Today’s post is just a little different but it’s a Sunday and I just thought this might be valuable to some readers and a handy thing to pass on to others in your community because it addresses the life and death prospect of the broadband economy.
Some people hang back from technology because they are a afraid of change. Think of Kodak, (many) local book shops or Encyclopedia Britannica. Libraries ran the risk of joining the list except librarians said – we’re not books, we’re information. There was a fundamental shift in what became the core competency based on how technology changed the need and role of libraries.
Forbes Magazine recently ran an article (Do we need libraries?) that outlines the shift that libraries made. I think the questions they pose would be helpful to anyone looking down the barrel of technology. Because technology can be a liability or an asset it all depends on how you use it.
The article poses three questions that don’t make sense…
One wrong path involves merely computerizing existing services. This is a common mistake with every new technology: applying the new technology to what is currently being done. Thus when it was realized in the 19th century that an engine could replace a horse, the first “cars” were strange looking contraptions with an engine on wheels pulling a cart with passengers. The designers hadn’t rethought the concept of a horse-and-cart or imagined what would be possible with the new technology: the engine could be integrated with the passenger cabin to produce a comfortable car. Similarly, computerizing existing library services will result in redundancies that will limit any gains to be made from computerization. There is a need to rethink what services are possible with the new technology, as well as what is no longer needed.
A second wrong path involves applying the 20th century preoccupation with efficiency to the organization and merely using computers to reduce costs. The sad history of technology efforts over the last 50 years is that computerization by itself doesn’t reduce costs. Unless the work is redesigned, the costs of introducing the technology almost always outweighs the seemingly obvious gains in efficiency. So computerization by itself is unlikely to result in an overall net reduction of costs, nor will it save libraries from extinction.
A third wrong path involves a frantic effort to “build apps” for smartphones, without thinking through what the apps will enable users to do and whether users want that. The banking industry, for instance, is spending large amounts of money “building apps” for smartphones: it is a safe prediction that most of the apps will be unused because they are not grounded in users’ needs and focused on making users’ lives better.
And five questions that do make sense…
The first and most important question for libraries is to ask: How can we delight our users and customers? This is a tricky question to answer. Answering it will require all the capabilities and ingenuity of the talented library staffs. Libraries will be unable to answer it if they continue to be run as vertical bureaucracies focused on producing outputs. In that form, libraries simply won’t have the agility or the institutional smarts to figure out what users really want and then deliver it.
This recognition leads on to the second right question. How can we manage the library to enable continuous innovation? This will involve a shift to the management practices of the Creative Economy, including the shift in the role of managers from controllers to enablers, the shift in coordinating work from bureaucracy and counting outputs to Agile approaches to coordination and assessing outcomes, the shift in values from efficiency to continuous improvement, and the shift in communications from top-down command-and-control to horizontal conversations.
The third question is: What will make things better, faster, cheaper, more mobile, more convenient or more personalized for our users? The most important words in this question are the last three: “for our users.” Changes that make things better for the library, but make things worse for users, are not the answer. We have all experienced how airlines have introduced changes that make things better for the airline, but make things worse for us as passengers. The moral of this story: don’t emulate the airlines!
The fourth question to ask is: What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of? We can’t solve the mystery of the future of libraries by asking users what they want: they simply don’t know! They can’t imagine the possibilities, just as users couldn’t have told Steve Jobs the future of music or mobile phones if he had asked them. Apple had to invent the iPod and the iPhone. Once users saw those devices, they said, “Yes, I must have them.” So libraries must imagine a future that users will truly want, even though users themselves don’t yet know what that is.
Using the right metrics to track customer delight will be important here. A informal poll at this week’s conference suggested that relatively few libraries are using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) methodology. Instead, the metrics in use seem to focus on outputs, like numbers of users or circulation figures. Although we all love librarians because they are instinctively helpful, getting feedback from users about the overall utility of the library as a whole, using the NPS methodology, would give libraries a handle on whether their efforts to delight users are paying off—or not. There are no points here for librarians putting in exceptional personal effort, as they do. The only question is: are those efforts resulting in exceptional user outcomes in comparison to other alternatives that users have?
This inquiry would lead to the fifth set of questions. What are the things that libraries are currently doing that users already love? How can libraries do more of those things, and do them sooner, better, faster and in a more convenient, more personalized way? And how can libraries stop doing things that users don’t value or that even annoy them? In other words, libraries may not have to invent the future. They may be able to discover it. “The future is already here,” as the science fiction writer William Gibson said. “It’s just very unevenly distributed.”