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Proving the value of peer networks


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Presentation given on 5th July 2010 at the CILIP CDG New Professionals Conference (#npc2010).

  • Script
    Proving the value of peer networks: plugging in to your peers

    Intro [slide 1]
    I’m here to talk to you today about the value of peer networks – especially for new professionals! – and how you can prove that value.

    As a concrete example of the value of peer networks: nearly everything I’m going to say to you today has come from my peer networks. I knew that me standing up here today and just telling you what I thought wasn’t going to be much use to anyone, so I sent round a survey to get some real-world examples. I asked my twitter network and my lis-link network to do the survey, and got a whopping 104 responses, from library and information professionals across the world. These responses contain some great insights, and some very valuable information, and I’m going to share these with you today.
    There will be lots of quotes – some of these I’ll read out, some of them will be on the slides, and you can read them yourselves.

    What are peer networks, and why should you care?

    [slide 2]So, what are peer networks, and why should you care? For my survey I defined peer networks as
    [slide 3]‘contact groups consisting of fellow Library/Information professionals, workers, or others associated with the profession. These may include groups such as work colleagues; fellow members of an association; members of a social group such as a ning or facebook group; conference attendees; twitter followers; and other groups with whom you interact on a professional basis.’

    We’re a peer network – all of us, here now. Crudely speaking, you can be part of a network through something you are ( eg law librarian), something you do (eg LIS blogger), or something you attend (eg this conference).
    So why are they important?
    [slide 4]‘If you work in isolation you repeat the mistakes that others have made.’
    Another view: I simply couldn't survive without them! I believe they are an intrinsic part of who we are as professionals.
    [slide 5] Peer networks can provide specific professional benefits, as seen here. They provide the opportunity for: benchmarking; discovering solutions to problems; finding out about tools others have used first; making you realise you are not alone in your struggles; encouraging professional engagement.

    [slide 6] They provide:
    [slide 7] One person indicates the range of this support: Peer networks are important to me for more than just directly professional related issues, they also provide support and information on a wide range of work related issues, including personnel, time management, stress management and bullying issues.
    Find peer networks on Twitter, email lists and face-to-face hugely helpful both for getting new opportunities and for mutual support/advice.
    Another indicates how their personal situation increases the importance of peer support: I am a Stroke Survivor with a communication disorder - I rate my peer networks very high in order that I can professionally function.

    [slide 8] You can find opportunities for collaboration
    To quote: They are great for informal training, sharing good practice, bouncing ideas around, commiserating and supporting in times of trouble - and giving good advice.
    Necessary for us all to share experience and build new ideas with our colleagues and peers

    Peer networks provide access to collective intelligence
    [slide 9] I think that being involved in peer networks better informs and enriches the work that I do on a practical level, and also on a personal/social level.
    I find peer networks very valuable for finding out about resources and opportunities I might otherwise have missed.
    I've found Twitter useful for making links with others who I've not actually met, and getting advice on issues (mainly related to digital repositories).
    networking can improve services we offer and helps us bench mark.

    You can find fora for discussion
    [slide 10] My peer network on twitter helps keep me up to date. Peer network of old colleagues helps me brainstorm ideas, reflect on practice, and are a valuable information source.
    One respondent mentions the value of these discussions: Being able to discuss common issues with others in an informal way helps support my own personal development and the development of the library service I work for.
    Another points out that networks can be particularly important for solo practitioners: For a while I was a solo librarian and being able to meet with other librarians was essential to my motivation levels, but also to my practical knowledge as there is a limit to what you can teach yourself.

    [slide 11] They can act as a current awareness service – find out what’s going on from people who know, and are doing it!
    Peer networks have a vital role to play in the work I do, it helps us to set standards and keep up with current trends and developments in the profession.
    Specifically: [slide 12] They are also invaluable for observing trends, debates, etc quickly. How people in your peer network engage with certain debates or issues can provide a very good temperature check on how important a certain issue is perceived to be (linked data for example) and what the key questions are.

    [slide 13] They can provide different points of view, as this person describes.
    Knowing your peers means that you are exposed to new ideas / different ideologies, which may well further new thinking related to your work
    This person takes it further: [slide 14] To be effective anyone in the library/information needs to be able to network with peers. Not only can this help either directly or indirectly with your career but is stimulating and thought provoking to find out how others tackle particular issues. Your peers are also a valuable information source in themselves!

    There are opportunities for friendship. One respondent said:
    [slide 13] Invaluable for experience sharing, kiteflying, support - and I've made some lifelong friends
    While another commented that peer networks are: not only useful for finding future jobs/career prospects, but also just to make some good friends that can give you some advice should you need it!

    They can provide vicarious professional experiences – you can find out about the bits that the role profiles and job ads don’t tell you!
    [slide 16] These are valuable for numerous reasons, including keeping up with what is happening in other workplaces, getting support when things are tough, finding quick answers by asking a contact who knows.
    One respondent said that peer networks have given them an insight into how other organisations work and other areas of their own profession [and specifically that] They have given me an extension to my own immediate colleagues which is invaluable, especially in an isolated position.

    You can also find chances to learn – to learn new skills, and also more about the profession, as this person did. They say:
    I think they're very useful for 'keeping your ear to the ground' about new projects and developments and for getting involved with projects/groups and hearing about upcoming job vacancies.

    [slide 17] Networks are important for personal growth
    I believe they are vital, for personal development, for increasing one's knowledge of the profession as a whole, and in becoming involved in worthwhile projects.
    One librarian described how networks help their development: It helps to know that there are other people out there, doing similar things in similar ways, with whom I share long-term career aspirations. Building and maintaining these networks makes me feel more confident as a professional and enables me to draw on the experience and knowledge of other people in order to make better decisions at work.

    [slide 18] They provide access to a community of experts – at your fingertips and ready to help
    This willingness was commented on by one respondent, who said: I find the sharing of knowledge and experience invaluable. Librarians do this very well and generously!
    On the slide you can see some very specific benefits, as told by a music librarian: peer networking has helped a great deal in my role as a library assistant dealing with requests for classical music scores. Experienced staff left soon after I joined and a network called IAMLS has helped me develop some very good contacts whom I have called for advice. The network is also useful for tracking down obscure pieces of music.

    What can networking do for new professionals?
    We’ve been talking about networking in general so far – but what advantages does peer networking have for new professionals? Here’s some advice from established professionals:
    [slide 18] I actively encourage younger colleagues to join social networking and peer networking groups. There is valuable information and experience to be gained, and we all need to 'see beyond the desk' to stay on top of the job and remain enthusiastic and fresh. It is so easy to become insular and short sighted, even within a team context, let alone an institutional one.
    One person said that they '
    Would recommend involvement in peer networks to new staff as a way of enhancing their career and widening knowledge base'
    And another that 'I would encourage young professionals to use them as much as possible.'

    The quotes in this section (from here on) are specifically from new professionals – I asked survey respondents whether they counted as new professionals, to get a uniquely ‘new professional’ view on networking. You may recognise a quote from yourself in here somewhere – feel free to stand up and take a little bow.

    [slide 20] Here, someone who has joined the profession very recently speaks about what peer networks mean to them: ‘As somebody who has been involved in the profession for less than a year I have found peer networks invaluable. Without peer networks I doubt I would have learnt so much about the profession in such a short space of time. I've probably learnt just as much if not more about the profession through networking as I have from my current job.’
    What you’re doing now is building a network now that will last the rest of your career – you can engage with peer networks at any stage of your career, but they have some particular advantages for new professionals.
    By starting now, you are building contacts early, and ensuring that your career has a solid foundation. It helps to get your voice heard and your name known, which will be of benefit when moving forward in the profession.
    One new professional said that ‘having chatted to potential future employers at CPD events has to help when they see your name come up on interview lists too!’
    [slide 21] ‘I believe them to be very important for career advancement, making sure that people know who you are.’
    It can help to get input from people at different stages of their careers, and allow you to tap into their expertise and experience.
    According to one respondent: ‘Twitter has enabled me to connect directly with info professionals of varying experience and sectors, which I believe will only continue to be useful.’

    Another respondent – a law librarian - also brings up this idea of getting input from other sectors:
    ‘I attended several conferences as a student which were of little relevance to my day-to-day work as a law librarian (e.g. the CILIP Umbrella conference) but I felt they would be useful in terms of networking with people from other sectors.’
    It can help with professional development activities. One which was often highlighted was chartership, and indeed, the lis-cilip-reg list enjoys a lively and active membership. While chartering obviously isn’t purely the domain of new professionals, it is something that many new professionals undertake. Here we see three views on the value of peer networks when you are working towards chartership.
    [slide 22] ‘the network of those working toward chartership is invaluable for sharing ideas, getting a bit of reassurance or encouragement.’
    ‘It has helped with my chartership.’
    ‘I have already been able to communicate with other chartership candidates via twitter and the LIS mailing lists.’
    Involvement in peer networks can provide you with other personal and professional development opportunities – the chance to gain new skills and experience, which will held you grow as a professional – and look great on your CV! Small actions have long shadows – things you do now can lead to opportunities right through your career.
    Here are some concrete examples from new professionals of opportunities which they have found through peer networks:
    [slide 23 ]‘No paid work as yet, but lots of opportunity for articles, guest blog posts, conference papers and book contributions.’
    ‘I'm delivering a joint session at this year's UC&R and CoFHE conference with a fellow new professional.’
    ‘Have been invited to speak at two events thanks to peer networking, mostly on Twitter.’
    ‘Got a post on a journal (voluntary) through the LIS lists’
    ‘Use of Twitter resulted in running a short demo session at a conference. This was followed up with an opportunity to run a social media workshop’
    ‘I set up the Library Routes Project with a person I knew through blogging, related to the 2009 New Professionals Conference.’
    There are a number of benefits for you – and for the profession. A fresh point-of-view, and dialogue and discussion can benefit not only those who are directly involved in it, but the whole profession through the stimulation of new ideas.
    One person said that ‘Understanding how other professionals and workplaces meet the challenges we all face is really vital to how I work.’
    And on the slide is an example from a law librarian: [slide 24] ‘As a new professional, I felt it was important to attend the BIALL conference to meet law librarians outside my library for the first time.’
    A former solo librarian who now works as part of a team, but still finds that meeting with other professionals from the same or other sectors is extremely motivating and allows you to bring fresh ideas into your own workplace.

    How can you find/create a peer network?
    As I said before, almost anything can be a peer network. You can think in terms of ‘ready-made’ and ‘custom’ networks. Examples of ‘ready-made’ networks are be your colleagues, your library school classmates, fellow members of an association. These networks are essentially created for you – you don’t have to do any work in that respect – but you do to take full advantage of them!
    Custom networks require a bit more effort, but can also be more specialised, and you can have more control over how and where you interact with them. These can basically be formed anywhere LIS students/workers/professionals come into contact with each other – in person or virtually.
    Virtual networks – twitter, linked-in, and list-servs come to mind,
    [slide 25] This librarian mentions several: I use peer networks through social media sites, twitter, LinkedIn, Ning sites such as MashUps, and sites supporting conferences. This gives me access to a wide group of like minded librarians who when I meet them f2f I already know what we have in common.

    but there are plenty of places you might not have thought of:
    Like for this knitting librarian: [slide 26] ‘am part of the Ravelibrarians group on a huge knitting social networking website called Ravelry. I know, sounds insane, but we actually have really interesting work-related discussions on the fora.’
    You can also, of course, go old-school – how about meeting face-to-face, in meatspace?
    [slide 27] I have set up a semi-formal peer network which meets 4 times a year. We seem to get a lot out of it.
    All sounds fantastic so far, no? But there are challenges and issues with social networking. To do it properly, you need to commit time, attention, and effort – things which are often in short supply.
    I asked people what challenges they had faced with peer networking. Here are some of the responses – they deal with practical issues such as time, and less concrete issues such as attitude – yours and others.
    Several people raised the issue of time. One said: [slide 28] Most of this networking is done in my spare time (I'm a part-time worker so this is just about manageable). I think I would struggle to continue my current level of involvement in full-time employment at my current workplace due to employer concerns about the value of peer networks.
    And another has also been asked to use their personal time for networking: [slide 27] had to justify why going to a library-related conference was so important that I needed time off. Also, have been asked to take time off for CILIP Committee out of my personal time.
    For some, their particular job situation has an effect on their ability to network. Someone who has recently moved jobs says: I understand their value but struggle to involve myself - I am lucky to have joined my current institution at the same time as 3 other new professionals and I hope this leads to further networks.
    And another finds that: Usefulness highly dependent on particular job situation. In my experience very useful at times for operational work issues and not all useful when job deemed at risk. Can be very time consuming so need to work out costs/benefits.

    There is also the issue of the effort you need to put in to use peer networks effectively. As this respondent points out: [slide 30] Peer networks are highly valuable, but negotiating and communicating within them takes skill. We need to reflect on the identity/persona we present. On the other hand authenticity can be really valuable in forming relationships that don't feel loose or weak.
    And finally, one person who does believe in the value of peer networks, but says:[slide 31] I just dislike the idea being forced to do it if I want a better job.

    So how do you deal with this? Well, proving the value of peer networks to your employer is a good place to start.

    How do you prove this value to an employer?
    I have to admit that when I saw the survey results, I was pleasantly surprised – only 15% of survey respondents had been asked to demonstrate the value of peer networks to an employer. Again, this could be bias – those who are completing my survey are likely to be allowed to by their employers (I sent the requests out during working hours).
    But you may well have to at some point – and I’d recommend not waiting until they ask! If you can be proactive in demonstrating the value of peer networks to your employers, they are more likely to be sympathetic to opportunities for you to network.

    While you may not have to justify peer networks themselves, you might have to justify the use of particular technologies – twitter, for example, is blocked by many employers.
    Firstly – be open and honest with your employers. If you tell them that you’re involved in these networks, and why, they are more likely to smile on them – and it means when they walk in and you have twitter/facebook open, they’re less likely to assume you’re wasting time.
    When I first started my job I was unable to take part in the CILIP Special Interest group committee because it was not seen as having a value to the company

    Be benefits-led. This is something we hear a lot about – we are all expected in our workplaces to be benefits-led, not service-led, and this has to translate over into all your professional activities. Find out what is valued at your workplace, and show how peer-networking can add to that value. As one person said, you need to ‘Show relevance to key performance indicators that are already being collected e.g. noticeable brand can lead to increased use etc.’
    I’ve created a wordle from the responses I got to the question ‘how have you proved the value of peer networks to an employer?’. I’ve done this because I wanted you to pay close attention to the words people are using – they’re speaking about peer networks with a benefit-led vocabulary. Incidentally, you may notice that I’ve said ‘invaluable’ a lot in this presentation – it was used 12 times in responses.
    [slide 32] My current employer never ceases to be amazed at what I can find out by a quick question to my peer network.
    I have used my peer network to gather materials for my employers which I would otherwise not have had access to or would have had to pay for - personal connections mean that people who 'know' you are more willing to do favours and bend some rules to help you.
    By being explicit about benefits in appraisal objectives and personal development time to protect time to participate in these activities
    I stressed the benefit it brings to the whole organisation to have staff who are engaged with the professional community.
    Pointing out practical advantages - locating scarce materials, advice on software packages etc
    I have found resources I can use in my job, and that show the value of what I can do/contribute to my company
    I managed to demonstrate that we became involved in a shared purchase of a resource thus saving money.
    In order to explain the time I spend away from my workplace as Chair of the BLA. Reasons given: benchmarking of service, professional development, consortia deals generated etc.
    Working in the charity sector at the time - we had no training budget. time spent networking led to conference speaking, which let me attend conferences we could not afford to send me on.

    I’d like to end with this example of positive change, which I feel embodies much of what I’ve been saying today about peer networks:
    [slide 33] I found the International Association of Music Libraries UK Branch invaluable when, as a younger professional, I felt isolated. I was a subject specialist for Music but also for many other subjects. Music was my main interest - I had taken a specialist course in music librarianship at Leeds Polytechnic - but it had a negligible profile at my university library, a situation I was determined to change. Thanks to the energy, interest and support of IAML(UK) I can say with complete assurance and no personal vanity that I accomplished this change successfully, to the benefit of the library, the Music Department and the university.
    [slide 34] Networks are wonderful things – but they do take effort. Effort to get involved, effort to stay involved, effort to manage your time and presence, and effort to ensure that your employer is on-side with all of this. But they’re well-worth the perseverance! Without peer networks I wouldn’t have the rich, enjoyable professional life I have at the moment. I wouldn’t be here today!
    And I’d like to thank you all for being here today – for taking the time to invest in a peer network, and for listening to me. Thank you.
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