Collaboration for Innovation


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By Andrea Coffin and Stef Morrill for WiscNet's Future Technologies Conference, May 2014

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  • {Stef}
    Thanks for coming
    Introduce ourselves
    Happy to be here to tell our story
    Think you will hear some parallels to WiscNet as we go along 
  • {Andi}
    What is WiLS?
    Most important thing first: membership organization. We have over 450 member organizations: mostly all types of libraries, also cultural heritage institutions, partner organizations

    Legally, we are a 501©(3) non-profit

    While not legally a cooperative, we want to function like one: governed and guided by our members, only doing things that are in their best interest, want them to feel invested in the organization. We don’t meet all of them but many.

    What do we actually do? We provide a ton of services that help our members do more with their time and money – cooperative purchasing of electronic resources, manage the buying pool for the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium for OverDrive, facilitate cooperative projects, match members of our community who need one another, etc.
  • {Stef}
    Started over 40 years ago by the UW libraries in the state.
    It was created as part of UW-Madison
    It was also a 501 ©(3) organization.
    Rolled along this way providing services to the members. Grew, added staff, etc.

    There was one particularly large service that provided a large percentage of the funding that was dependent on funding from a single outside vendor. The vendor decided that they did not need these services provided by WiLS and other organizations across the country who were providing similar services. They pulled the contract and the revenue went away.

    But what did not and could not go away in the university structure was the staff that was added for that service. The university HR rules were very inflexible and made it difficult for WILS to operate on “soft money”

    In 2013, WiLS decided to separate from the university and become an independent 501©(3). There was concern – after watching Wiscnet – that this decision would be made for us eventually, anyway…..

    What we are going to talk about is not so much where we were but where we are now and how this decision and the added flexibility have changed our organization. And, especially, how we are trying to create an extremely flexible, extremely responsive organization……
  • {Stef will start}
    As you might imagine, any strategic plans or other organizational documents needed to be updated. We had done a great planning process a few years ago, but we were very different as an organization. We made the decision to not develop another large plan, but to simplify things down to….

    Mission statement (Andi)
    Service standards (Andi)
    Strategic directions that will change annually
    Assessment of members landscape

    Most of the pieces: mission statement, values, services standards were developed by the staff.
    The mission statement and values were reviewed and discussed and modified by the board…..service standards were not.
    The strategic directions and assessment of members landscape are still to be determined: discuss with staff and board in the coming months.

    We think these pieces give us enough structure to guide our work but the flexibility to change direction over time.

    Drafting the mission statement, values, and service standards together – and nine months after we started working together – gave a great opportunity for us to reaffirm that we are all on exactly the same page. This is important in so many ways: we are working in the same way with the same goals, we are marketing the same product in the same language, and we trust one another to have the same attitudes toward our work and mission.
  • {stef}
    We knew if we wanted to be responsive and flexible we needed:
    Members to be responsive to.
    A business plan that allowed for change and flexibility.

    Membership aspect first: In the past, we had a complex membership structure where members were paying for the promise of service. We had different levels that bought access to different services. No one was ever happy because they either didn’t get access to the services they needed (because they weren’t in that level) or didn’t use the services they were paying for.

    In addition to that, we had no less than 13 different ways we were charging for services.

    Now: FREE general membership. Single membership fee for our flagship service. Standard percentage we add on to cooperative purchasing services. Hourly consulting charge. A couple of contracts, mostly based on hourly rate. Very, very simple structure that allows us to easily explain the model and to be transparent, also allows us to change.
  • {Andi will kick off}
    What are our services? Some: Purchasing services, project management, process facilitation, collaboration service development
    Lean principles: Start small, get feedback, revise, grow, do it all over again
    Flexible approaches: Not all projects or services are created equal, and not all partners have the same needs.
    Drawing on others and their expertise: We don’t have it all in-house, and we are more efficient (and better community builders) when we showcase the talents of our members (or other community participants)
    Encouraging transparency – in the projects we work on and internally
    Supporting innovation – by encouraging calculated risks
    Modeling “progressive” actions – constant aim to complete goals (despite frustrating setbacks)

    {Stef will add perspective}
  • {stef}
    We currently have seven positions at WiLS. Four of the seven positions share the same job description, but do very different things….and that’s intentional! Having this single broad job description and working with each individual to develop their position based on their time and talents gives us the ability to grow and change projects, to take advantage of expertise and things people like to do, to have more team ownership of things, to be thoughtful about who is most likely to bring a project to a successful outcome.

    Not to say that this is always easy: the level of flexibility and acceptance of ambiguity that everyone has to live with is challenging. Try to help with that by meeting as a group once a week and meeting individually with director/each staff once a week.

    To make this work, we hired for personality and fit first, skills and expertise second. It was more important to us that we had people who our members can trust and relate to and will be able to work in this dynamic/fluid environment.
  • {Andi will start; Stef will offer perspective}

    This picture is accurate!
    We are virtual – we have no central office (we call it the “unoffice”). While it varies by staff member, we typically work 2-4 days a week at home and the rest out among the community
    We try to get in front of our members as often as possible.
    I have a very simple home office – a laptop. a printer, a small file cabinet, my daughter’s artwork
    Our equipment floats – Stef has the projector, and Lisa has the laminator, etc. Requires a little extra coordination.
    Perception! Lot’s of “I could never work at home! I’d never get anything done!”
    Reality! You have to work hard to create a separation between work time and home time when it all happens in the same place.

  • {Andi will start; Stef will offer perspective}
    Given that we don’t share an office and that we see each other weekly at best, communication tools are important, and we use all of them.
    Using Google Apps for Business which primarily consists of Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, along with an open-source content management system Sugar for storing cooperative purchasing information and Dropbox
    Gmail chat –The equivalent of poking your head into someone’s cubical
    Gmail chat statuses – We use this for both important information (“conference call” or “afk – cat threw up on keyboard”) and for funny business (sharing the titles our favorite dance movies). Both are very important.
    Email – of course
    We text, too. Especially when traveling and I’m lost.

  • {Stef will kick off, Andi will offer perspective}

    Members have been extremely supportive of the change. While we haven’t done a formal survey of members yet, we get the impression that they are happy with the changes in the membership fee and direction of the organization. They can see the possibilities that the added flexibility brings, and now, as we are moving into our second year, we will be in a position to really capitalize on the structure we’ve built.

    I think they are also appreciative of the change we went through, and that we have learned some of the lessons we are going to share with you next and can share that information with them. All of our organizations need to change and grow and we want to be the model and catalyst for our members.
  • {Andi will start; Stef will offer perspective}

    WiLS had to make a lot of changes. (More on change later)
    Many things we are doing are new to us: we have new staff, new services we were experimenting with, new business and membership models. Fortunately, we have the cumulated knowledge about our members to help us make smart decisions in their best interests. This all required (still requires) some trail, and unfortunately, error. For instance, since our reorg, we have continually been tweaking our communications plan, and we are still not 100% happy with it. But without that error, we wouldn’t grow and improve our services.
  • {Stef will start; Andi will offer perspective}

    I talked a bit about the old membership model were people were charged a lot of money for different “tiers” of membership and that people were unhappy about the services we were providing. This made a lot of our members unhappy with us.

    On top of that, we retain a percentage of the discounts we negotiate for our members. It’s how we fund our organization, and it was something that we not clearly explained or shared with members. And when people found out about it, it made them unhappy with us.

    Our lack of transparency bred distrust. For us to serve our members well and to have the relationships we need with them, we need their trust. So, we made the decision to go to extreme transparency: we wanted to make sure that they knew we are working in their best interest.

    Lesson is that transparency breeds trust and the possibilities of expanding and growing relationships is dependent on that trust.
  • {Andi will start; stef will offer perspective}

    The combination of risk-taking and transparency meant massive change.
    We had no choice but to make these changes; the alternative was worse. We understand our community and know WiLS services were valuable and that it would hurt our members to not have them available anymore. So fundamental change had to happen – new staff, business and membership models, etc. We kept our flagship service, cooperative purchasing, in a relatively unchanged state (with the exception of some workflow, staffing, and technology changes) but otherwise, our services were going to grow out of what we knew and learned would be valuable to our membership.
    And our members are in similar circumstances. Budgets have been steady or declining for a long time, and our members also can no longer provide the same services in the same way and with the same funding as they have.
    What’s great, though, is that was have the power to see that the change is positive. We control the variables and it’s ultimately our responsibility to see that it goes well (even if that means it fails for a little bit until we learn our lessons). And we practice “smart change” by thinking very hard about what we are doing and how we are doing it, always with our members’ best interests in mind.
    If you spend your time doing what’s safe, and doing it in the same way over and over while the world changes around you, that’s riskier than experimenting. You are jeopardizing your credibility and relevancy, and ultimately, your value.
  • We think about what we do as an organization. A lot. And that may be because we have been in the midst of creating all of the things we talked about today. But we will continue to build in the time to talk about these sorts of things as a staff. We have monthly “big picture” meetings to encourage this sort of reflection and assessment.

    In my mind, there are two pieces to feedback: external feedback from our members and internal feedback to staff (and to me!), and I think both of them are extremely important.

    As I mentioned earlier, we haven’t done a formal assessment with our members to get feedback. This is something we’ll be working on soon. We do have a feedback form available for them and we are talking with them constantly, but we do need to work on this aspect.
    That’s the external feedback piece.

    I think it’s critical, once we have those values and mission and service standards, to make sure we are talking about them and using them to assess ourselves and that I use them as the basis of conversation and feedback with the staff. Giving feedback to staff is another form of transparency, and it is essential that you don’t avoid it because it is difficult.
  • Collaboration for Innovation

    2. 2. What is WiLS? •Member focused •Non-profit •Cooperative
    3. 3. The brief history of WiLS
    4. 4. Planning
    5. 5. Business model
    6. 6. Project approach
    7. 7. Organizational chart/Staffing
    8. 8. Space
    9. 9. Communications
    10. 10. Impressions so far….
    11. 11. Lessons
    12. 12. Lessons
    13. 13. Lessons
    14. 14. Lessons
    15. 15. Thanks! FB = WiLS Twitter @wilscommunity Andi Coffin: 414-979-9457, Stef Morrill: 608-216-8319,