Case Study: Creating a Technology Plan that Worked!
Technology is an important tool in providing library services today. However, a high priority is not always placed on planning for the technology that will enable a library to accomplish its goals. By bringing together both Information Technology (IT) staff and public services staff to create a technology strategy, libraries can make exciting proactive decisions that will provide them with the best cost effective tools.
In creating a technology strategy, library leaders are faced with a challenge. IT staff are knowledgeable about technology while public services staff understand the needs of the customers who are using the technology. This challenge was demonstrated at the March 2005 Computers in Libraries Conference in Washington, D.C. A conference workshop featured a discussion about communication between IT staff and library public services staff. The discussion became heated as IT staff insisted that librarians did not understand technology issues and librarians insisted that IT staff did not understand their challenges in providing good service to the public. Gladly, the discussion did not come to blows but it did bring to the forefront the fact that the collaborative technology planning summarized in this article may be less common than originally thought. This article will focus on how to begin using the skills and knowledge of both IT staff and public services staff to create a technology strategy that centers on the library’s the most important asset – its customers.
Like many organizations, the Sacramento Public Library had a long history of a distinct separation between IT staff and public services staff. IT staff ordered routers, servers, PC’s, and software. Inconsistently, an IT technician would appear at a branch to update hardware or install new software. Public services staff would wait with their fingers crossed, hoping that everything would function seamlessly after the technician finished and that the newly installed hardware or software would not result in any unhappy customers. IT staff spent the bulk of their time addressing various technical problems that would arise. For yearly budget planning, IT staff would assess the routers, servers, PC’s, software, scanners, and other technology solutions due for replacement or upgrade.
While IT was in their happy “behind the scenes” world, members of the public services staff continued to work closely on a daily basis with customers. Frequently, staff fielded questions regarding the computer software; they taught customers how to reserve public access computers; and they attempted in vain to stop large documents that customers printed by mistake. With the need to improve service so apparent, public services staff attended conferences and viewed wonderful products to alleviate problems and enhance customer services. Recommendations and ideas were presented; however all too often the IT budget had been set and thus the funding was not available.
Is the previous scenario a lack of IT planning? No, IT staff were planning and had established goals such as:
Despite these goals, it became painfully obvious that something was lacking – a technology strategy. The library needed a strategy that placed a top priority on providing the best service to its customers either directly through technology or by using technology to enable public services staff to provide better service.
The first step was in identifying the problems, with the hard work to follow. After hearing complaints from both sides, the library’s assistant director decided to try a bold and different idea – to bring together the two “warring” parties and move them to work together as one team. It began with a written team charge, a short paragraph stating the purpose and expectations of the team. The team theory is a wonderful thing, but it becomes a bit more complex when people become involved. Thus began the experience gained by the authors of this article… an IT Supervisor and a Branch Manager assigned to co-chair this new team. The first dubious task for the new co-chairs was trolling the ranks for several individuals willing to drop old prejudices of IT and public service and join together to work as one team. Impossible? No, but it was not easy. To manage the new team successfully the co-chairs would have to be strong leaders, but more importantly they would have to be willing to listen, learn, and compromise when necessary.
So, the search for team members commenced! The co-chairs looked for team members who represented a variety of positions in the library system, including both public service positions and IT positions. In order to create a cohesive group and bring together opposites, they chose customer-service oriented IT staff members and the public service staff who were not “technology phobic.” Regardless of position, everyone needed to be willing to listen, learn from each other, be willing to compromise, and have the desire to work tirelessly.
The initial team consisted of seven staff members, in addition to the two co-chairs; it was comprised of IT technicians, branch managers, librarians, library technicians, and library assistants. After clarifying the team charge and collaborating with their managers to develop a common understanding of the charge, the team worked together to create a planning framework. This framework guided the group’s project management and kept it moving forward in an organized manner. It began with a description of the public service issue being addressed and set the desired outcome to resolve the issue. Once the issue and desired outcome had been stated, the framework provided a method to:
With the framework in place, the team could start to create a technology strategy. As a starting point, input was gathered from all levels of staff as to technologies that would improve or enhance public service. With feedback in hand, the team prioritized projects, met with their managers to garner support, and proceeded with research and analysis. Strategies entailed considerable effort as the team reviewed product specifications, attended vendor demonstrations, corresponded with other libraries that were using the products, conducted visits to other libraries, and wrote recommendations to management for inclusion in the budget process. The final phases involved reviewing and writing of RFP’s, establishing implementation timelines, conducting staff training, making meeting presentations, and writing publicity documents for distribution to customers. A technology strategy encompasses a number of simultaneous projects. Their framework kept the team on track and organized since they were undertaking several projects at any one time.
The team never had a shortage of work to complete, but the results were always positive. First and foremost, public services staff finally had a strong voice in which technologies the library implemented since the new technology strategy enabled the library to respond directly to its customers concerning the types of services the library system offered. Furthermore, an avenue for communication was created to effectively influence the choice of technology and to see that this technology was implemented in a way to best serve the library customers. Budgeting began being prepared based on service to the customers, rather than on IT workflow or static matrices. Finally, new technologies could be adequately researched and tested and public services staff adequately trained before these technologies were deployed.
The road to success is not always a smooth one and the team is still encountering bumps and ditches along the way. It is easy to fall back into the old patterns of quick decision making with a lack of consideration for the collaborative process. Staff turnover occurs within the team so keeping the same team intact and focused can be a real challenge. As management focuses’ shift, it is very important that the team maintain frequent communication with management so input can be provided at critical junctures in system-wide planning. However, the amazing payoff is that a technology strategy is created which is directly related to a library’s mission, to provide the best service possible to its customers. Through the collaborative team process, strategies can change and develop, as customer needs change and develop. Most importantly, money and time are focused on the technologies that excel in providing the best possible experience for the customer. Library customers are increasingly savvy and have growing expectations as to the types of services a library should offer. Only through a true technology strategy, as opposed to generic technology spending, can a library address those expectations in an effective and efficient manner.