Monday, August 16, 2021

Does your library demonstrate innovative thinking?

It has been a while since I last put up a blog post (November 2017). During that time, I moved into the dean’s chair for a couple of years (technically as an “interim”.  Those familiar with academia understand this is not unusual). Then I moved to another organization to run an amazing automotive institute/museum that was a not-for-profit organization as well as some related for-profit businesses. In total, it made for a varied, but enriching period. At the end of June 2021, I retired. Which is what leads me back here, to share some thoughts and experiences from that time-period, but all prompted by a recent software demonstration (more on that later in this post).

A culture that fosters innovation

I certainly learned while serving in leadership roles in an organization, that one of the most challenging aspects is the need to create a culture that fosters innovation. Now I understand, not all organizations think they want that quality in their culture. Many are happy to keep a lower profile and say things to team members such as: “Don’t rock the boat”, “Don’t stick your neck out”, “You need to learn your place” and of course the all-time favorite innovation suppressant, “We don’t do that here”. All these deliver the message that innovation is NOT wanted here or is NOT wanted from you.  

It boggles my mind that anyone thinks this is acceptable behavior for any senior manager. That kind of thinking literally plants the seeds of destruction in an organization by teaching team members to make the structure stagnant, inflexible, and anchored in the past. And yet, as we all know, change in today’s world is unending. As I’m writing this, the new Delta variant of COVID-19 is rampaging across the U.S. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that nature will adapt, revise, change and march onward. We should pay attention.

I understand fostering innovation takes effort and in the current situation, yes, that’s a precious commodity, however it is also a force multiplier. Once planted, innovation will replicate if a nurturing environment is present. 

One way to do this is to make sure innovation isn’t just a “do-as-I-say” dictum.  Innovation must start in the top organizational offices and emanate outward (up/down/sideways) for it to become ingrained in the organizational culture.  Obviously, given that scope, this is a topic that can’t be fully addressed briefly. Instead, I’ll start out this journey by sharing an example now and more as I go forward in posting again.

Other ways to show innovation include: 1) Ensuring an equal experience between in-person and online settings, 2) Providing aid to help faculty and instructors set up online course resources for use in the learning management systems and, 3) Adapting capstone courses and events into the online environment. A few other institutions were doing other similar activities. (Library Journal thought the combined institutional efforts worthy of an article). The common thread was how having an organization that fosters innovation better prepared a university for this kind of event.  

For that to take root, the culture had to ensure that there was an organization wide “hunger” for innovation. (For this discussion, innovation should be defined as new, improved, and/or the spreading of ideas and technologies). If you’d like to self-test your organization for this quality, ask if it shows these capabilities: 1) Demonstrating, seeking and encouraging innovation in and from the Dean’s office, 2) Encouragement of all team members to also seek and express  innovation and, 3) Ensuring that all your organizational suppliers also display these capabilities?

An example

As I mentioned above, what caused me to think about all of this was an opportunity I had recently to see some new functionality being developed and incorporated by Ex Libris, a leading supplier of automation solutions to academic libraries. In full disclosure I did previously work for Ex Libris as the president of the North American division, not once, but twice. I also used them as a supplier in another position.  Note that in writing this however, no compensation of any type was involved. The fact is, I still find their work and products inspiring because of the levels of innovation and product integration they show. I was always proud to represent the firm for that very reason. 

The new functionality that caught my eye this time is their “social reading”, capability for students/staff & faculty of universities, to be able to engage with each other and to comment on assigned readings from within the Leganto product.  The Leganto product brings digital course resources, both provided by the library and/or provided through other channels, together for use within the learning management system used by a university. Talk about offering the right product at the right time to the right market! This is a perfect example and apparently, libraries agree because the Leganto product now has a good-size customer base (over 250 sites world-wide). 

With the onset of the pandemic, libraries using Leganto were extremely well positioned to jump in and fill a void. Leganto provides excellent integration because it ties the library, course, and content-delivery together in new ways. For instance, it provides better ways to ensure copyright compliance, an oft-overlooked responsibility of the course instructor, and it helps highlight when resources are available through the library to save costs for students. Now, with this "social reading" functionality, libraries can show campus leaders that the library is demonstrating innovation in support of faculty who want to seize the moment.  Specifically, students can read materials and annotate the documents by adding comments/questions for their peers or instructors. (Planned for the future are also capabilities to do this with videos and photographs). Instructors can add questions to prompt those responses, and with the upcoming Read-and-Respond assignments, instructors will also be able to grade these assignments, further motivating students to engage with course resources. It’s all about engagement in the online, digital environment and not just with online courses and their materials, but also with the university library.


Creating a culture of innovation in today’s world requires an environment where an organization can thrive in challenging conditions. The pandemic and its variations are certainly straining normal course delivery methodologies and creating opportunities for innovation. 

There are many ways to build a culture of innovation and more examples will be forthcoming. In this post, I focused on one example, that of looking at your suppliers/providers to see if they demonstrate the ability to facilitate your work in creating that culture of innovation. You can start by asking yourself if they are demonstrating it and if so, is your team engaging with them to introduce those kinds of solutions to the students, staff, and faculty your library is serving? If not, why not? Maybe you should start right there?