Opportunities in new management and leadership roles

Walkers ascend into fog on Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa by the Snowdon Ranger path, in May 2017.

Last June I started in a new library director role. I’ve not shared any reflective writing recently due to various reasons, but as the end of the calendar year coincided with my first six months in this new role I thought I would do so.

I’ve recently changed how I approach reflective thought and its relationship with practice. In a previous #critlib chat on critical reflection I said that I try to build in reflection in focused bursts as and when I can do it; In my new role this is no longer exactly true. What I have started doing is to use my cycle commute as protected time to think about the issues of the day, using a Stoic approach to reflective self-aware focus and questioning.

The basic idea of this type of Stoic ‘inner work’ is to dissect and get to the bottom of why I am thinking about an issue in a particular way, and to overcome resistance. I rarely find this process leads to straightforward answers or light-bulb moments—rather it leads me to forming and shaping better critical questions about problems. These guide enquiry in a structured way, and provide space to dispassionately work through understanding others’ thoughts and feelings on shared challenges.

Starting in a new role

Coincidentally, Jessica Olin started a new role at almost exactly the same time as me and in Letter From a New Job describes many of the feelings that come with a new administration role, especially the need to pace oneself. I rate Jessica’s writing on leadership and used the same book, Michael Watkins’s The first 90 days, when transitioning into my current role. I’ve recommended it to others several times since re-reading it.

A priority for me on starting was to meet everyone in the library, a solid piece of advice from my professional mentor some years ago which is repeated in Watkins’s book. Doing this alongside initial meetings with heads of department and other senior staff, involvement in various university committees, understanding and absorbing institutional culture and process, and training and other induction activities means this is not speedy.

Meeting everyone helps develop early understanding of the expectations and wishes of the team, and allowed me to ask directly what they think I should focus on. It’s also an opportunity to ensure everyone has heard a few key messages unfiltered from me as the new director, such as my perspectives on educational and library practice and labour. By this I don’t mean bringing the bells hooks and Pierre Bourdieu citations to the first meeting with a new colleague, tempting as this might be; rather I mean that where you place emphasis and and how you link personal standards and professional ethics to the work helps in building credibility.

Additionally I am line-managing a new team in my direct reports, who with me comprise the library senior management team. Inheriting an established team that already is performing well provided a wonderful opportunity to thoughtfully consider approaches to existing processes and our decision-making, and design some ‘norms’ for team-working with input from everyone. On a surface level I’ve found these conversations help align expectations about how team members prefer to work, but more deeply they have helped my understanding of the interplay of social structure and human agency (informed here by Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration) in the social life of the leadership team.

I’ve found it important to be clear and explicit in how I value or weight different aspects of colleagues’ work as managers and leaders. For example, we can consciously place importance on emotional labour in line-management and peer relationships, acknowledging and recognizing it as core to the role and rewarding it as such. We can pay mindful attention to difference in how colleagues work when confronted with uncertainty and other stressors, and how different approaches to making meaning can be combined to provide more insightful pictures than the view of a few individuals.

In working with the additional ambiguity and uncertainty a more senior role brings, I will share some excellent advice from a previous line manager about the need to quickly and accurately discern the “signal from the noise” in strategic situations. Reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow I understand this idea as an expression of skill that must be developed in senior roles:

The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, and adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. When these conditions are fulfilled, skill eventually develops, and the intuitive judgments and choices that quickly come to mind will mostly be accurate. […] A marker of skilled performance is the ability to deal with vast amounts of information swiftly and efficiently. (Kahneman, 2012. p. 416)

Reflectively though, I would add to this a need to understand what is “noise” is always subjective and relative, perhaps personal, and certainly can be contested. Daniel Kahneman’s work is replete with insight into the psychology of judgment and cognitive bias, and I read it after completing workplace unconscious bias training run for us by an Equality Challenge Unit trainer which cemented that learning. It is one of just a few books I would recommend all higher education workers to read (another is bell hooks’s Teaching to transgress).

A note on the performative in management

I wrote a little about performativity in management in Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity:

Management is fundamentally performative: expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech, a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

Since starting in my current role have thought a lot about the relationship between performative speech and power in management roles and leadership situations. The concept of ‘performativity’ used here goes back to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative utterances (or performatives), but importantly for our purposes Jean-François Lyotard’s understanding of the role of performativity in governing the legitimation of knowledge in postmodernity and the implications this has when inspecting power structures and relationships.

In management and leadership, this legitimating role can both aid the creation and development of shared or common understandings, and also in my view is central to how managers exercise power in speech-acts. The view that “words are deeds” runs contrary to the tendency to privilege action as something concrete, practical, and more authentically meaningful than words are, particularly when there is a clear need for transformative action such as political activism. I feel though this is a false comparison, as in management roles and leadership situations there are many highly practical choices made where we act to translate words as deeds. For example, what and who we focus attention on, centre, and prioritize; how we explain our views and beliefs; as well as how we employ words to build support for and set in motion actions.

In my view a key task for managers is balancing the pragmatic such as compromise and coalition-building, with the need to retain—and be seen to retain—an authentic position which is congruent with one’s values. It may be tempting to think of words as tools to create messages for different audiences, only loosely connected with those values. On considering the use of words as performatives I will end on a cautionary insight I have found particularly valuable from Sara Ahmed’s analysis of how words are employed by diversity workers in higher education, from On being included:

A political question becomes the extent to which we can separate ourselves from the words we use. […] If we do things with words, then words can also do things to us. We don’t always know what they will do. (Ahmed, 2012. p.75)

References

Austin, J.L. (1975) How to do things with words. 2nd edn. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University, 2011.

Ahmed, S. (2012) On being included. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. London: Routledge.

Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”’, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617–637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Lyotard, J.F.  (1984) The postmodern condition. Manchester: Manchester University.

Watkins, M.D. (2003) The first 90 days. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

Why don’t libraries share the results of UX work?

While conferencing at ELAG 2016, Simon made this suggestion for improving collaboration among libraries doing user experience (UX) work on their systems:

I’ve been thinking on-and-off about the question implied in Simon’s second tweet – the reasons libraries do not generally share results of user experience testing of their systems. Below I discuss some of these, which are drawn from examples from people with first-hand knowledge from academic libraries.

“Not all libraries…”

I know many libraries do share their results and analyses, whether more formally in articles, books or book chapters and conference presentations, or more informally in blog posts, conversations, and social media. I am extremely grateful for any and all sharing of this type.

What about libraries that are doing such work but not reporting it? When I know about such work, though it requires extra effort I have had good success asking colleagues about their findings. People are usually generous with sharing – sometimes surprised in the interest, but delighted to be asked about their work. In my experience the trick to doing this effectively is:

  • Knowing that others have been doing something in the first place, for which an active stance towards professional networking helps enormously.
  • Finding the best way to engage colleagues on their terms, and making it easy for them to help you. If you’re nearby offer to visit, or set up a video chat; ask for an hour of conversation rather than anything in writing or a presentation. Manage the time and conversation effectively: focus on what you are asking about; be explicit about asking for honest opinions; always ask about lessons learned.

Why we don’t share

Time and money

By this I primarily mean a lack of time and money to refine the work into something publishable by traditional routes, such as a peer-reviewed journal or presenting results at conferences. I think this is a huge barrier, and I have no simple answers. There is an huge qualitative difference between libraries that invest time and money in this way and those that do not, which is only really apparent with experience.

There are alternative routes. For me the actuality of dissemination and sharing always trumps the esteem in which a particular route of communication is held. Some of the most effective project communications I have seen are blog posts that summarize progress and demonstrate the momentum and trajectory of the work simply with clear and engaging text. This is the kind of work I or a team member would expect to do as part of internal project communication, so text can be reused with reworking for an outside audience.

For events, workarounds such as unconferences and similar events are a lower-cost approach, but these aren’t without issues. Events with no registration fee still favour those privileged in various ways. Even if one can attend unconferences these don’t always attract an audience with enough specialist knowledge, or are not promoted in a way that will attract such an audience. This may sound contrary to the Open Space Technology principle that “Whoever comes [are] the right people” (Owen, 2008), but in practice OST principles depend on a lot of work behind the scenes and careful management on the day to be effective.

Culture

By this I mean the overall stance of the library towards engagement with their sector and understanding of the value of sharing, as a cultural factor. Having a budget for conference attendance and other development activity is not enough if your workplace does not value this type of professional engagement in and of itself, or does not have confidence in staff ability or value the work. In practice this may manifest more subtly in general discouragement and ‘lack of permission’ from managers in the organization, or not sending staff operationally involved in project work to events to speak and network with peers.

Competitive edge

I have heard an argument that we should not give away findings that could help competitors elsewhere in our sector, sometimes scaffolded by belief that as contemporary universities exist in a competitive market they should behave more like private companies. I disagree with the ideological foundation of this argument, but it is logical in acknowledging the reality of a market that has been deliberately created and fostered by government. At Library Camp in 2012, Liz Jolly and I argued that:

Universities have a culture of sharing both internally and externally, and also between those working in the same disciplines across institutions. Furthermore, both within and without higher education, librarianship is a particularly collaborative profession.

(Preater, 2012)

We could remove some of the ideological focus, and simply ask if the investment of time and effort to communicate our work might be less worthwhile than the other things we could spend it on. Above I argue that communication strategies in projects or otherwise should provide you with reusable material, but looking at this strategically I think skipping communication is ultimately detrimental to your library.

To be sure, there are benefits to individual staff in building their professional profile and to the library in being seen as a place ‘where things happen’ and viewed as forward-thinking, including in recruiting and retaining staff. Additionally though, I see an advantage in shaping the speed and direction of thinking as a form of technological leadership in the sector, creating the ‘discursive formation’ (in the sense Foucault describes, for example in part II of The archaeology of knowledge, 1972) of user experience rather than waiting for others to do so.

In communicating our work and engaging our community in discourse we define the content of the discursive formation, of the body of knowledge, in what is still a relatively new and not yet fully-established area. Communication has power in and of itself in bringing in to existence this body of knowledge, and while the practice of user experience is contested, early movers are able to establish how the ‘truth’ of this practice is created and sustained, in our particular context.

For me this idea explains some of the meaning behind practitioners such as Andy Priestner stating, two years ago, that “UX in libraries is a thing now” (2014, emphasis mine), and from experience I would gauge this kind of engagement as putting you between two to three years ahead of libraries that are not doing so.

External validity or being ‘too special’

In this I include disbelief in the external validity of the work, or belief in the necessity of such validity as a precursor to sharing. ‘External validity’ means the extent to which the findings from particular research can be generalized beyond the specific context of the work. I first heard this argument when I was a participant in a library usability study, and naively asked the librarians how they were going to share their results – turns out they weren’t. Some libraries are indeed unusual in themselves, or attract an unusual user base, or both, but there is also a cultural aspect to this problem. Without deliberately maintaining wider awareness, we can lose perspective and end up believing it ourselves: thinking our service is ‘very complex’ or our situation ‘highly unusual’ when it is not particularly so.

My counter-argument is the commonalities between library services and membership mean ideas and concepts are often very transferable. Include some caveats or ‘health warnings’ on your results by all means, but let us weigh things up. Let us include you in our ongoing analysis. This is one reason I value making the theoretical underpinning of the approaches we use in our work explicit when describing what we are doing.

Fear of criticism, lack of confidence in the work

In this reason I include anything in the general space of a wish not to have one’s work critiqued, research methods problematized, or particular choices judged by others in the community. Perfectionism on our part can also play into and amplify this. All engagement in professional discourse includes some measure of risk-taking as there is implicit openness to criticism: speaking at a conference or using a platform or network where replying is easy invites replies. Criticism is tempting as it can be relatively easy for a clever person to say something high-impact. You could do as Ian suggests and start a blog and turn off the comments, but people can (and do) comment on your work elsewhere…

I experienced this recently (with my manager and her manager in the room) when a recording of a user from a piece of UX research was shown that could be interpreted as strongly critical of my project team’s work. This was extremely difficult to accept at the time, but on considered reflection seeing an interpreted piece of feedback was valuable, as it spurred ongoing development and provoked questioning of design choices that had seemed well-founded based on our research.

My recommendation is to trust your judgement if you are on top of your professional development, spend adequate time reflecting-on-action, and test your ideas by taking a critical stance toward your methods and work – including opinions and perspectives from peers. On this subject I recommend Elly’s post on ‘professional confidence’ (O’Brien, 2015). This is a great post that really bears re-reading as part of reflective practice in judging our own expertise and focusing where best to develop skills.

Concluding thoughts

Simon is right in that there is no central location for sharing results of our user experience work. I would love to see something like this created, with low or no barrier to entry so all practitioners could contribute. I think for academic libraries a space on the helibtech wiki could be a good starting point for collaboration. This is a slightly selfish request as in my workplace we maintain a list (a wiki page) of reports, presentations, industry white papers and so on about systems user experience, and used these in developing and shaping ideas for our ongoing research and development.

Absent such a location, I want to encourage practitioners to share their work. We want to hear what you have to say – share your methods, results, and conclusions where you can, as doing so contributes to and shapes discovery user experience as a professional practice.

References

Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage.

O’Brien, E. (2015) ‘Professional confidence and “imposter syndrome”‘, Elly O’Brien, June 29. Available at: https://ellyob.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/professional-confidence/

Owen, H. (2008) Open space technology: a user’s guide. 3rd edn. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Preater, A. (2012) ‘Free and Open Source software and cultural change, at Library Camp 2012’, Ginformation Systems, 15 October. Available at: https://www.preater.com/2012/10/15/free-software-and-cultural-change-at-libcampuk12/

Priestner, A. (2014) ‘Why UX in libraries is a thing now’, Business Librarians Association conference, Leicester, 11 July. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/why-ux-in-libraries-is-a-thing-now-36899649

Feelings on critical systems praxis, for #critlib

I wrote this to reply to the ‘recommended writing’ suggestion by Kevin Seeber for the December 15 2015 #critlib chat on #feelings. I very likely won’t be at the chat itself, so I haven’t quite addressed the questions as posed.

Why practice critical librarianship?

I understand #critlib to mean critical theory approaches to library work as a whole so will say something about why I find this interesting, and why I think it is important and useful in the undertheorized area of library systems. In this piece I understand #critlib, the idea of critical librarianship, and other critically-informed stances within librarianship as similar approaches.

I found out about #critlib chats when I was already aware of #critLIS, a critical theory reading group at the University of Sheffield iSchool. The students involved in #critLIS tweeted some of their discussions and I read the things they talked about. I could only join in minimally but what I saw of their discussion seemed thrilling in how they brought social critique to information work, but also intimidatingly erudite in the works referenced.

Later I attended a discussion on critical theory in LIS at an RLC event in London. On reflection, at the event I think the whole critical theory ball of wax was explained in problem-posing terms, which was both more useful, more challenging, and achieved more than a lecture on the same subject would have. At that session Kevin and Lauren didn’t offer grand solutions, but instead many new lenses with which to interpret and inspect practice and some practical ideas too (Smith, 2014). I realized I had some reading to do; fortunately, critical librarians (by all means imagine the ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes’ emoji here) are inevitably generous with suggestions.

Reading a text is learning the relationships among the words in the composition of the discourse. It is the task of a critical, humble, determined “subject” or agent of learning, the reader.

Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.

Freire (1994, p. 65)

I quote Freire’s view from Pedagogy of Hope on the challenges of engaging with reading, as though I disagree with his presentation of study as an “always […] pleasant” struggle the last part chimes with how I feel on trying to be “an agent of learning” in understanding social critique and develop a #critlib approach with no background in theory. To be clear this is a personal reflection: I’m not telling anyone to do this, and I’m aware I speak from a position of privilege.

In discovering new these areas there is joy in exploring new contours of practice, and opening new discursive spaces. Given new tools for sensemaking, the materials of practice feel new themselves. I value #critlib most in providing a space to create and shape professional discourse, to disagree from a position of inclusivity and respect, and fundamentally to help us develop a reflexive praxis: that is, critically-informed action.

Well, how about it? I found Freire’s explanation of the simultaneous nature and equivalence of reflection and action particularly formative in doing this:

“[M]y defence of praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reflection may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action […] cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action.

Freire (1996, p. 109)

Working through the implications of this allowed me to reframe reflection not as an introspective after-the-event mulling over, perhaps somewhat time-wasting given there is “real work” to getting on with, but something central to action itself and part of an overall method of praxis.

So, this is why I participate in #critlib and RLC. I want to see the loop between theory and practice closed in ways that appreciate it is not just the job of LIS academics to develop theory and practitioners to employ it, but that theorizing from our practice and experience should be an accessible process for all of us.

Theory in an undertheorized field

One of Kevin’s questions for the chat asks if we think #critlib is “worth it,” that is, does talk about theory make any difference to your own professional practice, and more broadly? I argue yes, but…

I think #critlib starts with a set of challenging positions to work from rather than a set of agreed ideological fixed ideas or ‘how to’ guides for library work, management, and leadership. Even if someone wrote such a thing, the texts we read and discuss are steeped in and reproduce ideologies and this would remain a problem to grapple with.

#critlib offers multidisciplinary ways of seeing and interpreting our practice that are necessarily critically informed and framed in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but that might not be applicable to practice in straightforward ways. This bears analysis of our situation, and for me, giving up the idea of applying #critlib with a particular framing ‘context’ as this term obscures a great deal. I’m indebted to Clarke’s work on grounded theory (2005, pp. 71-72) in understanding this last point.

In my view systems librarianship is relatively undertheorized and ahistorical in its understanding of thought and practice; not obviously fertile ground to develop #critlib. As the head of a systems team I see systems as occupying an important nexus in two areas often claimed neutral in various ways: libraries and technology. Of course neither are neutral, when put like this it’s laughable to suggest they are, but it’s easy to slip into such positions by default if we don’t interrogate our practices and how we utilize technology.

It can be easy for systems workers to think if we are satisfying the requirements of library staff as clients and library users as customers that’s enough, and we needn’t over-think the technology we employ beyond compliance with law (such as data protection legislation), our professional ethics (such as CILIP’s Code of Professional Practice), the standards of our employers, and so on. I’ve heard very reasonable positions voiced in the profession that this is “just good librarianship”.

I argue that this is not enough and our response should be non-neutral as our technology and information management is non-neutral. But to exaggerate for hyperbolic effect, critically-informed ethical approaches are more complicated than lazily rejecting every new idea as “problematic” while maintaining our own comfortable, compartmentalized silos. A systems approach to #critlib (#critsyslib?) means delving into our underlying assumptions by using reflective practice as a technique, taking critically reflective and reflexive approaches in our implementations of new systems and technologies.

For me developing a critical systems praxis means reject instrumental or mechanistic approaches to information, its storage and indexing, its use and understanding by our users, and the stack of technologies that underpin all of these things. A #critlib perspective would mean taking critical approaches throughout systems work including in selection, procurement, and implementation of new technologies and systems, and using critically-informed methods in researching them and in directing their development. For managers and leaders in systems it means role-modelling positive behaviours, and taking an authentically #critlib stance in what we do in our work, including for example line management and hiring practices.

I struggle with these things and cannot claim to do all of them or that my team do all of them, yet, but referring to the Freirean equivalence of reflection and action, taking on #critlib viewpoints and approaches begins the necessary perspectival shift to move towards a critical turn in systems praxis hence, why I #critlib.

References

Clarke, A.E. (2005) Situational analysis: grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. Reprint, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (part three): critical theory’, Lauren Smith, 16 May. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/