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Disruption Alignment and Embedded Librarianship


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Webinar presented for the SLA Leadership & Management Division Jan. 23, 2013.

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Disruption Alignment and Embedded Librarianship

  1. 1. Welcome to today’s webinar. I’d like to start by putting the embedded model in thecontext of the disruption that our profession is experiencing, and the realignment ofour work that we are engaged in as a result. Next I’ll review the basic characteristicsof embedded librarianship and highlight how it is different from the traditional modelof library services. After that, I’d like to open up a discussion of the problems andpitfalls that can arise, along with some ideas for dealing with them and managingsuccessfully in the new model. 1
  2. 2. Here’s a graph of data on reference transactions from the Association of ResearchLibraries. As you can see, the trend is down. In fact, it was down by 45% during theperiod shown. I showed this graph at a presentation not long ago to illustrate thedisruption of traditional library services. Afterward someone from the audience cameup to me and thanked me for using it. She said, “I thought the problem was me, andmy library” – meaning that she was alone in experiencing a decline in traditionalservices. “But” she continued, “now I see that it’s a much broader trend.”Exactly. Our profession’s traditional operational model has been disrupted. Thechanges we’re experiencing aren’t unique to us, or our library. They’re not due tosome failing on our part. But they are significant and they demand a response. 2
  3. 3. We’ve actually been dealing with this disruption for some time now. I’d date it backexactly 20 years. Much of the change is due to the revolution in informationtechnology started by, among others, these 2 individuals: Mark Andreessen, and TimBerners-Lee. You’ll recall that Berners-Lee was the developer of the hypertexttransport protocol and hypertext markup language. Then, in 1992, Andreessen, whilestill a student, wrote Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, which made Berners-Lee’s html documents widely accessible. As Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman say in theirbook, Networked: The New Social Operating System, “1993 is the birth year when theearly majority cohort of adopters began to use the internet.” (p. 61) I think that is agood point from which to date the beginning of the disruption we are stillexperiencing. 3
  4. 4. So how did this disrupt librarians?In her Foreword to my book, The Embedded Librarian, SLA CEO Janice Lachance put itin a very vivid way. Here’s an excerpt from her description:“Imagine a librarian accompanying you throughout the course of your day.You drive to work and the librarian is in the car with you, telling you the latest newsand helping you avoid traffic jams. You leave your office to get lunch and the librarianwalks down the street with you, describing the specials at your favorite restaurants.You go home and sit down to eat, and the librarian is there at the table with you,telling you how the stock market performed that day.… today we carry pocket-sized and paper-sized librarians around with us wherever wego.”That’s a far cry from what we used to think of as a librarian’s role. Our traditionalmode of operations has been disrupted. We used to have a monopoly, but now wedon’t. 4
  5. 5. Libraries used to be “the only game in town”, but now we have competition – lots andlots of it. As Michael Stephens wrote in Library Journal, “People do not think of thelibrary first when they need information.” (“Stuck in the Past.” (LJ Apr 15, 2011, p. 54) 5
  6. 6. Or, in the words of Meredith Farkas, “In an environment of information abundance,librarians are no longer gatekeepers of valuable bits of information … Yet ourreference services are based on an environment of information scarcity.” (AmericanLibraries, “The DIY Patron”, Nov-Dec 2012, p. 29)So, no wonder the ARL reference numbers have gone down! The traditional model oflibrary services has been disrupted. 6
  7. 7. Imagine if Starbuck’s or McDonald’s had a 45% decline in sales over a 10-year period.The repercussions would be pretty dramatic. They would be coming up with newapproaches. are needed. We need to do something – but what?Blaming Andreessen and Berners-Lee for our troubles won’t help. We need to get onwith life and take action.To do that, I’d like to turn to Clayton Christensen, the scholar and writer whodeveloped the idea of disruption. You may be familiar with The Innovator’s Dilemma,or other books he has published on this theme. A disruption is defined as atechnological or business model innovation that offers sustainable advantages evenas the disrupting product or service improves. Certainly, that’s what libraries of allkinds have experienced as computer and network technologies have developed overthe past 20 years.In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Christensen, and co-author MaxwellWessel, advocate that traditional operations that are experiencing disruption shouldstop and ask themselves, “what jobs are my customers hiring me to do?” 7
  8. 8. Fortunately for us, SLA’s Alignment Project has done just that, so let’s review some ofthe results. 8
  9. 9. Probably you have seen this graph before. What I’d like to concentrate on are thebiggest disconnects: where librarians said one thing and information users saidsomething else. Here are some of the biggest gaps:• Librarians thought one of their biggest values came from managing print library collections. Information users ranked it far down the list (20% gap)• Librarians thought their biggest value of all was doing research for information users. The users ranked it in the middle of the pack (23% gap)• Users wanted librarians to manage internal content. Librarians saw that as a relatively low priority (8% gap)• Information users wanted librarians to integrate information into work processes. Librarians ranked it near the bottom of the pack. (9% gap)These results are indications that in responding to the disruption of our professionalmodel, we are not always doing the jobs our employers value most. We haven’tconsistently taken on the jobs they need us for. We’re not as aligned as we could be.(Alignment Project presentation, slide 18) 9
  10. 10. So how do we get aligned? Wessel and Christensen recommend that “the best way toidentify the jobs a company does for its customers is through a combination ofextensive surveys, interviews, focus groups, and in-person observations.” I’d like to goWessel and Christensen one better and propose that for us librarians, embeddedlibrarianship gives us a way of not just continuously monitoring the jobs ouremployers want us to do, but also doing them.Wessel, M. & C. Christensen (2012, Dec.) “Surviving Disruption.” Harvard BusinessReview, p. 56-64. (quote p. 62) 10
  11. 11. Why’s that?Because to gain the insights we need, we have to form strong working relationships.In our situation, understanding the jobs we are being hired for involves ongoinginteraction with the people doing the hiring – our users and customers. Theunderstanding we need wont come from reading documents. It won’t come frommission statements or strategic plans alone. It won’t come from formal meetings oreven SurveyMonkey surveys and focus groups alone. It will come by getting to knowthe people in our organizations, and becoming known to them. Alignment will comethrough dialogue. 11
  12. 12. The starting point of embedded librarianship is the formation of these relationships. Here’s my definition ofembedded librarianship:An embedded librarian is one who develops strong working relationships with members of a team or community;shares responsibility for achieving its goals; and makes customized, highly-valued contributions to the team.These characteristics contribute to a strong embedded model:The first is building those relationships with individuals and groups of information users.The conversations that happen as relationships are built create shared understanding of the organization’s workand the librarian’s role, so that it’s possible to create a set of shared goals. These show how the librarian’s workcontributes to the organization’s success. This is where alignment happens.Of course, the librarian has to deliver on the value and meet the goals. Doing that requires customized, high-valueprofessional work. 12
  13. 13. So that’s how embedded librarianship connects with Alignment. From the librarian’sperspective, the process goes something like this: building strong relationships,understanding the work, committing to shared goals collaborating with highly valuedwork, and ultimately becoming an integral member of a team achieving its objectivesand contributing to the organizational mission. 13
  14. 14. I’d like to cap this argument that embedded librarianship offers a response to disruption, and a new approach toalignment, by highlighting five differences with traditional librarianship – the kind that’s been disrupted.1. It focuses on relationships, not transactions.2. It requires us to specialize, not to try to be all things to all people.3. As the SLA Alignment study showed us, traditional library services have become a commodity. They’re taken for granted. Embedded librarianship finds new value in new roles.4. Where the traditional librarian stood apart from the organization, ruling over the domain of the library, the embedded librarian is out of the library and fully engaged with the other employees and groups of the enterprise. This engagement, by the way, can be virtual as well as physical.5. Last, the traditional librarian focused on being a service provider. Service is in our professional DNA. And that’s not all bad. But service providers aren’t fully aligned. Their goals are to provide the service, and their responsibilities are just to do that – and no more. Embedded librarians aren’t just service providers. They’re team partners. That means they define their role more broadly. They do whatever their skills and competencies enable them to do that helps the organization to succeed. 14
  15. 15. So just to recap, so far I’ve set out a line of reasoning that says:We are a profession that has been disruptedIn response to the disruption we need to ask what jobs our customers are reallyinterested in hiring us forWe need to realign our work with the jobs they value, andEmbedded librarianship offers a way for us not only to do a one-time realignment,but keep realigning our contributions as needs change. 15
  16. 16. Let’s turn to a discussion of the problems and pitfalls that can arise. Becauseembedded librarianship can be hard. There are definitely challenges. The good newsis, there are also ways to address them. 16
  17. 17. The first one is getting traction for starting the new model. I’ve heard librarians saythings like this, “managers in my organization don’t know what I’m talking about, ordon’t see the value, when I propose that they need an embedded librarian.” This is acommon problem in the startup phase. It indicates that there’s a need to pay moreattention to marketing the embedded idea.I have three suggestions for addressing it.1. Focus on the people in the organization who do get it. Actually, all you need is onepartner to start. I’m a big fan of beginning with pilot programs, showing the value,and then scaling up.2. Seek first to understand their needs, not to promote your idea. Explore how theirteam’s performance is being dragged down by problems with knowledge discovery,information analysis, or knowledge and information management, and how a teamlibrarian could help with that.3. Step back. Maybe you need to defer your plans; maybe the time and conditionsaren’t ripe yet. Focus instead on building relationships, not taking action. Learn aboutthe organization by getting to know the people in it. This might mean volunteering foractivities that aren’t related to your library work. Use these activities as a way to getto know people and their work, and maybe to get them on your side. 17
  18. 18. Number two has to do with the period after an initial success. Here are three ideas for dealing with theresource issues created when you scale up an embedded librarianship program.1. Get more resources. It’s not out of the question. But where those resources come from dependsvery heavily on your own circumstances and your organization’s approach to budgeting. In myresearch, I encountered one library manager in a for-profit professional services firm who had a greatrelationship with the senior management of the firm, and was able to get resources when needed. Butthat’s not the only way. I also encountered a large multinational corporation where it was acceptedpractice for business units to pay for their embedded librarians, through an annual budget transfer. Anassistant manager of the library in this corporation once had to inform a middle manager in R&D thatthe assessment needed to double, due to the heavy tasking imposed on the embedded librarians. Theresponse was that the embedded librarians were the best bargain in the company. So, depending onyour circumstances, consider where you can find more resources.2. Think strategically about staff responsibilities, and shift positions away from legacy tasks towardemerging value-added tasks. A highly successful academic library director I interviewed followed thisstrategy. Knowing that more resources would not be forthcoming, and wanting to expand anextremely successful initial embedded engagement, the director reorganized. This is a challengingstrategy, primarily because some staff are bound to have trouble adjusting to new duties. To hercredit, the library director was able to provide both the professional and emotional support to seeseveral staff through the transition successfully. Former reference librarians have become instructionlibrarians, and former technical services paralibrarians have become reference and information deskassistants.3. Think strategically about just how pervasive the embedded model should be. I suggest that libraryleaders pick their spots. Which courses in the undergraduate program are really the best for insertingan embedded librarian? Which groups and functions of the corporation are the information intensiveones that really need a librarian on the team? So, prioritize your opportunities and go for the ones thatoffer the best chance of making a real impact on your organization’s mission. Let the rest go. 18
  19. 19. The third pitfall is settling for something short of a strong embedded relationship.Operational models are being called “embedded” that don’t meet the criteria. Forexample, in higher education, especially among librarians involved in distanceeducation, the notion is out there that you’re embedded if the course managementsystem contains a link to the library homepage, or a librarian virtual reference app.There’s no mention of a collaborative relationship and shared instructional goals withthe subject instructor. I read recently of a so-called embedded librarian – embeddedin the sense that she had authoring privileges in the course management system –who posted an introductory video in the sites for several courses she was quote-unquote “embedded” in. Without telling the instructors, that is. She was surprisedwhen some of them reacted negatively.But it’s not just the distance education librarians who lose track of the real essence ofembedded librarianship. There are also examples of on-campus librarians who set upoffice hours in a departmental building – but are never able to foster any realcollaboration with the faculty or students of the department.The antidote to this, of course, is to keep in mind the formulation we’ve discussedearlier in this hour, and insist on progress in building relationships, shared goals, andcollaboration toward achieving organizational objectives. 19
  20. 20. The final four pitfalls all have to do with the opposite problem from the last one. Theyhave to do with going overboard. There is perhaps such a thing as becoming “tooembedded.” Sometimes I also refer to this as “going native.”The fourth pitfall, then, is isolation. In my research and in the literature, there areexamples of this. Working with other librarians, in the same space, sharing duties andprojects, is pretty congenial. We all speak the same language, we generally help eachother out. Take a librarian out of that environment, put her in a situation wherenobody else around her speaks the same language or really understands what shedoes, and a sense of isolation sets in. What’s more, she loses the benefit ofcomparing notes and collaborating with other librarians to solve common problems.Do this for a group of reference librarians, for example, and what was once a strongcommunity of practice has been broken up.The astute manager can address this by being proactive. Create social occasions,shared tasks, and shared communication tools like a social media group to keep theembedded librarians connected with one another and with central library operations. 20
  21. 21. The fifth pitfall is closely related to the fourth. It’s the problem of workload balancingand burnout. I’ll illustrate with a story from my own experience. I once had aconversation with a very successful embedded librarian who told me that whenpassing the offices of the team she was working with, she tried to keep her headdown and avoid eye contact, because she was already overwhelmed and wanted toavoid getting any more projects. Here was an outstanding librarian facing burnout,largely because we hadn’t put in place any kind of backup mechanism for her.In the years since that episode, I’ve encountered a few successful efforts to addressthis problem. One I like is to form interest groups, which can include both embeddedand non-embedded librarians. Group members share their knowledge aboutresources and projects, and back one another up as the need arises. This actuallyhelps with the isolation problem, as well as leveling out the workload and givingcentral library staff a stake in the embedded librarianship model. If you’re interestedin more information on this idea, check out the 2009 Annual Conference contributedpaper by Jeanne Trimble of the MITRE Corporation. 21
  22. 22. Number six relates to the lack of succession planning. I wrote a blog post last year in which Icalled this the “librarian who walks on water” syndrome. The members of the team that thelibrarian is embedded with – who don’t understand what the librarian does (and after all theydon’t need to) – come to see the librarian as a magician, or miracle worker, who is able tocreate essential information and analysis out of thin air. They begin to attribute thisoutstanding performance to the unique mastery of that individual, rather than thecharacteristics of the profession.This is all well and good for the time being. But what happens when that outstanding librariangets promoted, or leaves the organization, or retires?If there’s no succession planning, if there’s no understudy waiting to take over, thedisappointment can be serious. No new librarian can step in and perform at the same level –precisely because the nature of embedded librarianship demands a sustained relationship,and thorough understanding of the work. At this point the entire embedded engagement is indanger of falling apart.The antidote, of course, is preparing others to step in. This follows nicely from the interestgroup idea already mentioned. Include junior staff in the groups. Introduce them to the roleof the embedded librarian. Introduce them as backups to the members of the informationuser group. Have them sub at team meetings and work on projects when the embeddedlibrarian is unavailable. In doing all these things, they’ll be prepared with the skills they’llneed if they are called on to step in as embedded librarians. What’s more, they’ll be familiarfaces to the team members, who will already appreciate their capabilities, and quicklyrecognize that they can walk on water, too. 22
  23. 23. Pitfall #7 involves loss of enterprise perspective and what’s best for the organization. I’velabeled it “parochialism”. The idea here is that ultimately embedded librarianship needs toserve the mission and goals of the parent organization, not just the mission and goals of anyone unit or department. Sometimes, when embedded librarians are spun off from aknowledge and information services organization, the enterprise-level gets lost, and thelibrarian gets caught in sub-optimal arrangements. Furthermore, the opportunity for thelibrarians to act as boundary spanners within the enterprise gets lost too.That may sound a bit obscure, so here’s an example.In this organization, librarians were spun off, and embedded with different groups. Overtime, the work in some groups expanded; while in others it was flat or even declined.However, because the librarians had been spun off, the library manager had no control andlittle influence over their allocation and tasking. Negotiating a redeployment of librarians tothe groups that needed them most was hampered by opposition on the part of bothinformation user group managers and the embedded librarians. The managers viewed theloss of librarians assigned to their groups as a turf issue: a threat to their status. Thelibrarians, in turn, had come to value their group relationships exclusively, and had lost allperspective on the information and knowledge needs of the enterprise.Two actions can address this pitfall.One goes back to the idea of interest groups or other mechanisms to keep the embeddedlibrarians connected to each other and to central library operations keeps them aware ofneeds and activities outside the groups they are embedded with.Second, central library management needs to be engaged with the information user groupmanagers, and not simply delegate the relationship entirely to the embedded librarian. Intwo successful operations I’ve studied, library relationship managers make regular visits toinformation user group managers. They use these meetings to review the nature and level ofembedded librarians’ tasking and to gather feedback about how things have been going andwhat the outlook is. 23
  24. 24. The 8th and final pitfall has to do with evaluating the embedded librarian’s work.The library manager isn’t in a good position to do this – even less so than with staff workingin a central library. The manager may not see or even communicate with the librarian mostdays. The manager has little or no idea what the librarian is working on or what results thelibrarian achieves.Meanwhile, the information user group manager sees the librarian’s results, but doesn’t havethe knowledge to assess the librarian’s skills. As a result, the librarian’s value can either beover-inflated or under-appreciated.For that reason, the best evaluation may be achieved when the library manager and theinformation user group manager communicate. The library manager is best able to assess theprofessional skills and performance relative to professional expectations and theachievements of other staff. The information user group manager is best able to assess theoutcomes of the librarian’s work, and the librarian’s impact on achievement of the group’sgoals. Both of these elements are essential for effective evaluation.However, I do want to append a caveat to these comments about evaluation. Above all, thenature of evaluation needs to reflect the norms of your organization.In my research, I’ve visited one very successful embedded librarianship operation thatdoesn’t do any formal evaluation at all. There are strong working relationships amongmanagers, and excellent communications and informal assessment – but the culture andpractices of the organization don’t include formal evaluation.On the other hand, I’ve also visited organizations where anecdotes are highly valued, sostories that demonstrate the librarian’s impact are prominently featured in formalevaluations. Still others, particularly in the academic sector, are working on correlating thework of embedded librarians with outcomes like student academic success.So, I’ve concluded that above all the approach to evaluating embedded librarians needs toconform to the practices and expectations of the parent organization. 24
  25. 25. So, these are the eight pitfalls that can interfere with getting the most success withembedded librarianship. Adopting and sustaining this new model isn’t always easy,but it can be done, and the rewards of doing the jobs our organizations are hiring usto do, and making our work visible and valued, are great. 25
  26. 26. To close then, I’d like to offer some ideas specifically for those with managementresponsibilities on elements of achieving success with the embedded model. Thisversion is modified slightly from the version that Mary Talley and I published in thefinal report of our “Models of Embedded Librarianship” report, which is on the SLAwebsite. 26
  27. 27. 1. Develop and hire librarians who can build relationships. I can’t emphasize this enough. The whole idea is to move from transactional service to relational partnership. And don’t despair -- you have them, you can find them, and you can develop them. And don’t give up on introverts. At the end of a long day of interviews during one of my research site visits, an exceptionally successful embedded librarian turned to me and said, “Introverts can do this, you know…. I’m an introvert!”2. Enable your embedded librarians to learn the organization and the subject domain. Both political knowledge and subject knowledge are necessary for the embedded librarian. A great way to gain political knowledge is to volunteer – for any social or faculty committee that comes along. With subject knowledge, we’ve found that, somewhat surprisingly, not all embedded librarians start with relevant subject degrees or advanced knowledge – but they all develop it. Leading organizations, moreover, invest in helping them learn, and stay current. This should be easy for you – you probably have tuition remission for employees to take courses – or just audit them.3. Provide the right high-value work. Figuring out what that is, is a constant task. The bar keeps going up. Today’s answer will not be tomorrow’s answer. In fact, you the manager and your embedded librarians should continually attempt to put yourselves out of business. Otherwise valuable efforts fall down when they assume there’s a fixed target and an end state. The target will always be moving.4. Build alliances. This is about peer to peer relationships at the management level. What are you manager doing to connect with deans and department heads across campus? This can’t be left to the individual embedded librarian. It takes management to grow the program and scale it up – which leads to the next point:5. Get management support. What I really mean here is senior executive support. Evaluate, and communicate all the way up the management chain to demonstrate the role that embedded librarians are playing in your enterprise. Make sure that the role of information and knowledge managers is embedded into the way your organization does business. 27
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