19 Mar 2019

Strategic Thinking for Academic Libraries Using Appreciative Inquiry – Part 2

Ronan Cox (@ronancox2) - Business Librarian, Dublin City University

Appreciative Inquiry as a Strategic Process
Developed by David Cooperrider, appreciative inquiry (AI) is an approach that only shows up in library literature within the past decade (Dole, Dabbour & Kott, 2017, p. 471). To my mind, the power of this approach lies in the fact that while social organisations such as libraries need to demonstrate value to several stakeholders, this value is not in monetary form and therefore requires a different strategy. Unrepentant in its aims, with a focus on strengths-based practice, and the search for the best in people and organizations as a way to create organizational innovation and transformation (Orr and Cleveland-Innes, cited in Openo, 2016), AI provides a platform to capture and accentuate the positive and good that libraries are doing. At the risk of sounding alarmist, I think the latter is something many academic libraries may not yet fully leverage. Libraries continuously innovate and break new ground, the time to speak up and speak out is now. Remember, the visionary strategist considers the environment not as a given but as something that can be moulded to your advantage. But only if you are willing to make the leap and stay the course!

As mentioned previously, academic libraries gauge their value in ways other than monetary. Cox (2018b) referred to this at the DBS Library seminar, citing examples including; information literacy impact on students, open access citations, archives engagement, and scholarly collaboration. As a result, AI maps particularly well to strategic planning because of its focus on a desired future state, achieved through reflection exploration of the ‘best of what is’ and focusing on internal strengths, values, sources of pride and positive experiences. This information capture can be used to identify emerging strategic areas and inform the creation of the strategic plan that is unique to the library, yet also encompasses institutional priorities. From a strategic purpose perspective, this might seem like the pinnacle. However, we must keep in mind that a purpose can never be fully reached. The best organisations continuously adapt and evolve to meet environmental demands.

AI Models
There are several AI models, including, the 5-D cycle, 4-D cycle, and the strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results (SOAR) model. The most commonly used is the 4-D cycle (see Figures. 2,3).

Figure 2: 4-D Cycle (Wikmalm and Wikmalm, 2009)

Strategic Planning Stage
4-D Cycle Stage
Environmental scan, identifying important values
Creating a vision
Creating a structure to implement the plan
Sustaining the change
Destiny (or Delivery)-Sustaining
Figure 3: 4-D Cycle mapped to strategic planning process (Dole, Dabbour and Kott, 2017)

Dole, Dabbour & Kott provide an excellent case study of the benefit of using an AI approach as a basis for strategic planning in academic libraries. Of particular value in their case was the ability to include both internal and external stakeholders in the discovery and dream stages. Rather than simply taking an introspective view, the Library Strategic Planning Task Force actively engaged the services of students, faculty and staff when seeking data collection. For the discovery process, the aim was to capture the ‘best of what is’. Participants were asked to examine the current mission, vision, and values statements of the library and determine what they would retain for the future strategic plan. In addition, they were asked to describe a high point in their experiences with the library. Following this, participants generated ideas on how the library could contribute to student, faculty and staff success in the future, thereby fulfilling the dream stage. At the time of writing, the design and deliver stages had yet to be completed. The reason I refer to this study is to provide an example of what an AI approach could look like within academic libraries and to stimulate the thought process with regard to your own organisation.

AI Problems
To paraphrase Roosevelt - nothing worth having is easy. Given the complexity and scale of academic libraries, it would be naive to paint a simplistic picture of AI integration. Like any change initiative, to gain support and traction requires a considerable cultural shift, a departure from the current way of doing things, most notably a change in existing values and beliefs. The AI approach is not intended to be the solution to all strategic approaches within libraries, it is simply another to consider. Perceived weaknesses have been documented (Egan and Lancaster, 2005, p. 42 cited in Kelly, 2010; Preskill and Catsambas, 2006, p. 27 cited in Openo, 2016), including;

  • difficult interpersonal situations are overlooked
  • feelings of anger or frustration may not be voiced
  • dissatisfied organization members may retreat and withdraw from the process
  • the process overlooks or ignores existing problems
However, several authors have argued that AI does not ignore problems or issues; rather it looks at them in light of current strengths and successes. Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2003, p. 18, cited in Kelly, 2013), argue that AI ‘does not dismiss accounts of conflict, problems or stress, it simply does not use them as the basis of analysis or action’. Upon reading this quote for the first time and without being aware of it previously, I immediately understood this to be my default thought process. Through the lens of AI, problems and conflicts are viewed as lived experiences, and subsequently re-framed as a positive inquiry, thus requiring a shift in how we think. Kelly offers the example of a common complaint that the academic library is undervalued. Rather than fixate on this, the AI process would extrapolate the positives and investigate the most effective ways to demonstrate the value of the library service to stakeholders.

Shining a spotlight on the shifting issues and trends that affect the position and perception of academic libraries and library staff within the wider environment is something we all need to consider. Rather than viewing the situation as a negative, I have offered the opinion that we need to recognise our current operating environment and look both inward and outward to discover what our collective strengths and opportunities are and how they might best serve us when mapping our future. This involves the development of methods that allow for the recognition and further progression of these strengths and opportunities, not just through internal means but also via collaboration with external stakeholders such as staff and faculty. The literature has shown that one such method is the application of appreciative inquiry to library strategic planning.

While perhaps not the ‘silver bullet’ solution many might hope for, at a minimum it provides a starting point to begin these important conversations. To finish with a business-related reference - in such a competitive environment, the use of such a method bears striking similarities to the very effective Blue Ocean Shift strategic model proposed by Chan Kim and Mauborgne (2017). Within this, they suggest five steps to open up new ideas and space for organisations:

  1. Get started
  2. Understand where you are now
  3. Imagine where you could be
  4. Find out how to get there
  5. Make your move
Have you started yet?

14 Mar 2019

Strategic Thinking for Academic Libraries Using Appreciative Inquiry – Part 1

Ronan Cox (@ronancox2) - Business Librarian, Dublin City University.

‘Change is an opportunity for transformation, not a crisis’

The above quotation (Hillenbrand, 2005 cited in Kelly, 2010, p. 164) is one heard in the past, yet it seems ever more important in the present. I noticed recently that Kristin Meyer, User Experience Librarian at Grand State Valley University in Michigan is hosting a workshop ‘From Insight to action with Appreciative Inquiry’ at the 2019 UXLIBS conference. Such an event serves to highlight the dual function that appreciative inquiry can play, examining library operations at a wider strategic level while also focusing on improving customer experience. Having attended both the Consortium of National and University Libraries (CONUL) and Dublin Business School (DBS) Library Seminars last year, the words of two speakers continue to resonate. John Cox, University Librarian at National University of Ireland Galway spoke very convincingly at both seminars about the need for strategic transformation within academic libraries in order to position themselves centrally within the institution. Marie O’Neill, Head Librarian at Dublin Business School at the time, delivered the opening presentation at the DBS Library Seminar, speaking passionately about the importance for all libraries in writing a strategic plan and strategizing generally.

Different, yet intrinsically linked. The common theme? Strategic thinking and the need to reframe our identity both as libraries and as librarians in order to remain relevant. This might seem overly negative or unnecessary scaremongering, yet this is not the intent. In fact, my approach is to frame this situation in an entirely positive way by applying the concept of appreciative inquiry.

Libraries as a Business
In the role of a business librarian within a university context, perhaps the default method of thinking is invariably from a business perspective. Similar to any business, the operating environment for academic libraries is constantly shifting. A necessary consequence: be very clear about strategy, strategic positioning and alignment to the environment. Cox (2018a) addresses this point extremely well in his literature review on the matter of positioning the library within the institution. The higher education landscape exists in a constricted marketplace with several competitors, both domestically and internationally. With this comes greater accountability, stronger competition, higher student expectations and the need for competitive differentiation.

Operating in this environment, libraries are answerable to several key stakeholders. These include, but are not limited to; government bodies tasked with the delivery of national education mandates, the board of management at respective universities, local, national and international peers, and members of the public. Additionally, rapid technological developments, changes in the area of scholarly communication, data management and pedagogy are forcing libraries to develop new resources and service areas (Saunders, 2015, p. 285).

Once formed, the perspective on the current environment generates the obvious question. How do libraries and librarians react strategically? There is certainly a large volume of literature available on various strategic approaches. Murray and Ireland (2018) provide a very interesting examination of provost’s perceptions of academic library value; it is certainly worth a read. In general rather than library specific terms, I ask you to consider the example proposed by Reeves, Haanaes and Sinha (2015). They illustrated the idea of a strategy palette consisting of three dimensions: predictability (can we predict and plan it?), malleability (can we shape it?) and harshness (can we survive it?). The resulting five environments (adaptive, shaping, visionary, classical and renewal) differentiate the strategy required for each (see figure. 1).

Figure. 1 - strategy palette

It is possible to provide a strong argument that for the last decade, the prevailing dimension for academic libraries has been one of harshness with an accompanying renewal strategic environment. This argument is based upon my own experience, having worked in a previous academic library role during the years 2011 – 2017 when the full effects of the recession in Ireland were apparent, in addition to attending various external library committees during this time. Under a renewal environment, an organisation must recognise and react to the deteriorating environment, act decisively to restore its viability – economising by refocusing, cutting costs and freeing up resources to fund the next part of the journey.

However, I suggest that academic libraries are on the brink of reaching a turning point in the strategy palette, moving from a harshness dimension to one of malleability. In order to strategically navigate this changing and increasingly flexible situation, now is the time for libraries to move from a renewal environment and begin to cultivate a shaping/visionary environment. Consider the following explanations of shapers and visionaries:

‘Shapers focus beyond the boundaries of their own organisation, often by rallying a formidable ecosystem of customers, suppliers, and/or champions to their cause by defining attractive new markets, standards, technology platforms, and business practices. They propagate these through marketing, lobbying, and savvy partnerships. Like a shaping strategist, the visionary considers the environment not as a given but as something that can be moulded to advantage. Visionary strategists must have the courage to stay the course and the will to commit the necessary resources’ (Reeves, Love and Tillmans, 2012).

Vision, Mission and Goals
Looking forward, O’Neill (2018) correctly emphasises the need for a vision, mission and goals. Librarians at all levels need to recognise the currently operating environment, answer the strategic question concerning what kind of library they want to be and set appropriate performance goals and policies to achieve these in an agile manner. A vision statement guides organisational values and provides purpose. Therefore, library vision needs to link inextricably to strategic direction. A mission statement aims to provide employees and stakeholders with clarity about what the organisation is fundamentally there to do; and should address the following key question:

What is our purpose for being?

Goals are how the library intends to achieve identified priorities. Of paramount importance, alignment with the overall goals of the university. Library goals simply cannot exist in isolation. As O’Neill puts it, ‘I would contest that libraries should be equal partners and influencers in the formulation of institutional goals’. Collins and Porras (1996, p. 69), argue that while an organisation might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, they cannot fulfil a purpose; like a guiding star it is forever pursued but never reached. The fact that purpose can never be fully realised ensures that the best organisations never stop stimulating change and progress. Give the innovative environment in which academic libraries operate, I believe they are unique positioned to take advantage of this.

Normative Isomorphism
A well-written strategic plan should contain risk, innovation, originality and have transformative impact. O’Neill (2018) raises the point about using tools such as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT) analysis or political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental (PESTLE) analysis in order to facilitate strategic planning. While I have used both of these tools in the past and recognise their practicality, there is potential danger hidden within. There is a risk of ‘normative isomorphism’, described as a tendency to replicate the plans of others, to look as others look and to approach problems in the same way (Maplas, 2015, cited in Dole, Dabbour & Kott, 2017). Secondly, the use of the SWOT analysis in particular tend to emphasise problems and shortcomings rather than accentuating the positive. I argue that now is the time to shape the future of academic libraries by adopting visionary traits in order to gain an advantage and seek competitive differentiation. Instead of focusing on what is wrong, libraries and librarians should be encouraged to envision a preferred future without constraint.
Part 2 - Appreciative Inquiry as a strategic process will be published 19th March