Desperately Seeking Sense-Making

If you know a little about me, you know my practice of librarianship — what I like to call truthbrarianship — desperately seeks to express a deeper connection to the communicative side of our profession, whether that’s information-seeking or information-management.  I’m still working on an alternative word for the latter, but my truth-seeking approach is inspired by Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology, work which most famously contributed to the practice of the reference interview.  Dervin also addressed sense-making in information systems and the impact on the democratic principles of librarianship, which are vulnerable to “unexamined assumptions about the nature of information and the nature of communication” (Dervin, 2003, p74).   To examine these assumptions means approaching communication differently than just an act of sending and receiving messages.  Since learning about this methodology in graduate school, I have been working to apply it to internal communication in library organizations.   

Communication theorists still debate whether organizational communication is best measured as a product of organizational structure, or whether communication itself leads to the formation of organizational structures.   Nevertheless, I observe people fairly consistently credit or blame organizational morale and culture on communication.  When/if communication is good, morale is high.  When/if communication is bad, morale is low.  However, this link between communication and culture doesn’t make a bit of sense to those who approach communication primarily as messages.  Because messages can be controlled, communication problems are easily addressed by increasing or better-targeting messages, right?  People who see communication as connection, on the other hand, would rarely get what they need from messages alone, no matter how abundantly or frequently messages are sent, or even if they were received. Since the target, if you will, is connection, its lack is perceived as a more fundamental organizational problem.    

In the absence of clear solutions, I’m left to make peace with perpetually seeking.  But a couple of workplace examples recently paved some hope on this path.   One is a wonderfully challenging development series I’ve started attending, called “Compassionate Communication”. Based on Michael Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent communication: a language of life, the introductory focus of this workshop intentionally distinguishes the use of judgement (problem-solving) and empathy (connection) when communicating, especially when communicating within conflict.  What I like most about the series so far is how it hasn’t discarded rational, judgement-based thinking in communication altogether.  Rather, it shows where this has value and where it doesn’t. With mindfulness and emotional intelligence, the Compassionate Communication: An Introduction course prescribes “translating judgments into observations, emphasizing needs instead of strategies, replacing thoughts with feelings, and changing demands into requests.” Like the reference interview compassionate communication considers that in situations people may not always know how to communicate their needs.  Dialogue offers a way to connect to needs and feelings in order to make meaningful requests.  So far (and I’m only two classes in) it promises to deliver what leaders sometimes struggle to accomplish with planning, hierarchy, and logic alone.

Another sense-making example took place in a recent email exchange about a new and somewhat contentious library policy.  In this scenario, most might have just chalked up the policy decision to “it’s complicated”, accepted it by virtue of hierarchy or expertise, and moved on.  Instead, this administrator and staff each made room to express and examine the different and often hidden circumstances at play.  I consider this kind of sense-making giving transparency to complexity. I have advocated and worked to develop this in my own communication and know the extra work it requires.  In my experience you can either pay the price of that work in confusion, frustration, and ongoing inefficiency, or in the work of communicating through those complexities.  I find only the latter builds trust, and I believe Dervin would say the act of building that trust is what matters most.  

Unfortunately, both approaches are still somewhat rare and sometimes discouraged in library leadership generally, despite similarities to LIS methodologies. Like Dervin’s sense-making, these two examples approach communication with questioning.  In compassionate communication, observations beyond the surface messages lead to more connected requests (aka questions) about what is needed. In the email exchange I observed, it was the willingness of this staff and administrator to first question whether they understood the whole picture and to thoroughly engage in seeking connections between those understandings.  Neutral questioning in the library reference interview demonstrates a shift in the balance of information power to create space for dialogue and understanding.  Shouldn’t that process, which translates to improved communication with users of library services and in the usability of library systems, also apply to our internal communication and information systems in a similar way?  Do we assume an expertise in sense-making with our users, and does this create an expectation that we can or should provide sense for our own needs?   

Left unexamined, such an assumption might result in providing our own messages and dialogues for ourselves. That seems both silly and irresponsible, especially as individuals and organizations seek truthfully to examine practices related to diversity and inclusion. This must mean understanding experiences beyond ourselves and our expertise as librarians. In the most basic sense, attending to these relational aspects of our work will require librarians to see each other as information seekers, balance informational power, and learn how to effectively ask questions of each other. Translating sense-making to organizations calls for us “to listen and to address differences and contests in human beings’ understandings and experiences” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p6).  The point is not understanding difference as characteristics or experiences that will define (read: label) how we interpret or listen in communication but connecting these differences toward understanding. Making sense of our internal information needs are necessary not just to solve collective problems, but for making sense of each other as human beings, our relationships in practices, and the ways in which these relationships are always changing.   

Resolutions for Failure

How bout that January, eh?  Lots of memes out lately about the longest month ever.  Yet, like this reddit thread, I don’t really get it. I mean, despite my Oklahoma-born, summer-loving upbringing, I do expect that January is supposed to be snowy and damn cold.

I also don’t love, but expect annual evaluations.  They provide a time to reflect on the highlights of the year and set goals for the next.  Most often I approach this task (and leadership generally) from a strengths-based perspective, which has its roots in positive psychology research.  I encourage people to own what they are best at, even using it to build areas at which they feel not so great.   But, as January has brought a lot of harsh realities to the fore, it feels necessary to juxtapose this month’s normal, optimistic resolution with a page from Brene Brown and ponder what didn’t go quite right this year.

My acceptance into the 2018 cohort of the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL) certainly put a postive move on a long-stuck research agenda, and in all respects (except one) it was an a-ma-zing experience. That same week, I was also furtively struggling to complete editor changes for a book chapter on knowledge management in libraries (ala this past post).  Trying to do research while learning how little you actually know about research is one thing.  Working on two research project simultaneously with that fragile skill set is another.  Working against an already extended deadline on a near-complete redo of said research and writing certainly takes one down a peg or two.  But wait!  There’s more.  None of these humiliations can beat the crushing horror four (4) months after submitting the final revised draft, realizing that I’d attached the wrong file.

Yes. Epic. Fail.

I have never asked for an extension I couldn’t meet. I have never wanted to write about a topic more than I wanted to write about meetings and knowledge management in library organizations.  Needless to say, the editors confirmed they’d moved forward without my chapter included. But if we’re being honest, while I was satisfied with the final draft I thought I’d submitted, this blunder was a blessing in disguise that helped me realize how far my cart was in front of this particular horse.

My actual and ongoing research for IRDL has been more like an extremely long January. I’ve progressed in some ways with ease and others with more groping at the dark.  Navigating my mentoring and research  network, I’ve partnered with a friend and colleague who is familiar with my topic and who has strengths in areas that I need to grow.  She and I have spent most of the year sorting out data after messy, incomplete data, just trying to figure out how to approach a sample to use for our analysis.  It’s been frustrating, paving over the same paths and feeling you’ve come up no further along.  We met again this week to pave with our local hub of digital research librarians. In the process we made breakthrough.  A face-palming breakthrough, but a breakthrough nonetheless.

I like to think Winston Churchill, as he’s often quoted, understood the better that lies ahead of the struggle.  Better even than the adage that this too shall pass (because, kidney stones?),  I prefer to remind myself and others that research is just messy until it’s not messy. This is what we teach as librarians, but sometimes forget to tell ourselves.

If I hadn’t been introduced to Brene Brown’s research, or learned what I did from IRDL, or had this particular editorial experience, or the practice of using my strengths, I don’t know that I could as easily take fails forward into something better and more genuine.  That I can say moving through vulnerability has become easier for me, is precisely because that is what the concept of strengths brings to bear for anyone’s vulnerabilities.  My top five Gallup strengths – Learner, Activator, Strategic, Analytical, and Individualization — help me more easily learn from my mistakes, analyze and strategize new paths, know myself and who to go to for help, and take action to keep going!  But even if you can’t yet  see your own strengths this way, research has shown vulnerability is a necessary part of personal and professional growth.

When I complete my current IRDL research, and when (not if) I  get back to research and writing about meetings and knowledge management in libraries, you and I both want it to be good and valuable and cleaner than the path it takes to get there.  So, I embrace the mess!  It may not always be pretty, but it’s a path that moves you forward if you let it.

Thank You, Next? (Consortia Edition)

As November calls for an attitude of gratitude, I will try to frame this post accordingly despite my exhaustion from this past month’s activities.  I’m not, as you may expect, referring to Thanksgiving dinner, holiday travel, or family arguments, but to journal package renewals — a critical annual activity for acquisitions and collection management librarians, vendors, publishers, and (as concerns this post) library consortia.

What are consortia?
Consortia are member organizations that utilize the greater power of a collective body in order to influence more favorable outcomes than the individual bodies might be able to alone.  Consortia in libraries historically began as a means of sharing resources, such as books via interlibrary loan or labor resources via union cataloging.  Consortia services evolved along with library collections to include collective e-resources licensing, acquisition, and access to online resources.  As a librarian responsible for acquiring, licensing, and sharing collection resources, I appreciate the efficiency of labor that consortia offers these workflows.  In the shared purchasing realm, consortia facilitate a singular license negotiation process for its member libraries and negotiate unique pricing terms for content, often packaged in the form of so-called ‘Big Deals’.  Perhaps less often, but just as important, consortia use a collective influence to represent and voice members’ shared concerns.  This summer, I participated with consortia voicing opposition to an unfavorable publisher policy that would limit access to online content, which succeeded in winning a reversal from the publisher. 

To blave…
Now libraries have been questioning the value of the Big Deal, consortia or not, for some time. Yet many libraries continue to commit their budget dollars to it year after year, perpetuating its existence and the lack of any market alternatives.  Being up to my eyeballs in four simultaneous Big Deal analyses for the past year and a half, I’m so ready to call these deals’ bluff.

via GIPHY

To be clear, Big Deals are not exclusive to consortia arrangements. Many libraries subscribe and break from such deals all on their own, as this popular SPARC resource can affirm. https://sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-cancellation-tracking/ However, consortia arrangements of Big Deals cause big problems for libraries because in the process and effect of these arrangements, consortia don’t function as a consortia.  Here’s why.

The effect
Purchasing bulk packaged content like the Big Deal based on libraries’ historic spend, as opposed to publisher list price, does translate to a kind of library savings.  It also creates a predictable budget projection for libraries and a predictable profit for publishers due to fixed annual increases negotiated as part of these deals.  That’s pretty much it for the benefits, and even those don’t hold together.   Any consortia benefit from predictability in library budgets gets completely outweighed by the elimination of libraries’ flexibility to reduce spend when needed, as both commitment to spend and content are locked into these deals.  Likewise, the compounding cost of annual increases have a predictably deficit effect on library budgets.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

This inflexibility also leads to homogenized library collection-building (Thomson, Peters, & Hulbert, 2002), as libraries share and provide access to the same scholarly content, rather than (as in traditional resource sharing) resources unique to their respective collections.  Also, a significant portion of Big Deal package content remains unused, falsely inflating its overall value and trapping libraries in multi-year agreements to buy what they don’t need and increasingly can’t afford. This kind of purchase means fewer library collection dollars spent on more diverse collection needs, whether because there are fewer such purchases that can be afforded, or even simply that these remain more possible to cancel.

The process
Quite basically, the normal expectation for a renewal process means library data gets analyzed by collection representatives in the spring for final decisions in the summer. Ideally, those decisions get communicated to acquisitions representatives, vendors, and/or consortia reps in the early fall.  Then consortia and e-resource librarians (plus respective general counsel) negotiate new contracts before the December expire.  The actual renewal process looks quite different. Since publishers don’t release current pricing until summer, consortia get offers out for its members’ collection representatives to analyze in early fall.  This compressed timeframe leaves little room for libraries making consortia purchase decisions to analyze anything, nor does it allow sufficient collaboration from all necessary stakeholders.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

To share is the Latin root of ‘communication’.  Again, quite basically, the shared information concerning consortia ranges from books to labor to negotiating power.  But what works well for sharing books and its associated labor is quite different from sharing information related to negotiating power and the labor associated with managing online resources.  Besides the varying usage value of these purchases, the contract and term needs continue to vary from library to library.  Those needs can change more frequently each year for libraries than buying, sharing, and cataloging books ever has.  New formats beget new kinds of information, requiring new structures, methods, and individuals involved in the communicating.

From my vantage point — and, I grant you, there are many that I am missing here — libraries and consortia are falling short of what’s necessary to collectively communicate in ways that make consortia purchases beneficial to libraries.

The alternatives
Machovec (2017) sees two competing forces at stake for consortia and libraries: “the need to grow collaboration to more efficiently acquire products and services; and the need to cut programs and services that can no longer be funded” [emphasis mine]. To grow collaboration, as I interpret Machovec to suggest, means allowing more time to share, react, analyze, and compare collaboratively, not just the group individually.  I know it sounds counterintuitive that more communication would be necessary for efficiency.  But understand, efficiency doesn’t just deal in the currency of predictability.  The currency we should value is flexibility.

Currently, consortia purchasing models, while designed to save libraries money, still offer no comparable programs and service alternatives to address libraries’ collective declining funding.  I believe consortia have a role to play in negotiating favorable alternatives or so-called “exit terms” for its members, just as they may continue to offer well-negotiated Big Deals for members needing and willing to afford that kind of predictability.  I don’t believe these two interest necessarily conflict, considering how libraries have historically participated in consortia.  But having been part of a group of libraries working on that kind of proposal, I have greater appreciation for the complexity and skill involved and a new perspective on future possibilities.

For consortia to stay in the purchasing game, from which at least part of their operational funds rely, they will need to grow the facilitation and communication side of their business.  Investing in people, systems, skills, and new relationships will be key to negotiating different alternatives and to negotiating the complexity of members’ changing needs.

References

The title for this post inspired by the song by Ariana Grande, in case you wanna listen.

Thompson, J., Peters, T., & Hulbert, L. (2002). Library Consortia. The Serials Librarian, 42(3-4), 177-182.

Machovec, G. (2017). Trends in Higher Education and Library Consortia. Journal of Library Administration, 57(5), 577-584.

Question Everything: Librarian Research and #IRDL

How is the fall semester already in swing, but I’ve not yet shared my amazing research experience as an IRDL Scholar this summer?

IRDL stands for the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship.  It is itself the product of an IMLS grant-funded research project to develop librarians’ research skills specifically as researchers (in addition to our role as providers of research support).  Its primary investigators, Marie Kennedy and Kris Brancolini, co-direct this project with grant matching funds from their home institution, Loyola Marymount University William H. Hannon Library.  Their direction in partnership with the San José State University School of Information, the Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC) and others are what make this life-changing experience for librarians possible. A 9-day workshop on the LMU campus (aka beautiful Los Angeles, CA!) kicks off the institute, but the experience continues for an entire year with progressive networking, mentoring, and collaboration opportunities built in to prepare researchers for disseminating their work.

When this opportunity first came to my attention, the timing of the proposal deadline fell (like so many others seemed to) way too late for me to pull anything together.  With ambivalent hope, I added this to my calendar and annual goals to apply for the following year.  Turns out, as I began approaching my application, I realized what great timing (falling from December to January) the call for proposal offers. Besides the usual window of downtime in academia, just the difference between a month-long window for proposals, as opposed to a single application deadline, is the kind of careful thought and facilitative detail that permeate everything about the IRDL experience and what set it apart.


I admit, there’s kind of a weird mixture of both honor and humility in becoming an IRDL Scholar.  We are by design:

“a diverse group of academic and research librarians who are motivated and enthusiastic about conducting research but need additional training and/or other support to perform the steps successfully”.

It takes an uneasy bit of vulnerability to recognize your own limitations in a skill so necessary for your field.  Maybe this opportunity seems natural and reasonable for librarians at the beginning of their career, or someone changing library specialization (say from public to academic).  The Institute’s generous interpretation of a novice researcher includes new librarians for sure, but also recognizes the variation and barriers that exist for library research support.  That could be in the variety of institutional resources, MLS program strengths, or even research methods education undertaken too many years and paces-of-change ago to adequately support today’s research needs.  What about librarians who have already published research?  Yes!  That too!  And we can call it all into question, which is a good thing.

At the same time that IRDL scholars recognize these limitations, we also must recognize — and are recognized for — the fact that our research is worth pursuing and generously supporting.   My unique brand of novice researcher stems from working primarily in technical services and leadership positions, on and off the tenure track, and directly involved a lot of organizational restructuring and change.  This has meant wide variation in available time, focus, and research methods application. Ever- “motivated and enthusiastic” however, I’ve sought out countless webinars, brown bags, mentor conversations, e-forums, and conference sessions on making time for research, developing research questions, networking for publication, and more. Yet nothing has been as effective as what I took away from IRDL.

The secret sauce (*winks to Marie*) that IRDL offers library researchers includes:

First, other motivated and enthusiastic scholars like you with the same (and yet unique) gaps in trying to cross their own research bridge.  You learn from others in a way you can’t learn in just a textbook, or webinar, or conference session.  Part of that is because the learning frames a specific and applicable need. But the other part is the community of expertise IRDL provides and how it includes the expertise of the novice researchers.  As these ITLWTLP blogging librarians discovered, it’s an important distinction between needs based learning (aka problem based learning) and critical pedagogy.   Taking the skills learned at IRDL, I am certainly more confident in my ability and ways to help my colleagues’ research.  However, I don’t approach this in a teach-the-teacher way, but as true peer researchers – vulnerabilities, strengths, and all.  This peer dynamic is what I think  we expect to happen professionally between colleagues,  but somehow haven’t always managed to achieve.

Secondly, IRDL intentionally builds real and ongoing research network relationships. Not just talking about networking or giving networking tips. Not just one kind of research network, or mentor, or just colleagues you know who are also responsible for research.  I mean a variety of differently strength-ed researchers in your network who are committed themselves to a network of research relationships, as well as committed to improving the design, methods, and impact of published library research literature.

Finally, IRDL (in true California style) offers the value of reflection. Throughout the week together with my IRDL cohort, we reflected on our research as it changed dramatically from day to day; reflected as a group as we learned and struggled to learn together; and reflected individually about our experiences, needs, and interpersonal growth.  Now we have begun reflecting on our progress and ultimate goals with an expanded network of IRDL scholars and mentors as we continue this year-long (life-long) endeavor.

If you are interested in applying to become a IRDL scholar, I encourage to follow @IRDLonline  and set a goal for preparing your 2019 proposals.  You won’t regret it and I will be delighted to meet you!

‘To Meet or Not to Meet?’ That is NOT the question.

A day in the life of a librarian involves a lot of meetings, am I right?  Particularly, as the type-casting goes, academic librarians.  We all complain about this. We all wish we had more time and fewer meetings.  So why haven’t we solved this?  What would we measure in order to do so?  I’ve been grappling with these questions as I work on a chapter about how meetings contribute to an organization’s knowledge management.  There is so much about this that seems impossible to pare down, especially given the various ways we may experience meetings.

An article about what Google has learned from its research on effective teams came across my feed recently.  When Googling  it again (ha!) in order to pull into this post, I noticed Business Insider covered the topic in 2016 and 2015 as well.  Each one builds a little on the last.  The resulting info graphic shows psychological safety as the quality most indicative of effective teams.  Think about that phrase for a minute —  psychological safety.

Top Five Qualities of Effective Teams

This isn’t one of those, “Well of course! That goes without saying, doesn’t it.” kind of things, right?  Especially if reversed to imagine what might be wrong with teams that lack this, it’s no wonder the prevailing attitude about meetings is so fraught and our cats and shushing memes so prevalent.

What’s interesting to me about the image is its constructive approach to the qualities of effectiveness that build from psychological safety.  One of the things I argue in my chapter is that knowledge management assessments, particularly those involving meetings and teams, must similarly be more constructive.  I got to thinking how one measures the quality of psychological safety, specifically, and how that is constructed within meetings in the real (not just academic, not just Google) world.

That means examining how people behave in meetings. How does a meeting actually operate to ensure this quality?

The best example I can think of for a meeting almost completely structured to ensure psychological safety is a 12-step meeting.  You can image how safety manifests through the principle of anonymity, in how members introduce themselves (My name is…and I am a…), even how the space is set up (usually in a circle) and how  sharing takes place (usually turn-taking and no ‘cross talk’). While the 12-step approach may seem over the top in the context of a typical library meeting, I think as librarians, we take for granted the sense of security that simple organizing patterns like these can provide.

My husband shared that his team uses a checklist at every meeting called norms of collaboration, which I think is attributed to Bill Baker’s Seven Norms of Collaborative Work. How the checklist and norms were described sounded similar to a facilitation tool I’ve used called Plus/Delta.  At the end of every meeting you assess what went well (plus) and what could be improved (delta).  In this case, what is being assessed is more constructed to specific norms, rather than what I’ve experienced — mainly just accomplishing the agenda or staying on task.

According to Amy C. Edmondson (Harvard Business School), to whom Google credits the concept of psychological safety, there are three indicators of this quality in teams (and by extension here, meetings):

#1: Frame the work [of the team/meeting] as a learning problem, not an execution problem.  I  work in a mostly strengths-based organization where collectively the Learner strength dominates and the Executing domain does not (it ranks only 3rd of 4).  This should set my organization up fairly well in meeting this one.  Of course, we may need to look at how we frame the work.

#2: Acknowledge your own fallibility.  Libraries’ predominantly female profession probably overdoes this when it comes to apologizing or non-threatening leadership styles.  Although, I think this indicator intends a more authentic approach to one’s owning mistakes.  I personally am a big fan of both vulnerability research and reality-based leadership, which kind of book-end this concept  in my mind.  But, neither have hit the mainstream of library meeting effectiveness.

#3: Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.  OK. Indicator three, check.  Our profession is built on modelling curiosity and asking questions.  In addition to a curious, questioning, and service profession, we are also an organizing profession. So the kinds of structures illustrated in the meetings above should come somewhat naturally as well.   Yet, who hasn’t resisted (or at least felt silly in) facilitation tools like ice-breakers and ground rules?

Surely our organizing talents mean that meetings have an agenda, documented decisions, and assigned action items, right?   Aren’t these the very frames our work need in meetings, making them more than just people in a room talking?

When I asked my husband how one would foster the collaborative norms approach, he replied, “You don’t foster it; it’s required.”  Admittedly it helps to have it codified as a professional standard of practice, as it is in his case.  These kinds of specific norms are not codified in the library profession, if looking to ALA or ACRL for example.   More often such  norms are left to professional discretion.

Section 3. Governing Procedures. Each Community of Practice shall establish written procedures related to its function and governance that shall be adopted by the membership of the group. A current copy shall be provided to the Executive Director. (http://www.ala.org/acrl/aboutacrl/bylaws/bylaws)

The 12-step meeting structure, which has been codified and working for these groups for over 80 years, has another interesting tradition of operating by the principle of “attraction, not promotion”.  This tends to be the approach of adopting new norms in academia as well.  This has its perks, don’t get me wrong.  If you said I must always abide by Roberts Rules of Order (adopted in many an academic governance meeting), I’d certainly run screaming from the building. But must we rebuke all  meeting structure as confining our academic freedoms?

I can’t say that structure is the end all be all for ensuring a foundation of psychological safety. I can’t really say the teams and meetings using it always get psychological safety right.  But I can say those meetings that have foundation of information organizing structures in place are the more attractive in this respect, and its members who use them attract my respect.

This brings to mind one final kind of meeting with something to say on the matter.   I sat in on a choir rehearsal where the director was teaching 5-7th graders, who had only just met to sing together three days ago, about the importance of what they were creating together. “Excellence,” she said, “the excellence and hard work that you bring as you sing together has the power to touch someone in the audience and change lives”.  I had nearly forgotten this truth from my past musical experiences.  This reminder of how our actions can impact others set me up to experience that concert, and even my library meetings, in new ways.  Perhaps it really is just a matter of paying closer attention to our craft — the organizing and the service — with each other.

See also: Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383. doi:10.2307/2666999