Thursday, June 14, 2007

Management, innovation & budget

David Lee King's blog is generally worth reading; I check it at least weekly. But I'm concerned about the tenor of a recent discussion. Writing about barriers to new tech and 2.0 in Four Things to Consider When Changing the Unchangeable, David asked about:

  • Steps to take to convince administrators that the library world is different than it was in the 1970’s?
  • How to convince administrators that constant change and innovation is good, and that it’s also a necessity in our new millenial world?
  • How can we become change agents in a field that’s apparently not used to changing?
and posed the following response:

Looks like there are approximately four things to consider when hoping to implement new technology (at least, these four things came out of your comments). They are:

1. Management problems
2. Finding champions
3. Creating a Vision
4. training Administrators

1. Management Problems: You guys mentioned some interesting problems, including budget constraints, no follow-through on an already-created strategic plan, the organization being slow to adapt to anything, and the “too much work too little time” mantra.

I see these problems as poor management. The “too much work too little time” thing can be dealt with by changing job descriptions, responsibilities, etc. But this needs to be done in conjunction with a new direction (see Creating a Vision below).

Same with budget constraints - most emerging technology doesn’t cost any actual money (just time and staff resources), so budget isn’t really an issue.

At least one respondent said these all boil down to management problems. Where there's a lack of management will, interest and follow through, you might justly call it poor management. But it's altogether too simplistic to characterize all budget problems as poor management. To say that it take "just time and staff resources" ignores the fact that time and staff resources comprise more than 75% of the budget and they're all devoted to providing services.

Many Massachusetts libraries are closing or curtailing service like Internet access and children's story hours. You can say this is poor management if you include statewide political processes as part of management. Here in Wisconsin, TABORlike law has meant that municipalities cannot raise budgets even at inflationary rates, though utility and health insurance costs grow rapidly. Thus our library has cuts in staff despite double digit increases in circ & other output.

In this environment, the staff is hard-pressed to shelve the books, answer reference questions, maintain computers and keep the same library hours. So when administrators encourage them to go to conferences, play with 2.0 resources online, and develop innovative proposals, staff is understandably skeptical. You can't arbitrarily change job descriptions, you have to change service priorities, and management skills can only go so far in the political arena, where boards and elected officials can be recalcitrant.

And while some staff may chafe at lack of management support, there’s also some management that may chafe at lack of staff interest in seeking new solutions. Either way, managers should provide leadership & opportunity, but need to respect staff professionalism and participation in decisions. So I take issue with the statement "constant change and innovation is good" as overly broad. Management needs to recognize that the environment is constantly changing, but that doesn't mean pursuing change for its own sake. There are limits to staff capacity to absorb changes. It's tempting to say "it's just time -- try it, and if it doesn't work, we'll do something else", but you can really only say that about your own time.

We need to keep pursuing the mix of public and private funding to stay afloat, while pressing governing authorities like library boards and mayors to make the tough choices. We need to innovate, but it's an uphill fight. Yes, management is responsible, but management authority is limited -- for better or worse --by real-world constraints.


Jeff Scott said...

Great points. I think many librarians need to explore the management side more and understand the big picture. Reallocation of staff to different priorities is complicated and risky. Even with the big song and dance to budget authority will not bring forth the rain of support.

david lee king said...

Glad you like my blog! And just pointing out - all I said about budgets was using a tight budget as a reason to not implement something like, say, a blog is just an excuse... because you can create a blog for free, using free web 2.0 tools.

Keep the discussion going!