30 Apr 2013

How Libraries Make Tough Choices in Difficult Times: Purposeful abandonment by David Stern (Review)

Most libraries are probably all too familiar with having to make tough choices. Budget cut-backs and staff reductions typically force service reviews and decisions that we may otherwise never have made. However, David Stern asks if we are in fact making the most of these “difficult times” we so frequently find ourselves in. Many organisations will re-engineer processes and try to streamline services to increase efficiencies and cut costs. However the core suite of services and functions of the organisation often remain largely the same.

Instead, Stern suggests that a more “transformational evaluation and redesign” for our services may be called for – “abandoning” less important operations even if they are traditionally associated with the library, and enhancing those that are the key sources of value to our users. This may sound radical to some, but Stern certainly has a point when he argues “justifying budgets to simply maintain the status quo will not be as successful as offering better services with the same budget”. Perhaps this is the entrepreneurial spirit that we as librarians must now try to embrace? In the same way that Brian Matthews asked us to "think like a start-up", Stern's idea forces us to re-evaluate some of our  most fundamental philosophies.

Indeed, this kind of transformation requires a full-scale organisational review, which is the primary focus of the book. Around a third of the book is taken up with various analysis techniques that can be used in the review process, including Project Management, Interest based Problem Solving for identifying hidden causal factors, and Service Quality Improvement. Stern also advises managers to decide on and be clear about their endpoints and desired outcomes from the very start, and to communicate these intentions to all staff, emphasising the ongoing nature of the review and quality process. His primary decision framework for assigning resources is both simple and memorable: Do (at the highest level), Delegate, Delay and Drop (“purposeful abandonment”). Drop sounds unfortunate, but may be necessary if we are serious about reshaping our services in a sustainable way over the longer term. The chapter on utilising data is particularly helpful for those who may not be particularly willing statisticians. The pragmatic and practical advice highlights simple yet effective techniques such as, tailoring your message to your audience's motives (obvious but often ignored), using powerful and simple graphics to convey your message, and demonstrating your data in a broader context to give relative value and meaning to your story.

It’s primarily a book about transforming what we do rather than re-engineering our existing services, an idea that may feel uncomfortable to some at first. It’s not a decision-making handbook, but instead one that makes us question how we make strategic decisions and manage our services (in fact, Stern frontloads this lack of detail regarding management tools and techniques). Do we treat the symptoms rather than the problems? Are we willing to really reassess our culture and core historical and traditional services? These are the bigger questions that perhaps we should be asking ourselves.

How Libraries Make Tough Choices in Difficult Times: Purposeful abandonment is published by Chandos, February 2013, 226 p., £47.50.


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