Principles of assertive action – how to go about getting what you want

Background to the blog thread

In an article in CILIP’s Library + Information Gazette, 11-24 September 2009, p. 19, I suggested several ways in which library ‘back room’ staff might seek new enterprises and avenues of work to supplement or replace threatened services and even to expand their remit.

This blog thread, Forward the backroom, is a guide to effective strategic marketing of library services.   It is a broad brush guide for the politically perplexed to garner support for back room proposals and support for the back room, from marketing to rhetoric, which turned out to be much more closely related than first appeared.

Preparing for the siege

Libraries and especially the proverbial library ‘back room’ is perceived as being under siege, undervalued and its purposes misunderstood or ignored.  The secret to success at any level of any organization is, however, accessible even if it might not always be easy to leverage.  People give to people, and moreover to people they like and respect.  They are also more likely to place credence on things they are told by independent parties and by those who do not stand to gain directly from funding a particular activity.  In the final analysis, senior managers and other fund holders are, at bottom, people and we (people) all have at least two other things in common.  We relate readily only to people, directly or through reading the ideas we hear expressed in the words of people we respect.  We also preserve nothing indefinitely or very well, and we choose to conserve and sustain only what we love, love only what we understand and understand only what is made easy to understand and important enough to us and the things we hold dear to concentrate on and remember amidst the maelstrom that is life.

Only if senior managers understand how and why those products and services they perceive to underpin the future of the library depend upon tools and resources you provide will they be likely to learn and remember the value you add to the service.  How to relate what you do to central library services requires that you ensure that all the messages that you send out about the products and services you offer are directly and explicitly related to the projects that are considered important at that time.  This may become quite involved and requires some awareness of library strategic objectives and transmitting your message to those fund holders who will decide your future often requires you understand the social group dynamics acting at work; particularly who listens to whom.  To end with the beginning, successful service promotion requires the service offer a product mix that is necessary and relevant to the modern functions of your library or information service.  If a particular product or product range is becoming sidelined over time, it will be necessary to adapt and re-invent similar processes as part of new services later on.

Survive and thrive

The broad process for re-positioning an overlooked library section should therefore broadly run along these lines:

  1. Identify what amongst the things you do will continue to be valued because they remain critically relevant to the strategic objectives of the library and organization as a whole.  Promote these and seek to offer new services with a view to achieve in the medium turn a balanced product mix that supports all the essential functions of the library.
  2. Identify and gain support for new and value-added services that utilize your skills and products that will continue even if some traditional services are out-sourced or even cease.
  3. Identify the shortest and most effective communication channels between ourselves and our chosen target audiences of senior managers and other fund holders. This is complex and involves identifying those in the organization who are both accessible and amenable but who also have the ear of the decision maker (who might or might not be the same who finally signs on the dotted line, persuading a deputy with a long memory and on whom the fund holder relies in some matter might in some instances be more useful than persuading the fund holder them self).  Accessibility is afforded by the staff room sofa – Friends box sets being a great leveler – but a certain keen observation of who has influence and can persuade fund holders and manipulate stakeholders.  Observation and networking are therefore critical to success.  Although re-positioning the library director’s perception of the head of their section to a respected and valued colleague must therefore be the vision for any library section, the real value of  such service advocates is that they have access to committees and may contribute to debates you might never have known were being held until too late.  It is a truism that you must be present at (or send your unofficial but surreptitiously briefed delegate to) any meeting at which you might benefit or be made to suffer, which in libraries is potentially just about all of them.  Good informal representation can win you bread-earning work and support for what you do and might go onto do in the future.  Once it is established that you were considered relevant and found to be useful in one project the chances of your involvement and opportunities to add value in the future should only increase.  Support from senior figures unconnected with the sections on whose behalf they are speaking out is always the most credible to fund holders because the sources most clearly can have no invested interests.  Make influential friends into service advocates by explaining how the things they value can only be effectively achieved with continued or even increased investment in your section.
  4. Prepare persuasive business arguments for our conservation and explain how your products and skill sets may be adapted and indeed have already been adapted to provide new and varied products and services: institutional repositories, knowledge management platform community management, and so on.
  5. Another tactic is to demonstrate your value to colleagues less personally by leading a general staff development session on the institutional repository or some other field you are heavily involved in.  You thus prove your ability to teach and gain some parity of esteem with staff who spend most of  their time teaching customers.

In the face of adversity or resistance from fund holders, persist in quietly but energetically channeling varied and unequivocal evidence and consistent messages, particularly positive feedback from stakeholders and robust business proposals that bear close scrutiny, through all possible channels about the relevance and value of our skills and products to each new initiative that arises, both within and beyond the library.  As with everything, try to time your news when it will be best received.


2 Responses

  1. I am pretty much in agreement with all of this – some real examples (whether of success or failure) would be interesting. I will add just two thoughts.

    You quite rightly talk about “our chosen target audiences of senior managers and other fund holders”. Isn’t part of the problem the fact that senior managers are usually senior not just in responsibility but in years, as are the heads of cataloguing departments whose job it is to promote the backroom service. The world has changed hugely in the last twenty years, and our users nowadays expect a very different service from that which those senior managers grew up in and are familiar with. Any attempt to re-position backroom services depends upon a case being made BY someone who may not be completely at home in modern technologies, TO someone who doesn’t recognise their importance or potential. (I’m not knocking the elderly, BTW – I’m not that far off retirement myself.) What we need instead are young and enthusiastic backroom staff giving the message to other young and enthusiastic frontroom staff.

    Second point – I am much beguiled by “the staff room sofa” and envy you it. Pressures of time and work, staff cuts and ever-dwindling resources, mean that senior managers are rarely, if ever, visible in our staff room. And noone at any level dares seem less than impossibly busy in case it looks as if they have time to spare (and therefore are a target for cutting). Opportunities to make a case to senior managers are therefore very limited and, if made, tend to disappear into a backlog and emerge only when the proposed development is already out of date. Decision-making needs to be as fast as the changing world around it. Usually it isn’t. Which is why we end up playing catch-up – losing even more credibility by jumping on the bus just as it pulls away, rather than on the one just arriving.

    No wonder the backroom is perceived as being out of touch and out of date!

  2. I agree that the dialogue between the back room and the rest of the library probably needs to begin between those in the ‘back room’ and those they have the most contact with in the ‘front room’. The hope is that when problems and projects crop up in conversation they offer opportunities to pass ideas and suggestions to influential colleagues, improving their perception of the back room and hopefully lead to the involvement of technical staff in these projects and a resulting increase in influence and prestige of ‘back room’ staff.

    It is always a worrying development when senior staff stop taking breaks away from their desks. As you described, the prevalent culture in many institutions is now of fear and diminishing staff morale, which in turn paralyses action and reduces productivity. In addition to volunteering for or seeking to be co-opted onto project teams that span different library teams, an excellent strategy for maintaining an overview of service developments in the pipeline and prepare business cases for ‘back room’ involvement in those that are about to take shape and have managerial support. Being seen at project meetings also helps raise the profile of technical, cataloguing and other issues in projects and in projects and also establishes a ‘back room’ presence outside the back room, physically and in terms of workflow.

    Two further opportunities I forgot to mention suggest themselves that I have used with variable success. Travelling with senior staff on trains is a heaven sent opportunity because they are a captive audience, and possibly more amenable to novel ideas because they are outside the usual office involvement. This happened to me once soon after I had started one job. I took advantage of sharing a railway courage with a senior manager after a work trip that we were both attending to suggest the possibility of the library acting as community managers in a large institutional knowledge management project that was being considered. Although the project was deferred, I believe that advocating ‘back room’ support for such a project and matching the procedures needed to technical library skills went a small way to raising the profile of these skills in wider projects and helped pave the way for of ‘back room’ staff as consultants in these areas.

    The other opportunity is to provide short, targeted emails presenting ideas for projects and especially for developments and refinements to existing projects to appropriate managers. The most appropriate target might not be the most senior but instead the most receptive person informed enough to understand our arguments and eloquent enough to explain them to the relevant fund holders, although the less direct the communication the less chance of the idea being attributed to the source and remembered. Emails sent directly to senior managers about projects close to those managers’ hearts may be valuable even if the manager does not completely fail to grasp their full significance at first, especially if the opportunity later presents itself to reinforce the message. Such communications at the very least keep the ‘back room’ on the managerial radar. In my current post I have been fortunate enough to have senior managers who were sometimes interested enough to take the time to briefly discuss and seek clarification and development of suggestions I have made. Such emails also help associate the ‘back room’ with projects managers consider important and thereby serve to align it with with positive images and edge it back into the library vision.

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