Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
The Engines of Innovation
You don't need to be a futurist or a rocket scientist to know that our profession is rapidly changing. Our clienteles--not to mention their abilities and needs--are changing demographically, and the tools we use to do our work are different. The very content that we buy and provide access to is more diverse and often requires delivery in entirely new ways. Such interesting times require imagination and innovation to create collections and services. Many libraries are rising to these challenges and taking advantage of new opportunities. Some are experimenting with online reference service, while others are experimenting with loaning e-books. Many more examples of library innovations (e-journals, local databases, tutorials, etc.) can be found at the web site Innovative Internet Applications in Libraries. Some of these projects may result in important, ongoing services, while others will fail. But even failures provide important lessons, and risk is an unavoidable part of innovation. What makes innovative libraries different from their counterparts? What are the conditions that help foster innovation and creativity? How can libraries make effective decisions about resource allocation that take into account existing needs while providing opportunities for experimentation? How do you encourage staff to take the inevitable risks that accompany innovation? And what can management do to create an organizational climate and management structure that supports creativity? Encouragement To foster innovation within an organization, managers must make staff comfortable with sharing their ideas. For example, the web site Innovation Network (sponsored by consultants) offers a questionnaire to determine an organization's "innovation quotient." Although the site is aimed at businesses, it can still be useful for libraries. Pertinent questions include "Do you encourage and stimulate interaction between departments and promote cross-functional projects?" and "Do you routinely solicit, listen to, and act on suggestions from people from every level and function of your organization?" A quick visit to the Idea Workout Gym provides inspirational quotes from the likes of Victor Hugo, Albert Einstein, and Frank Capra. Another good place to get the juices flowing is at the magazine Fast Company. Although focused on business, many of the articles on the "Innovation and Creativity" page are good reads on those topics. Opportunity Some of the most effective ideas are likely to come from those who interact most directly with the users. Staff should feel like they have opportunities to share their ideas in an open, nonjudgmental fashion. Some libraries use the old "suggestion box" method, while others promote brainstorming opportunities. Some libraries use "retreats"--time set aside for brainstorming and planning--to solicit ideas actively. A retreat need not be an expensive affair, but it can help free people to think creatively if they are far enough from the office that they cannot slip back to the demands of work. External facilitators can be helpful, as they lack the baggage of insiders and can offer a more objective perspective. As Richard M. Dougherty writes in "Planning for New Library Futures " (LJ 5/15/02, p. 38-41), "Library staffs are much more knowledgeable than is often appreciated...I have found in my work that staff-driven answers are usually much better than answers produced by outside expert consultants." Tap into this knowledge and experience about local problems and possible solutions--encourage your staff to innovate. Front-line staff know what people are asking about, from e-books to Internet search strategies. Also, an administrative structure that relies on standing committees may tend to stifle innovation if those who have good ideas are not included. Ad hoc task forces provide an opportunity to bring together the right mix of staff to think creatively about a problem. Ad hoc task forces can draw from all areas of library operations, with the appropriate kinds of experience or skills. Support Once you decide to act on an idea, resources must be allocated from internal sources or augmented from external opportunities. Resources can include money or staff or both, but at the least something that had been getting done before will need to be put aside to create something new. Organizational buy-in by staff, especially management, to try the innovation will be essential and in direct proportion to the amount of resources required. Expect the unexpected Be prepared for the unexpected result. Do not get so caught up in trying to make your initial idea succeed that you miss the real lesson. By beginning with a prototype, you can gain some important experience during a time when you can still easily make changes. Later, when the innovation is in "production," it will be much more difficult to respond to discoveries you may make about how people use your new service. For example, librarians at UCLA discovered during their experimentation with digital reference that some users were actually quite near to an actual reference desk. These students did not want to get up to ask a question for fear of losing their computers. Discovering this means that UCLA (and others offering similar services) may be better able to serve those in-house users of digital reference. Providing a clean exit It's the nature of innovation that some experiments will result in failure. Besides knowing this going in, other preparations and responses are necessary. First, those managing the innovation must clearly state that the innovative service is an experiment. It may or may not result in a permanent new service. Have a public time line that includes set points for review and decision-making. Know when you will decide to end the effort officially, but make sure to allow sufficient time for the innovation to prove itself. Warn those who need to know that it may result in failure. Explain why it is nonetheless important to risk failure. If your innovative service fails and you decide to pull the plug, take several specific steps. Perform a postmortem on the project, including all those involved, from creators to implementers. Determine what factors contributed to its demise and, more importantly, which aspects could be considered to be successes. What have you learned from the project? Failures are almost never without some productive lesson. For example, a regional cooperative experimented with offering a "MyLibrary" type of customizable portal. It soon became clear, however, that the level at which such customization should be provided was not centrally but at the individual library, since the users identified more with their local facility. The cooperative was savvy enough to recognize this, put a cap on the project, and move on, recognizing that it had to consider more carefully the appropriate delivery method for services. If this project were to be revisited, the regional cooperative would be more likely to implement it as an easily configurable software package that the individual libraries could adopt. In any case, if you decide not to continue with an experimental service, communicate clearly to staff and the public why you are not proceeding and include any lessons learned or small successes. What it takes A library of any size can innovate. Imaginative solutions can, and sometimes do, come from individuals laboring in quiet solitude. But there are definite actions that an organization can take to encourage imagination, spur innovation, support a demonstration or a prototype, and make the tough call to either end the experiment and learn from it or pull together the resources to carry it into production. How well your organization performs these tasks will define how effectively it can innovate. In interesting times, innovation separates the vital, responsive organizations from those that are merely getting by. __________________________________________________________________ Link List Fast Company Innovation & Creativity articles www.fastcompany.com/online/resources/innovation.html Innovative Internet Applications in Libraries www.wiltonlibrary.org/innovate.html Innovation Network www.thinksmart.com "Planning for New Library Futures" libraryjournal.reviewsnews.com/?layout=article&articleid=CA216311