2 Mar 2012

Academic & Special Libraries Section Annual Seminar – a critical review of keynote speaker, Ken Chad

Last Friday I had the joy of attending the Academic & Special Libraries Section annual seminar at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dublin. The programme was varied, covering a range of topics that currently concern the academic library.

Keynote speaker was consultant Ken Chad, who focused on library strategic decision making during ‘relentless, disruptive, technology-driven change and tough economic times’. While his presentation highlighted the accepted view that libraries must occupy what he calls a ‘strategic sweet spot’ (their own unique niche) he makes a number of important points about making a business focus work. 

What I liked about Ken’s presentation was his insistence that any library is only as good as its strategy and resulting implementation of the same. He rightly pointed out that the strategy building process must be very carefully considered. Strategic thinking includes critical reflection of operational context (what’s going on, internal/external threats, opportunities) and checking up on the competition (who are our competitors and what are they up to?). Most importantly, library users must be considered – who are they, what do they expect?

Interestingly, Ken repeatedly insisted that librarians should not analyse needs but look at what ‘jobs’ people want done. His idea is that students are customers. They expect an efficient library service that empowers them to get a given job done, with as little input as possible. This may well be true (I know from first-hand experience). However, I only somewhat agree with this jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) approach. Getting the job done is the natural outcome of utilising the unique resources and services libraries offer. But insisting on too narrow a focus implies that libraries should cut out all the other (equally important) stuff that might distract from this goal. I’m not entirely sure what Ken actually meant specifically here as he did not provide contextual examples of academic library services that stand in the way of JTBD.

Essentially, libraries are in the business of education, not in the business for business’s sake. They help create information-savvy individuals, who can navigate the spectrum of information that surrounds us. Library services empower users to navigate information-related situations successfully. Academic libraries are about enhancing learning and experience. Being aware of those unique learning needs and desires is as important as getting the job done. Those needs must be recognised, communicated and dealt with. They do not ‘distract’ students from their mission of getting a particular job done. Identifying needs in conjunction with getting the job done empowers students to get jobs done the smart way.

Members of the audience addressed this issue; someone pointed towards the danger of turning a student’s interaction with the library into a retail-type experience. Even though Ken acknowledged these observations, his key message was the insistence that libraries are businesses and must focus on jobs to be done (see segmentation & the jobs to be done theory for detail). But is it right to encourage this approach exclusively? Does switching to a business strategy focus in libraries really offer value for library users? What about education for education’s sake. Comprehensive library services and resources add value to JBTD. Libraries are businesses within reason, but the purpose of education is to provide an inclusive and comprehensive experience to all library users.

Finally, Ken contended that appreciating and being aware of your library’s existing capabilities is crucial. What is it that we do uniquely better than anyone else? Those things must be emphasised and delivered consistently. Further, the things that work should be developed consistently in a sensible and sustainable manner.

Later in the morning, people from UCD presented their take on supporting students through the use of electronic media via YouTube. The idea here is to promote UCD library services and provide online support for users through online videos and tutorials. Given that YouTube is a popular channel, it makes sense that libraries exploit this form of communication with their user base.

The afternoon was spent looking at different Discovery tools including Primo (Ex Libris) used by NUI Galway, Summon (Serial Solutions) used by the Institute of Technology Carlow, Encore Synergy 4.1 used by Trinity College Dublin, and EBSCO’s Discovery Service used by Leeds Metropolitan University. Presenters spoke of their experience of implementing and maintaining these services. That was good stuff.

Overall, the day was stimulating and a rewarding experience. It’s always enlightening to hear the expectations and opinions fellow librarians have. Here’s to getting the job done!


  1. Thanks for this Alex - very useful as I did not make it along myself. My view is that there are a lot of useful frameworks which libraries can borrow from the business sector (measuring productivity through inputs and outputs, and focusing on achieving efficient workflows and processes for example) - after all management is something that underpins every activity.

    However, I agree with your own view that the JTBD approach is too narrow. Concepts like information literacy are too complex to be imparted by simply helping a student to pass their exam (the job that they want done I am sure!), but it is obviously a more valuable service to equip students with higher-order thinking skills, even if not necessarily needed to get a job done in the short term.

  2. I'm at fault for presenting the jobs-to-be-done approach too narrowly and maybe a bit too insistently. I couldn't really cover it in detail. I certainly don't think it's the *only* way to look at users. However one of the key points is to look at perhaps less conventional ways of analysing users...not just as 'segments' ('students' or 'researchers' etc) but to look at what they are trying to *do*: what problems are they trying to solve? Michelle in her comment is right about those high order thinking skills...that seems to me perhaps one of the *most* important things..maybe even 'job' that student are trying to get done.

    Also I'm conscious I probably overdid the whole 'business' thing and user as 'customers' In part this was to contrast and provoke. But I'm very conscious of the dangers there, (which the final wrap up session talked about too). One of the things I do worry about is the 'commodification' trend which focuses very strongly on students as 'consumers'. One of the books I pictured in one of the slides but should have talked about more was 'The marketisation of Higher Education and the student as consumer'(Routledge 2011). It provides a good corrective. Nevertheless I do think the need for some hard and clear thinking about strategy *is* a good thing!
    Thanks so much for you helpful review of my presentation. Some good food for thought and some revisions to make as I look at these issues again