Friday, 2 April 2010

Demonstrating the Return On Investment: Make Do & Mend

I recently read an article about funding pressures on libraries and one comment in particular struck me:

"We may be entering an age of austerity where getting the basics right and on budget will be of greater value than leading the pack on innovation."

This is where many of us have been all along. Which is not to say that we are strangers to innovation. We can't afford to be early adopters of expensive experiments but we can be innovative. Innovation thrives on adversity, after all. It just won't often be revolutionary change (let's be honest, anybody looking to the English public library sector for revolutionary change needs their bumps feeling). It can be, and often is, sustained small incremental changes which aren't remotely sexy but deliver the goods.

When times are hard there is a biting incentive for change and, importantly, it is more difficult to go out and buy a magic wand in the hopes that it will make everything all right in the end. Which is good: one of the stultifying factors to progressive development is the argument that something cannot be done because "we haven't got Item X." This may be a computer, some software, access to the internet, somebody with the job of doing something, a bit of training, or whatever. You've been there, you know what I mean. Of course, the truth is that this something can't be done that way because we haven't got Item X. If that something still needs to be done (and it does no harm to ask the question), there are three options:

  1. Get Item X;
  2. Find a way of doing the necessary without Item X; or
  3. Keep your head down and hope that the whole thing will go away.

It's dispiriting to see how often option three comes into play in the public library sector.

As a matter of principle it's important to know what you've got and what it can do, that's simple resource management. When the brown stuff hits the fan this can be the difference between success and failure. How flexible and adaptable are your systems? Systems begin with and end with a human being.

  • How knowledgeable is your workforce? — how do you know?
  • How 'sharing' is your organisational culture? — go on, be honest, if only with yourself. Why do libraries, of all things, persist in having 'need to know' cultures?
  • How flexible is your workforce? — have a serious think about the next question before you answer this one!
  • How flexible is your management?

Maximising the effectiveness and efficiencies of what you've already got isn't a new challenge, but it is one we can no longer duck. Small systemic changes can make big differences. But only if they can be applied systemically and bought into by the organisation and its managers both.

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