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From the Director’s Chair: Follow the Leader

Posted by Sarah Nichols on 9/21/2016

directors-chair-hs.jpgThis is the second post in a series in which I’ll share experiences from my decades as an Information Services Director. Many special librarians, researchers or knowledge managers get promoted through the ranks into senior management roles without the benefit of formal training in administrative and operational areas. That was the case with me, and in this series I’ll share my best tips, my worst mistakes, and lessons learned. Please read on for some thoughts about developing your most productive departmental strategy.

While it’s natural to prioritize departmental operations when you develop your annual strategy, budget, and performance metrics, it’s important to resist the temptation.

And what is it that you do?

When you get right down to it, special librarians and knowledge managers are in the business of solving problems. For example, when you do a reference interview, ideally you get a good grip on the problem your client is struggling with, and you build your research strategy around helping them overcome it.

Organizational senior management team members are also in the problem solving business: they build top level strategies around overcoming them, and those strategies evolve as the landscape changes. Declining revenues; increased competition; stagnant market share; inability to find talent; rising real estate costs; the need to build brand awareness or become known for innovation, and the pressures of international expansion are all issues that may be on the table.

One thing’s for sure

Tying your strategy to the problem-solving plans and long term goals of top management is critical for the sustainability of your special library or KM department.

Step one – get and stay smart

Make sure you stay informed about top level goals and initiatives using whatever opportunities are on offer at your company. Attend Town Hall meetings, carefully read memos from the CEO, regularly touch base with departmental, practice or functional managers to find out what challenges they’re grappling with, and even read what’s being written about your organization in the press. Finance and accounting staff can help make you smarter about your firm’s financial position. Remember that the forces at work on a business necessitate change, and your attention to problem solving should be continuous.

Step two – question everything

Figure out what you and your team can do to support those top level goals and initiatives. What services can you offer, what content can you provide, and what expertise can you supply? Should you build competitive intelligence capabilities, or focus content purchasing in new or different areas? Are there professional development opportunities you can offer your staff so they can build the skills to support emerging practices? Can you make better use of technology?

Planning your departmental operations should follow from this macro level problem solving orientation rather than coming first. What tools must you have in order to deliver services, content and technology that will have the most impact? How much will you need to spend? How will you measure your success?

Don’t just do it - talk about it

It’s critical to let top management know that you are continually aligned with organizational strategy in order to secure advocacy and sufficient resources. When I worked at a global law firm, space and budget constraints required that we migrated to online resources wherever possible, that we kept our headcount static, that we utilized web-based and SaaS solutions rather than installed software, and that we maintained a very low cost per attorney. We achieved all this very successfully.

Foolishly, I assumed that our CIO—my own manager—communicated our achievements regularly during top management meetings. However, during the annual print “purge” in the library at the headquarters office, the CEO happened to walk by, saw piles of “big bulky books,” to use his phrase, and assumed that we were “still in the Dark Ages.” I was never able to change his perception—because nobody had put him in the picture along the way. It was my responsibility to do so and I fell down on the job—lesson learned.

Successful ongoing communication with my Managing Director served me well at a global management consultancy, where as a result of understanding his strategic priorities, I was allowed to run a 4 month pilot program providing research support directly to a small client with no library or research staff. We generated several hundred thousand dollars in revenue, served as proof-of-concept for a new research model at the firm, and were lauded for delivering expanded and enhanced client service. That’s just one example of the good things that can happen when you tie your departmental strategy to the problem-solving plans and long term goals of top management.

Topics: Library Management, Knowledge Management, Solo Librarianship