Tag Archives: librarianship

Narrative and compassion in management practice

compassion-alwaysand-other-kind-reminders-L-9fSy68

For many years now I have been reminding myself of the reasons why my studies in English Literature have been so important to my own professional development. Through this self-reassurance I have constantly re-affirmed the concept that if one can understand the way a story or narrative in constructed, then one can understand better how the world itself is created. In this sense, it is interesting that Peter Brophy draws upon theories of narrative and story to inform ‘Evidence Based Library and Information Practice’ (ELIB). However, I do feel as though there is one key characteristic that is missing from his theory and that is of primary importance to storytelling. This year, I have read a lot of information and management theory relating to managing, teamwork, collaboration and leadership among others, but nowhere in that material have I encountered reflections on the importance of ‘compassion’ in both management and teamwork. It is only through compassion that a narrator can effectively create characters in stories, and, in organisations, having compassion is the only way one can understand and work with people’s own subjective and personal circumstances that they bring to work with them everyday, as well as understanding and accepting employees’ and customers’ limitations, while finding a way to work within them to achieve goals.

Brophy, drawing from Eldredge, outlines that evidence based learning and practice is both quantitative and qualitative but that there remains an imbalance in which emphasis is placed more on objective quantitative measures. However, he argues that this positivist approach does not apply well to librarianship because it involves a social system with variables that cannot be controlled within human interactions. Brophy shows an awareness of the prevalence of poststructuralism in contemporary social, cultural and linguistic theory: “To add to the complexity, all we have to describe the world is language, which itself introduces ambiguity, bias and difference.” Poststructuralism dictates that signs are not word-images but are experiences which are directed towards other signs based on the context of the receiver. To then try and take quantitative measures and apply them objectivity is an impossible task. Even one can take objective measures, these still have to be related to other people who are free to interpret the findings based on their own observations, meaning there is never a complete consensus agreed about the evidence collected and how it is to be used.

This leads Brophy on to consider post-positivism and social constructivism as qualitative approaches the may inform EBLIB by affirming the prevalence of narrative in human interactions. He argues that “These approaches suggest that rather than emphasising the transmission of “facts” (accepted knowledge about the world), modern societies need to encourage learning which encompasses both openness to differing world views and the ability to relate new ideas to existing knowledge in meaningful ways, so that each of us is continually constructing, sharing, and reconstructing our understanding of the world in all its complexity.” Such an approach emphasises the value of narrative in developing a more complete understanding of contexts and that can lead to greater decision-making for managers. This is because narrative allows one to look at evidence in context through structures: Culture, Holism, In-depth Studies, Chronology.

KatauskasBudgetNarrative

One practical way that this can be applied to a library’s ability to understand user services could be in the use of surveys. Surveys are, of course, a quantitative method of research. However, it is also possible to hold interviews with users about the survey itself in order to add a layer of understand to the results in which users have the ability to express their ideas in more subjective, less structured ways. This kind of evidence feeds into Brophy’s narrative approach. Of course, what it creates is a sequence of narratives which will still need to be gathered together into a coherent structure so that it can be applied to improving a service. In order to truly understand a user-group, one not only needs to create quantitative analysis of their habits and needs, but also to understand why they behave as they do, their motivations and their needs or desires. In order to successfully achieve this, managers need not only to know how to read graphs and charts, but also need to be able to read and understand people. And for this compassion is a quality that all good readers and subsequent narrators retain because it allows them to more fully understand the qualitative aspects to social interactions and systems.

IT = Innovative Management System or Panoptic Hegemonic Control

21st_Century_Panopticism_by_colinharbut

Fatat Bouraad, in ‘The Emerging Operations Manager’, puts forward the thesis that the increasing reliance on IT services and IT skills based staff needs a framework in order to develop new methods of management. This is because as IT becomes more prevalent, new methods of observing, evaluating and managing staff also emerges, allowing for shifts in management styles. However, I think it is important to ask whether we are managing staff through IT, or whether IT is becoming a mechanism for a more totalitarian style of management in which the machine allows for an even more strict top down management style?

I recently read an article by Mike Sosteric called ‘Endowing Mediocrity’ in which the author posits that IT in all forms comes from an increasingly prevalent surveillance culture within business, education and social media forms of expression. This surveillance is of course facilitated more easily through the use of IT, but rather than creating a more flat structure, it tends more towards a deceitful panopticism. Sosteric (1999) argues that “Panoptic systems thus function as systems of behavioural and ideational (hegemonic) manipulation and control.” So Bouraad may argue that IT allows for greater efficiency and a tendency towards a flat system, but he also argues for a framework through which this flat system should operate which is somewhat contradictory. There needs to be an understanding that as we move more into the realms of IT based systems, that all of our actions are constantly under surveillance by the hierarchy that we work within.

Snapshot 2009-08-07 15-32-18

Furthermore, modern communication systems were actually designed to create greater control over human targets. I use this language deliberately. Norbert Weiner is the father of modern IT based communication systems. He developed these as a way of controlling military missiles during flight so that they could become more accurate. The endgame was always to gain greater control over the end user/ target. The same system is now used in modern computing. In the ‘know how to be’ stage of regulating new operations management theory, Bouraad argues that employees must remain up to date in order to developed a continued propensity towards innovation. However, innovation rarely comes about within an environment of surveillance. Most companies are either trying to control employees or they are attempting to control the consumer habits of targeted customers. Information industries have been contributing to this manipulation of end user increasingly through the spread of Big Data and internet monitoring. These issues do have serious implications for libraries also as they move more towards digital and online forms of dissemination. We should of course embrace the many benefits that IT give us, but we should never lose sight of where this IT has come from and the negative impact it can have on the personal liberty of our information professionals and the public they serve.

‘Financing’ public libraries through permaculture

permaculture-image

Glen Holt’s article ‘Getting Beyond the Pain’ assessing the impact of funding cuts on US libraries and suggests ways in which these libraries need to adapt to not only retain efficiency with less money, but also to maintain their relevance in an ever-evolving information age. Holt points out that, ‘the point is simple: unless yearly income is rising faster than inflation, the library’s annual spending power erodes precipitously. When any political leader starts talking about “stable budgets,libraries need to watch out for real-dollar income declines”. Added to this problem of placing the library within an quantitive socio-economic framework, is the fact that the ALA have adopted a strategy in which they treat the funding of public libraries as local matter. He suggests that “he most important thing is making sure that your community is aware of the library and what the library can do”. In this sense Holt argues that libraries need to improve the ways in which they communicate their funding needs and their benefits to communities and society.

There is no doubting that libraries can do more to improve their services even with less money. Holt further points out that bureaucratic processes within a library can often lead to an unnecessary depletion of finances, especially at a time when the taxpayers are less willing to provide public funding for any public purpose irrespective of how good a cause it is. Finally Holt lists four ways in which libraries can retain their relevancy and their funding:

  • Need to demonstrate the critical need for youth services, adult literacy, help for immigrants, job preparation and economic development

  • Need to tell voters, politicians and civic leaders about the critical benefits they provide to their communities

  • Funding is not only a local matter because libraries are crucial to the nation

  • Library leaders need to focus much more on customers

  • Need to ask what role can libraries play in international information industry

I have no doubt that there is a lot of waste within public libraries, but there is also a great deal of potential. There is no doubt that libraries need to become more connected to a global economic and information framework and they can do so by connecting more directly to national and university library services, as well as partnering with information services abroad. A promotion and move towards Open Access can also open up new avenues for libraries to pursue. However, for now I would like to focus briefly on a principle borrowed from agriculture that could be applied to how libraries operate within a local community. These communities may not now be willing to give financial support to libraries through public funding bodies, but they should be encouraged to contribute in other ways. I believe permaculture practices can be applied to libraries in order to find ways of becoming more efficient, saving money, and also involving the community more. Permaculture originated as an agricultural movement that promoted permanent agriculture practices by mimicking nature. In nature, nothing is given away for free and wasted. What you have, on every level, is a kind of energy exchange. Patrons in libraries are not customers in a traditional sense in that they pay for the service through their taxes. However, at times when people are not willing to fund a library, they may be willing to contribute to the library community by giving up their time and skills in exchange for services. This principle is at the heart of permaculture in that rather than providing books for free, patrons exchange time and skills for the services. Basic services could be run in this way freeing up time for librarians to do more specialised work. It creates a stronger sense of community spirit and brings the library firmly to the centre of community.

Environment, Hierarchy and Cultural Stagnation

Culture 3

Chapter two of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire (2013) examines the ways in which an organization’s environment influences behavior. I noticed a pervading trend within the chapter’s discussion of libraries as organization, and that trend is that all environments are retained within a hierarchal structure based around the external and parent environments. I can certainly see how a public or educational library could be considered as ‘placid-clustered’ in terms of it adopting long term goals with some short term objectives that are determined by environmental factors. However, I can also see how this kind of structure may well be limiting within a library also. Long term goals tend to be quite rigid and strict and I think there is a danger of suppressing innovation in so far as the manager is rigidly focused on the pre-established long term goals. In times of a funding lull, this may well mean that a long term project may need to be paused. An example of the negative impact that this strategy can have was given by Katherine McSharry of National Library when she spoke to our class about pausing the digitization project of photographs in Ireland. There is always the danger in an ever-diversifying information age, that long term goals blind organizations to more innovative opportunities.

I say this in agreement with Childs and the anti-environmental argument. It seems to me that a major flaw in many organizations is that they see themselves as subordinate to the ‘whole’, or parent/ external organization. However, there is scope within any organization to influence and shape the whole to the demands and innovations of the organization itself. I think the concept of relevance is important here. The parent organization would like to find ways of operating that are more efficient and effective. Libraries should not wait for the parent company to set the parameters of policy, but should look to find ways to influence the external environment. Companies have often been revolutionized by innovation that has taken place within just one small department.

I think the fact that culture is mentioned in this chapter is interesting. In many ways, there is a defeatist mentality involved in many discussions of culture in which culture is seen as something unchangeable. All too often we throw our hands up in the air and say ‘that’s just the culture!’. There is a sense in this chapter that playing with cultural norms is too dangerous for managers to contemplate, as though all culture is inherently good. I have worked in organizations that have been destroyed by an adherence to negative cultural norms. As someone who has taught English Literature at third level, I am always amazed at the collections of English Literature in university libraries. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands of books gathering dust on the shelves of academic libraries. Many of these books are wasted. Examine the curriculum of UCD’s Department of English in relation to the library’s collection of literary texts. I think 80% of those books will never be read by any students or staff at UCD. But there is a culture within libraries to hang on to and accumulate objects. Maybe many books were donated by a sponsor and the library feels obligated to retain the books on the shelves even if they are not useful? It is useful to ask how much waste exists in our libraries as a result of culture. How could that space be used in ways that are more useful? Could the opening of that space lead to more innovative use of it that might alter the environment (internal & external) for the good of the library and the parent organization? Culture, if seen as a homogenous unwavering influence can be highly destructive to an organization’s development. However, I believe that if it is seen as a heterogenous malleable condition that we can move away from its limiting influence on our learning environments.

Not-so Flat Management?

Today’s post focuses on the main ideas contained within Chapter 14 of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire. The chapter begins with the assertion that younger generations are more likely to engage in teamwork based on a more inclusive, team-centred upbringing. This is an idea that I would like to return to in a few moments and to discuss in relation to a social media generation.

However, before I do that, it is important to give an outline of Evans and Alire’s position in this essay. They put forward the argument that teamwork is more productive and effective than traditional management styles, so long as the teamwork is organised and set up effectively. This means that a clear goal needs to be established at the beginning of the task by an external team manager; that team members need to be then selected according to their skills, attitudes towards team work and their personal characteristics; once the team is selected, they then need to undergo some training to ensure that they communicate effectively, that they give feedback in an open, honest and transparent way, that they understand the concepts of accountability and empowerment, and finally that they are prepared to collaborate effectively within a team rewards system.

I am not going to go into the chapter details any further, but part of the argument is that this kind of structure should see traditional top-down management being replaced by a ‘flat’ system in which people collaborate on collective goals. However, I can’t help but to think that the model outlined by Evans and Alire is not so flat after all. I mean, it seems to me that there is a lot of management and organisation required to set up a team project. I would argue that their model is certainly ‘flatter’ than traditional models, but it is still highly structured and systematic at the same time, perhaps representing a more tightly packed hierarchy rather than an actual flat system. I am not altogether sure that a truly flat system is possible within an institution in that institutions rely quite heavily on pre-established rules and regulations.

Of course, as someone who is interested in postmodernism, I do believe that a flat system works best, but one in which true autonomy is granted to a group. This can perhaps only really happen with a new start-up company in which the parameters have not already been set; I believe there are many tech companies that qualify, as well as the open source movement. Teams within institutions are always working within certain parameters. Institutions can of course change the rules a little, but they never throw the rule book away. I don’t disagree with Evans and Alire. Their model certainly would work best within an already structured organisation, hence the need for so much planning and organising of human resources. Their essay needs to be considered within this context rather than seen as a truly flat model. However it is assessed, Evans and Alire’s model still retains an external manager who in turn may well be subordinate to a top-level manager also. Hierarchy still exists and the external manager is still responsible. If the team fails, then there will be questions as to whether or not it was set up effectively. The team of course will always be aware of this and so will, perhaps, not be as accountable as the external manager may like. It is a flatter hierarchy, but a hierarchy all the same.

taylorism

 

I would like now to return to the idea that younger generations are more prone to succeed at teamwork than their older counterparts. Younger generations certainly are more comfortable with the idea of community if we consider the range of social media that they/we (I am 33, do I count!?) engage with. But at the same time, is this really community? And does such social network community really prepare people for collaborative efforts?

Social media definitely does help people to connect, and does so while increasing cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness. But then again, think about the nature of social media. Most sites (twitter, Instagram, WordPress, etc.) are set up for people to become followers. Even Facebook’s ‘friends’ does not truly mimic a professional team in that you very often, within an organisation, do not get to choose your team. Is this model really conducive to being part of a team? I believe that Evans and Alire are promoting a team within which people do not simply follow, but who become co-leaders in the completing of a task. Social media ventures usually have people only engaging on a superficial, surface level. These platforms really lack the depth of personality that is required for effective teamwork.

I accept that Evans and Alire did not mention social media in their examples, but it is interesting to consider whether or not, as social media becomes more and more apart of how we connect, whether it is fostering individual innovation and responsibility, or whether it is simply another part of the ‘brain-drain’ of technology.

Information as ‘story’

postmodernism1

It is interesting that the past continues to steam roll into the present when you least expect it. I was sitting in a lecture on Information Theory when the literary theory of my past lit a fire in my mind once again. I had thought studying the MA in Library and Information Studies was a new departure into a different future, until I heard Dr. Lai ask “What is ‘information?'”. Of course, there was no response. We had just spent the last week reading theorists who had been studying the subject for decades and who had failed to come to a definite answer on the question. Dr. Lai answered the question for us: ‘Everything!’. That naturally did not really narrow it down all that much!

I have to admit I was frustrated by the readings that week. It seemed to me as a first impression that information theorists are stuck back in a time before post-structuralism, still theorising circles around each other in the pursuit of a definitive definition of the word ‘information’. And all for what? So that more regulation can be introduced. So that the word, the idea can be further controlled. There was a sense in all of the readings that each theorist believed they were being objective. I remember thinking, the more they try to narrow it down the more out of control and expansive the word becomes. That is because every attempt to define the word resulted in more being added to it. For me, the heterogeneity of the word is where its strength lies. Lets not try to tie it down. Why not let the word grow organically? Let’s explore its possibilities so as to create more space for innovation to emerge. Let’s finally learn that narrow definitions that lead to stricter rules and regulations actually destroy creativity.

And then, with those thoughts, came rushing back a new answer out of the past. Dr. Lai was right, information is everything. But, what is everything? The answer……’story’, or narrative. The key terms that define ‘information’ revolve around data, process, knowing and communicating. There emerged the idea in the lectures and readings that information is essentially manipulated data, that is, data used in specific contexts by people with a specific agenda. Poststructuralist linguistic theory determines that the same word spoken by two different people results in two different words. Why? Because words are not just lines on a page, or sounds vibrating through the air. Words are experiences with context and subjectivity build into them and that ‘experience’ of word changes in mid air and is transformed the moment it leaves the speakers lips. What it transforms into is another, different experience that depends on who is hearing it. It might sound strange, but no one word is the same. So in this sense, or more accurately, in my own sense, information is narrative, a never ending game of Chinese Whispers spiralling out of control because no two people in the game speak the same language…….