Getting a Grip on Change

By Dougherty, Richard M. | American Libraries, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Getting a Grip on Change


Dougherty, Richard M., American Libraries


ONLY BY CONFRONTING THE CHALLENGES AND INEVITABILITY OF CHANGE CAN LIBRARIES RETAIN THEIR RELEVANCY IN THE INFORMATION AGE

Technology. Finances. Organizational change. These are the interrelated themes that currently dominate the programs at ALA conferences. Many programs relate directly or indirectly to new technological tools, the opportunities they offer, or the challenges they present.

Straitened library budgets are also a major concern. The need to operate with steady-state or declining budgets at the very time new technology-based services are being introduced is pushing libraries to their financial limit. Staff talk about being on a perpetual treadmill, trying to introduce new services while straining to retain traditional ones. Privately, they express concern about losing control of their futures and resenting managers who don't seem to support their needs. These feelings of frustration often lead to greater stress, anger, and burnout.

It should not be surprising that these topics are in the forefront of librarians' conversations. Technology and economics are the forces creating organizational turbulence and driving organizational change. Consider the current flap over Hawaii's outsourcing of cataloging, acquisitions, and selection (AL, Jan., p. 12-13). Such proposals often produce organizational turbulence. Outsourcing is a lightning rod at the moment, but it is only a harbinger of other dramatic changes that lie ahead.

Today it is almost a cliche to say "change is constant." We all know that this is the case. But banal as this observation may be, library leaders need to get a grip on change; they need to make the change processes work for them, their staffs, and their libraries. Inaction will inevitably lead to organizational chaos.

I'm afraid we librarians are masters at "talking the talk" of change, but seem to be less skilled at "walking the walk." Most of the change efforts that have been reported in the literature focus on incremental change, such as Total Quality Management (TQM) efforts or unit reorganizations. Often the names of units are changed to reflect emerging philosophies: circulation and ILL into "access" units and public services into "client services." But a close look leads to the conclusion that most such efforts are modest in scope and execution, and incremental in nature, falling far short of the transformational change most experts feel 21st-century organizations must navigate if they are to be successful in the years ahead.

It is also true that very few academic or governmental bodies have engaged in extensive change efforts, so librarians shouldn't become defensive about our own lack of progress. One of the obstacles to change in academic libraries is the environment in which they reside; their parent organizations have been very resistant to significant change. Libraries are often not in a political position to implement service changes without the support of the campus community. Transformational change is likely to be easier to execute in freestanding public libraries than in academically entwined campus libraries.

The reasons for the institutions' reluctance to engage in transformational change are complicated, but I believe the principal explanation is that most organizations in the nonprofit sector don't yet really feel the need. They are not feeling enough "pain" to be willing to endure the rigors of a change effort.

What do I mean by "pain"? For many years, the automobile companies talked about change, but it was only when their profit and loss statements began to hemorrhage $1 million or more a day that they were moved to action.

Today more and more corporations are realizing that in an environment where new products must appear in the marketplace with blinding speed and markets are becoming global, the need to prepare for such new environments makes change programs an imperative. They realize that if they don't get ahead of the competition they may not survive - and they aren't kidding. …

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