Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New leadership at OCLC. Some thoughts...

Jack Blount being named as the new CEO of OCLC brings with it much anticipation concerning new initiatives and directions as well as organizational behavior that will occur under his leadership.   Certainly the track record of Jay Jordon, whether you liked all of it or not, will be hard to match, so Jack comes to the job with a very high bar to clear.

Marshall Breeding posted a summary of commentary and newsbits concerning  Jack on his site and it’s an interesting list to review.   You'll come away with the following observation I'm sure: Jack is clearly an accomplished individual.  At the same time, he is clearly not one to let the grass grow under his feet.    Since 2000, Jack has held 6 jobs, not counting OCLC.  As an average, that’s about 2 years per job (to be fair, some were longer, some were shorter and I'm certainly not one to throw any stones here).   It should also be noted that according to Library Journal’s coverage, Jack is 60 right now.   Taking these facts together, it seems safe to assume we’re not going to be looking at another tenure on the order of Jay Jordon’s, which lasted some 14 years.   What does this likely mean for us?  One suspects that the Board, obviously knowing these facts as well, probably felt that while Jack is the right man for the moment, some fresh thinking in another 3-5 years might be good for the organization. Of course, at the same time, one wonders if Jack will be able to substantially change OCLC in that short a time frame?  It’s certainly not an organization known for exhibiting urgency in that area, so Jack will impress a lot of people if he succeeds in doing so.  (Note:  See addendum at bottom!)

Of course, the other interesting facet of this choice is that Jack is clearly a businessman or as he bills himself, a “serial entrepreneur”.   There was a lot of guessing, prior to this announcement about whether the next CEO would come from a primarily academic, non-profit or business background.  There were strong advocates in the passionate discussions that I heard for each of those  backgrounds or, at least some combination.   However, Jack’s background is pretty much pure business, which again, allows us to draw multiple conclusions.   First, clearly the Board sees the value of a business background in dealing with the challenges that OCLC faces.   At the same time the business focus of the past has lead OCLC to acquire many for-profit businesses and as a result, it has created some considerable distrust and dismay with the privately owned, for-profit vendor side of the profession.  Here, one will have hope that Jack will do a better job of defining the rules of play for all of the for-profit organizations serving the profession to work with (including making sure they're the same rules for those owned by OCLC).   Secondly, having competed with Jack in previous corporate lives, I know he can be a strong and fierce competitor and thus this is a place where I think any conclusions drawn will have to be accompanied by a wait-and-see attitude.  It will simply be a place where actions will speak much more loudly than words, both because of OCLC’s past behavior as well as Jack’s career background.   However, in the total, one would have to think a person with a background as a "serial entrepreneur", will be very good for OCLC.  As I’ve noted in a past blog post, OCLC has, in my opinion, largely found itself trapped by its current revenue model and some of the decisions that resulted, precisely because the organization hasn’t been aggressive or fast enough in developing new products and services and the associated new revenues that go with them.   Here, I’m very hopeful Jack will be able to have a very positive influence on the organization.

However, my personal largest concern remains this:  Will Jack be able to change the core culture, the bureaucratic framework and the committee-laden decision making processes of an organization that often, at least from the outside, seems to lumber under the very weight of those factors?    OCLC has been on a clear trend of late in hiring some really excellent people, especially notable are some of those connected to the WorldShare product.  There are also a lot of excellent people in the management team and he will want to be sure to keep a lot of them. However, entrepreneurs aren’t known for their patience, or often, their nicety.  They want to get things done – yesterday.  Anything that stands in their way often gets blown by like a checkered flag at a racetrack.  However, these behaviors will fly in the face of many long-standing traditions that exist in a library owned and governed cooperative, like OCLC.  

So, do we have a formula for success and new directions with this announcement of new leadership?  We’re about to find out.   However, as I’ve said before and will say again:  The profession of librarianship needs a strong and successful OCLC, so I for one am going to wish Jack Blount every success in his new role.

Addendum:  This afternoon (Tuesday, 6/13) I received a personal phone call from Jack and we had a very pleasant conversation catching up on times past, current events and during which Jack said that he thought it was important for people to know that he and his family were buying a parcel of land in the Dublin, OH area and they are in the midst of planning the house they are going to build.  All of which is to say that he is planning on staying a lot longer than 3-5 years and that as long as the OCLC Board is happy, he has a commitment from them that goes well beyond that window.  

I appreciate Jack reading this blog and I thank him for the personal call.   It was nice to talk with him directly again and confirms my hopes that OCLC has some very promising days ahead which will be good for them and good for the profession of librarianship. 

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