Tag Archives: Innovation

Ideas For Innovation Are All Around Us

We are subject to a non-stop barrage of information about innovation. Experts give us advice on how to be more innovative. The stories we read in our library literature share news about innovative libraries. Yet we rarely learn how to be innovative. Ask a few librarians what it means to be innovative and you’ll get many different answers. It’s something new. It’s something different. It’s something creative. It’s something that comes from business. I know this because in preparing for a presentation about innovation in academic libraries, I asked many different academic librarians to tell me how they define innovation. The best definition of innovation I have come across defines it quite simply: something new or new for your organization that provides value. The emphasis is on “value”. You can come up with something new, different, unique or creative but if it fails to deliver value to members of your user community – or the library staff – it’s not innovative for them. Sometimes it’s our failures that lead to the real innovation.

Many of us academic librarians think of ourselves as being innovative or we want to be more innovative than we are. Succeeding at it is hard. The challenge is finding ideas that are likely to result in good innovations for your community. I do believe our future relevance (or indispensability if you prefer that) depends on being entrepreneurial and proactive about innovation. Not just innovation in the library, but looking for ways to be innovative in the campus community. That could mean aggresively looking for opportunities, for solutions to problems that students or faculty have, but for which no one is delivering a solution. It may not be a solution to a known problem, but a service or resource that the community needs that has yet to even be sought out. That’s the Apple philosophy – don’t give people what they ask for – give them the things they will want but haven’t even expressed a desire for yet.

Our success and sustainability can no longer be guaranteed by simply doing the same things we’ve always done and which is what everyone expects us to do – and for which they increasingly no longer really need us. When we innovate we seek out new services that provide value to our community members. To my way of thinking, anything that allows them to do something new that they can’t do now, or allows them to do something better, faster, easier, more expeditiously than they can now – that’s a breakthrough innovation. But where do you get the ideas for that? It helps to be an explorer, the type of person who constantly seeks out new mysteries and then seeks to unravel that mystery. It’s like Roger Martin says: All human knowledge is advanced by mystery. The explorer, through diving into new mysteries, will discover what people want to do or need, particularly something they can’t do easily now or that requires great effort.

The opportunities are out there. Here’s an example I want to share. During the first week of May the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a special supplement called “The Digital Campus”. There were several good articles. As I read this one I thought this is just calling out to librarians to get their innovation engines revving up. In “New Technologies to Get Your Students Engaged” author Ryan Cordell shares his techniques for getting students to interact with research material. He writes:

I want my students to conduct research using primary sources. Every year more digital archives publish historical books, magazines, newspapers, letters, tracts, maps, photographs, audio, and film. Delving into those archives allows students (nearly) direct access to materials that were once available only at colleges with extensive special-collections libraries. I’ve asked students in my 19th-century-literature classes to research historically grounded projects using the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project, an open collection of historical American newspapers.

Cordell also talks about wanting his students to use personal bibliographic management software. He goes on to mention a handful of technology tools he exposes to his students, including Evernote, blogging and Omeka (for organizing digital collections). For Cordell, using these technologies is all about giving students an authentic research experience that enables them engage in his course as scholars.

It’s clear that Cordell is ahead of the curve with these technologies. Yet even he can probably discover resources offered by the library that faculty often overlook. But what about all the other faculty that may be encouraged by Cordell and will want to incorporate more primary research and scholarly engagement into their courses? They may not have the time or technology experience to replicate Cordell’s pedagogy. Who will be there to help them go choose the right technology tools, and help connect their students to primary research materials? We can be there, and that’s where entrepreneurial spirt is required. The ideas are out there. Academic librarians need to supply the drive and enthusiasm to find them, refine them and implement them.

Innovation Moves Our Profession Forward

In a previous post I had a some fun pointing out some obsolete tools and technologies that were no longer important to the work of librarians. You must have had some fun with it as well. That post remains the most commented on one we’ve written here at ACRLog. Readers shared examples of their own obsolete equipment, technologies and techniques. By looking back we collectively measured the great leaps and bounds by which our work has evolved. We might likewise measure our progress by examining how innovation has changed what we do and how we do it.

Knowledge@Wharton published their list of the top 30 innovations of the last 30 years. I was struck by the ones that dramatically transformed my work since I first entered the profession in 1978. What didn’t I have then? No computer (#2). No Internet or Web (#1). No email (#4). No cell phone (#3). No GUI (#21). How did we ever manage? Just those few innovations alone have revolutionized and forever altered librarianship. Sorry gaming librarians – video games didn’t even make the list – but social networking did (#20).

At its most basic and fundamental foundations the library is about acquiring, storing, organizing and disseminating information/content. Every one of these functions is radically altered by just these four innovations. It is difficult to even imagine what new and future innovations will change our work in the next 20 or 30 years. Perhaps in just the next 10 years we’ll see as much innovative technology change as we did in the past 30. Electronic ink and foldable computer screens. Personal intelligent assistants. Advanced virtual world simulations. Ubiquitous VoIP integrated into digital technologies. Oh yeah, flying cars! These and other technology innovations stand poised to even more radically change the nature of library work. Well, maybe not the flying cars. There’s much to look forward to in our profession and the ways in which we’ll harness the innovations of the future to better serve our user communities.

Core Values Must Come First

In the past few weeks I attend two equally thought provoking presentations. Although the content was radically different, as were the presenters, – one a library science professor and the other a business faculty member and corporate consultant – there was a common theme in each talk that resonated strongly with me. Both talks, in a way, were about a subject much on the minds of academic librarians these days. How do we adapt to a radically transforming information landscape in which our very relevance is put to the test?

The first of the two was David Lankes, Associate Professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. I heard him present at the Connecticut Library Association where he spoke about the “library as conversation”. Lankes urged the audience to keep asking ourselves two essential questions: why are we doing this and why does it matter to the people for who we do it? The answers, it was suggested, would emerge from a fundamental understanding of our core values, from which we could then develop innovative resources and services to better serve our communities. Lankes’ advice to the audience: “Be the wave machine, not the wave”.

The other presenter was William Gribbons, Professor of Information Design and Corporate Communications at Bentley College, but also a consultant to dozens of corporations. I heard him give a talk about user experience at a professional development program at the Rutgers University Library. Gribbons made a strong case that academic libraries could no longer win over students and faculty with links to e-resources alone. When all information providers look the same, only by differentiating the library could progress be made. According to Gribbons a unique user experience is carefully designed and constructed, but whatever that experience is it should be shaped by the organization’s core values.

While neither speaker actually defined what a core value is or how one discovers it, I think Lankes came close by instructing the attendees to work at understanding what business their library is in. He thought the business of libraries was knowledge creation. I like to think it is learning and promoting academic success. There are other possibilities but I believe all of them must be based on creating relationships with our users from which they will obtain meaning. When we understand the business we are in and how that translates to creating meaning for our users those core values will emerge.

So where do we begin? Exploring and articulating a library’s core values, as you’d expect, involves some soul searching, both individually and collectively, and collegial conversations – among staff and with the user community. But these two rather different speakers pointed to much the same thing: core values must come first. Having a sound, basic and fundamental understanding of those values will drive efforts to develop a plan for innovation or provide a better user experience that will guide us through disruptive technology change, hyper-competitive information environments and the many other challenges that are sure to confront academic librarians.

More To Bezos Than Books Or Kindles

If you’re about my age you may remember when Bruce Springsteen appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek the very same week (Oct. 27, 1975). It was a pretty big deal. Outside of a president or other world political figure, simultaneous mutual admiration by multiple highly read national magazines is pretty rare. While history didn’t exactly repeat itself with multiple covers, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, came pretty darn close. He is featured in major articles in Wired (May 2008), BusinessWeek and Fortune (May 5, 2008). All the articles appeared within a week’s space.

When academic librarians talk about Amazon.com the conversation is mostly about their book business or, more recently, the Kindle. But we should perhaps spend more time directing our attention to the person that runs Amazon, Jeff Bezos. When people think of books I don’t doubt that many of them think of Amazon before they think of libraries – if they think of libraries at all. And Amazon is certainly far ahead of libraries in providing a platform that allows customers to add content to their website and engage in conversation with each other. I’m not suggesting that academic librarians should view Amazon as a competitor. After all, we’re not even in the same business. Amazon is an online retailer. Academic libraries are in the learning business. What we should be doing is studying how Bezos has turned Amazon into an innovation machine (although the Fortune article sees Amazon as an “iteration” machine – one that makes lots of small moves and learns quickly from its missteps).

For the last year or so there’s been a fair amount of chatter about innovation in the library world, on blogs and at conferences. That’s good because as a profession we need to drive innovation in our libraries. What sometimes concerns me is that some of what I hear about innovation sounds like a mixed bag of platitudes. Perhaps just understanding innovation is part of our challenge. I prefer a description of innovation from an article titled “Innovation in Organizations in Crisis” in the fall 2007 issue of Design Management Review. According to the authors, Cherkasky and Slobin, innovation is finding new ways of creating value and bringing them to life. Simple and elegant. It’s not about inventing something new and it’s not about making big changes at your library at a pace that makes heads spin. Here’s what Bezos has to say about innovation in the BusinessWeek article:

Companies get skills-focused, instead of customer-needs focused. When [companies] think about extending their business into some new area, the first question is “why should we do that—we don’t have any skills in that area.” That approach puts a finite lifetime on a company, because the world changes, and what used to be cutting-edge skills have turned into something your customers may not need anymore. A much more stable strategy is to start with “what do my customers need?” Then do an inventory of the gaps in your skills. Kindle is a great example. If we set our strategy by what our skills happen to be rather than by what our customers need, we never would have done it. We had to go out and hire people who know how to build hardware devices and create a whole new competency for the company.

I commend you to read these three articles; your libraries have them if you can’t find them online just yet. We can learn about innovation from the thought leaders of business. Some of our best successes – considerable innovations for academic libraries such virtual reference, cafes in the library and self-service automated operations – had their roots as innovative business products. Given that the ACRL conference is in Seattle (Amazon’s HQ) in 2009 I was hoping that Bezos would be an invited speaker. ACRL recently released the keynote and invited speakers, and while it looks like a great lineup, Bezos is not among them. Releasing the Kindle was a significant innovation for Amazon, and a major risk for Bezos. Innovation or iteration, there are lessons academic librarians can learn from Bezos about ways to lead in the learning business?

BTW, thanks for some good comments to some recent posts. While I still think some of you are misunderstanding me when I use “leaders” and “library directors” (or library deans or whatever you like to call it) interchangeably, I appreciate it when you share your views. But not everyone leaves a comment. Some bloggers prefer to put their response into their own posting. ACRLog readers may not catch those so here are two I recommend to you: “But What If I Don’t Want it All?” over at Academic Librarian and “Teaching Technology/ies” over at info-mational.