11 Jul 2012

What are we measuring, and more importantly, why?

Next week's #irelibchat topic, performance measurement and assessment in LIS, is a subject close to my heart. Quantitative measures of performance are an essential management tool in any organisation. Key performance indicators (KPIs) help organisations meet key strategic objectives, drive and deliver change, and assess the impact and effectiveness of services. Appropriate metrics not only provide a high-level snapshot of service levels at any given point in time, but also help to inform the operational activities and tasks that contribute to achieving the key strategic goals of the organisation.

So what do most libraries measure? Circulation figures and gate counts; usage statistics for electronic journals and databases; the number of information skills sessions delivered; books held per staff member or student; staffing and operational costs; user satisfaction levels...

These are all useful and informative to a point. For instance, a cost per use analysis undoubtedly serves as a useful framework and heuristic for collection management. However, most of these measures are input- or user-focused, rather than based on the key strategic and desired outcomes of the library, and indeed the wider organisation. What do hastily-collected surverymonkey snapshots (80% of people borrowed a book in the last month; 90% of users said they found library services very good or excellent...) or activity-based metrics (the number of information literacy sessions delivered increased by 20% year on year) really tell us about the value and importance of our services? To paraphrase Ann Ritchie*, it is not simply enough to know what we do; we must also know why we exist. I find it helpful to think of this in concrete (if unfortunate!) terms: if the library closed tomorrow what would be the impact on key strategic outputs and outcomes? These variable are what we need to measure.

Rigorous performance measurement and assessment is arguably one of the most potent tools for library advocacy when done well. If you can show that library and information services are feeding through to the bottom line - an increased volume of research, higher quality learning, more clients, more profits, improved patient care, lower costs - it is a very strong and persuasive argument. So how do we do this? Firstly, it requires a strong understanding of your organisation's mission and strategic objectives and goals, understanding where we can and do add value. The indicators and data you generate are ultimately only as good as the tools you use to collect them; valid and reliable methods and instruments are therefore crucial. These can be surveys, pre- and post-tests, curriculum-integrated assessments, statistical regression etc. 

Right now, I know I don't do enough of this, but sometimes the challenge just seems too vast to tackle. Every survey or hard-won statistic seems to barely dent the morass of measurement. But even if we don't quite get to collecting the data, at least knowing what to measure and why, is an important and necessary first step.

*Ritchie, A. (2010, March 29-April 1). Thriving not just surviving: resilience in a special library is dependent on knowing why you exist (not simply what you do). Paper presented at ALIES 2010 Conference: “Resilience” 29 Mar–1 Apr 2010. Retrieved 2 May 2012 from http://www.em.gov.au/Documents/Ann%20Ritchie%20-%20NT.PDF


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