Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cloudy Vision: What education/library organizations fail to consider in their vision statements

It's no secret that Americans are increasingly insular and introspective people.  This is being encouraged and fed by our political and media environments which are tragically poisoned with this same kind of thinking.   If we're encouraged to not look beyond our piece of turf, our piece of the world then we can be more easily convinced that what we're doing is as good, if not better than anyone else.  Unfortunately, as happens with most organisms consuming poison, the outcomes are seldom good.  Why am I pointing this out?  Because I'm seeing our education and library organizations doing the same thing.

I've just spent the last two weeks in China and Tibet as part of a team working on a project that will result in the construction of a new university, one being built from the ground up.  We have been given a blank sheet of paper, sizable financial resources, real estate, an excellent team of people and at least initial indications of Chinese government support for this project.  It caused me to do a lot of thinking and reflecting.

A year ago I was on the road across North America, doing group meetings with library directors from across higher education.  It afforded me the opportunity to meet with some 600 directors, or assistant directors, before it was over.  Concurrent with those meetings and since I've spoken at numerous education and library conferences, probably speaking to over 1000 more leaders in libraries and education.  A staple of all my talks about the future is to tell people that when you're envisioning the future of education and libraries, you need to perform an exercise, one where you break free of all the current constraints you're dealing with and design it on a clean piece of paper.

What would your library or educational organization look like if you could do that?  What services would it offer to meet the needs of your members/end-users? How would the work and workflows get done in order to drive those services?  I can't tell you how important I think this exercise is because if done, it informs the decision making of today in managing your organization.  Any decision you make today, whether it be programs, courses, degrees, content, software, staff or processes should be in alignment with that grand vision. If it isn't you should seriously question if it's the right thing to be doing today.  Getting to the future you envision means selecting the right path from where you are today.

Yet when I do this, I can always read peoples' faces and tell who is just politely nodding their head and those who are pausing, listening and getting excited by the idea.  Those who politely nod, when you quiz them, will give you a litany of reasons why that would never work for their institution.  The reasons includes things like stubborn, old, stuck-in-their-way staff, tenured and powerful faculty, unions, long term contacts, facility restrictions, processes and workflows that support reporting processes with minute data elements and... the list goes on and on.  It reminds me of the saying: "There are those who make things happen and those who make excuses."

However, let me start tying this together by going back to another point I frequently make in my talks, which is this:  To understand how to provide the most value to your members, you must understand what they're trying to accomplish.  You've got to talk to them, question them and listen to them. They don't know what they need, that's our job to figure out, but we DO need to understand what they're trying to do.  Not only that, we need to look at all those organizations who are meeting their needs with similar offerings to those your organization provides and you should figure out if you can compete by offering something better or unique than those organizations offer.  If you can't do it better for your members and end-users, then you need to move aside and/or facilitate their use of those other services that better meet their needs.   And your library or school, needs to find something it can do better in order to  provide real and unique value for your members/students/end-users.

Which is why, anytime I see a vision plan for an education or library organization that hasn't taken these steps, I immediately discount it's value.    That's a shame, because people often put a massive amount of effort in these plans and documents, but without the right foundations in place, they're little more than interesting exercises in committee and group think.

Which brings me back to my trip to China.  It is important for librarians and educators in the U.S. to understand the Chinese ARE starting with blank sheets of paper.  They are bringing together talented people to design their educational and library organizations and the services/programs that will be provided.  They are pouring massive resources into those plans.  Most of those plans will succeed, because if there is anything Chinese culture assures, it is execution of a plan that has been laid before them.  Once in place, these organizations, in no way beholden to the past, are going to rocket forward in ways that will massively increase the distance between them and existing competitive institutions.

So the point I would make again to education and library leaders is this: When you're planning the future of your organization, are you too are performing the "clean-sheet design exercise"?   Realize that in other countries, leaders are doing so and the students that will graduate from their schools will not only benefit, they will be competing for the same jobs as your students.  Given that; will your students be competitive?  Are you working today to find ways to give them state-of-the-art services in order to prepare them for a global, competitive work environment?  Are you finding ways to overcome those problems that you think prevent your organization from achieving this, difficult though that might be?

I think you owe it to them to make sure they are competitive on a global scale and you can only do that if we embrace thinking that is truly visionary, encompassing and outwardly focused. Not only focused on the needs of your members/students/end-users and organization, but also on the offerings of the organizations you're competing with both nationally and internationally.

A vision plan that does not include these considerations is, at best, a cloudy vision.