saying "Knowledge is Power." Indeed, innovative organizations have knowledgeable staff equipped with the skills they need to innovate and perform. An organization looking to become more innovative should expect, no, require that it's staff advances their understanding and broaden their point of view beyond their individual responsibilities.

To that end, many library organizations are moving towards a competency-based assessment system which recognizes individualized learning styles and methods. In this model, every employee and their supervisor should be accountable for continuous learning with training goals spelled out in annual performance reviews. Exploring and refining new skills, ideally outside of their area of expertise, should be of high value to the organization.

Enabling Organizational Structures

Most mature organizations, and libraries certainly are that, reach a sustaining level where the focus is on efficiency. Employees are slotted into specialized roles and are gathered together in social groups based on those roles and the resulting processes. Therefore, each employee's web of social connections mirrors the way their work is organized. As Chris Trimble points out, most social connections are made with others with closely related specialties, which share similar perspectives, and are shaped by the demands of the same customers.

Being a part of a particular social network for a prolonged period of time does influence individuals in significant ways, such as 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 do many brainstorming or strategic planning sessions start off? By counting off and creating new groups. Otherwise, people tend to organize into the same social groups.

Organizations that are unstable, or responding to instability, are also more likely to innovate. A constant of slight discomfort gets individuals out of their comfort zones, gets them talking to one another, and can create new connections where none previously existed. Trimble states:
"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..."

Streamlined Processes

Andrew Van De Ven observes that people and organizations are largely designed to focus on, harvest, and protect existing practices than paying attention to developing new ideas. The more successful an organization is, the more difficult this becomes. Clayton Christensen echoes this theory. While the process of conceiving an idea may be an individual activity, innovation is a collective achievement of pushing and riding those ideas.

Transforming innovation into practice involves so many individuals that those involved may lose sight of the big picture. Innovation transforms the structure and practices of an organization. The challenge is creating a culture where process does not get in the way of innovation.

Resource Reallocation

Many innovative ideas die simply due to limited resources. While resources are often equated with dollars, resources also refers to the reallocation of time, people, materials, existing equipment, and assistance. To become more innovative, inspired library leaders need to reposition staff to support innovative projects and programs, through new hires and reassignments where appropriate.

The efforts of staff that develop successful systems should also be rewarded. Innovation activities need to be recognized when decisions are made about merit increases, promotions, and even tenure decisions. If such rewards exist, then more staff will be interested in engaging in innovative activities. In the end, participation in the development of innovative solutions needs to become a vital part of the librarian's career track, and as such, should be reflected in how the librarians work, and resulting scholarship, is defined and evaluated.
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Richard Akerman said...

Another great post on library innovation Eric - you've really hit on a lot of the key challenges we face.

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