Monday, September 4, 2017

Strategic planning to avoid bottlenecks in the age of the Internet

Penniman, W. David. Strategic planning to avoid bottlenecks in the age of the Internet. Computers in Libraries, Jan 99, Vol. 19, issue 1.
When the early libraries of Mesopotamia and Egypt were in their heydays, their respective staffs must have been concerned with dramatic changes in materials, the growth of sources, and the demands of users. They probably also worried about adequate support for the efforts and lack of appreciation of what they did for society. For them, these worries were undoubtedly no less bothersome than the worries and concerns of today’s librarians. They, like us, had concerns about the future. And, like us, they had no better grasp of how to accurately predict the future. (If they did, they would undoubtedly have been appalled at the sad fates of their libraries and might have given up right then and there.)

Putting planning into perspective
We might be equally dismayed if we had perfect insight into the future. We have to contend with increasing costs of materials, increasing sources of materials (many of these sources now electronic), and increasing options of (and competition for) delivery channels to our users. All of these lead to a dismaying array of demands from a planning perspective. At the university level, for example, we must plan for and maintain three kinds of libraries:
  • The library of the past, which focused on building collections and providing direct physical access to printed materials
  • The library of the present, with extraordinary added costs of inflation, automation, and for many, the preservation of decaying material
  • The library of the future that we must plan for, and that includes not only the development of new ideas, but the implementation of new prototypes for publishing, acquiring, storing, and providing access to information through new technology and new attitudes about such things as ownership and access (Billy E. Fyre, “The University Context and the Research Library,” Library Hi Tech 40 (1992): 27-370)
Building on past assumptions
At the same time that these three types of libraries are being maintained, we are seeing significant strains on the physical structures we call “libraries”. The design considerations of today are different from those yesterday ((W. David Penniman, “Tomorrow’s Library.” Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine 44, nos 3/4 (1994): 149-153). Unfortunately, the fact is that, for too many institutions, the library of the 21st century has already been built and it is too late to do any planning for the structures themselves. During the 1970s and 1980s we completed new academic libraries at the rate of almost 20 per year. We added to our renovated about half as many each year. In any given year there were about 100 academic library building projects in progress. In the 1990s the rate of completion of academic libraries has held constant while additions and renovations have doubled. To quote Library Journal, “There doesn’t seem to be financial concerns in the construction/design industries when it comes to building libraries. Academic libraries in particular seem little affected by the economic or political climate.” ((Bette-Lee Fox, et al., “Building a Brighter Tomorrow.” Library Journal (December 1992): 51)

Most organizations will have to live with those decisions that were made years or even decades ago and attempt to serve their users on the basis of those assumptions. The assumptions made in the 1970s could not have been nearly as insightful as those in the 1980s regarding technology. We were only beginning to think in terms of mainframes, dumb terminals, and centralized databases at that time.

The ‘80s reflected new technologies and more emphasis on stand-alone systems as well as new networking concepts. The design ideas of the ‘70s no longer seemed valid. More space was needed for CD-ROM or other disc-based systems, and more room was needed to pull cables through undersized cableways. Buildings only a few years old seemed ill-fitted for the tasks and services required. Now, in the late ‘90s, we have the Internet and the World Wide Web, and who could have guessed the revolution they would bring to society in general and to libraries in particular?

Years from now, the same may be said about the new structures and systems some of you are contemplating. Will your assumptions seem shortsighted and naïve? They may if you fall into the trap of planning for a specific technology or structure. Rather, plan for a specific (and more stable) mission and vision for your institution, and then use the available technology and structures of the times to fulfil these relatively stable elements.

Planning with a clear mission and vision
I believe our ability to predict the full impact of a specific technology (let alone broader technological evolution) is sorely limited, whereas our abilities to articulate a useful mission, to envision a future that enhances that mission, and to use technology now available to eliminate impediments to our mission and vision are not nearly as limited.

Think in terms of bottlenecks
We can plan for a future we wish to create and work toward that future. I believe this is true despite the fact that we cannot begin to predict the full impact of such innovations as the Internet (and may not be able to until it has become part of our history). Since we cannot wait for a historical perspective of today’s events, we need to think in terms of current impediments or bottlenecks to our mission and vision, and how to eliminate those bottlenecks. This puts us far more in control than trying to grasp at the elusive trajectory of technology.

Look, for example, at the amazing result of the lowly spinning wheel and how it eliminated bottlenecks as described by that wonderful interpreter of history in terms of connections of technology and societal change, James Burke. (See the sidebar entitled “The Spinning Wheel and Bottlenecks—A Historical Example.”)

We have to think clearly in terms of bottlenecks to a well-articulated mission and vision, and we have to think clearly in terms of partnerships and alliances to overcome such bottlenecks. We have to learn from the historical perspective offered by such marvellous individuals as James Burke and seek out those bottlenecks that stall our vision.

We have faced and continue to face five major bottlenecks, or impediments, to the vision I have suggested:

1. Lack of accessibility—We must provide information independent of where it is kept. In addition, we must provide better means of retrieving information held in our books and journals—especially our books. And, we must make our libraries accessible from anywhere.

2. Outdated materials—By the time material reaches our libraries much of it is old. The library, to be useful to decision making, must not be bypassed in the delivery of current information.

3. Higher costs—The cost of materials continues to rise for libraries, and a wider variety of sources appear every day. Om addition, price as a means of protecting intellectual property is an increasing barrier.

4. Insufficient storage capacity—The growing cost of space requires that better storage methods be found and that preservation and accessibility for future generations be considered as well. Consider the short technological half-lives of some storage media, e.g., seven-track tape and 40- and 80-column punch cards.

5. Unavailability of materials—This is distinguished from accessibility in that some necessary material may not ever be “published” due to cost, space, time, or proprietary considerations.

The Spinning Wheel and Bottlenecks—A Historical Example
An interesting example of the connection between a new technology, bottlenecks, and major societal change is found in the tale of the spinning wheel. This device, invented in China about a thousand years ago, ultimately uncorked the bottleneck of thread production, giving rise to an abundance of cloth, which led to an abundance of clothes, which led to an abundance of rags, and, since paper can be made from linen rags, cheaper paper.

In the period before the 14th century in Europe, paper was difficult to produce due to a scarcity of rags. Books were, therefore, in short supply because as an alternative to paper, it took one or two hundred sheep or calves to make the parchment to form one good, thick Bible.

The bottleneck was not the copying of the book (done then by scribes who were relatively plentiful) but the cost of the material on which to write. With an abundance of rags, paper became cheap, and the bottleneck shifted to the scribe who, in writing the book by hand, could no longer keep up with the paper supply. Thus arose the need for a faster way of copying printed material, and this historical need gave rise to the printing press.

The printing press led to an abundance of affordable books. Affordable books have allowed us to build the astonishing array of libraries which we now enjoy. But the analysis doesn’t stop there, for cheap books and public libraries in which they can be found are key elements in the diffusion of knowledge within a society.

Now, societies tend to stratify and stabilize on the basis of the stratification of knowledge (another bottleneck). With increased access to information and diffusion of knowledge to the lower strata of society, the evolution of democracy as we now know it was possible. Democracy then could be said to be the result of the steady though not especially rapid elimination of bottlenecks beginning with the spinning wheel over a thousand years ago.
(Burke, James. Connections. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978) How do we begin to look purposefully at today’s bottlenecks to the mission of our libraries and use technology as a tool for overcoming these bottlenecks?

Look for alliances to overcome the bottlenecks
No single institution can address these challenges alone. Therefore, I suggest that the way to attack them is via partnerships and alliances. The consortia of libraries by region and/or type is one such alliance to increase affordability and accessibility. But what about others? Consider the alliances of publishers and libraries to bring the material to the user in electronic mode and complement (or sometimes completely bypass) the hard-copy delivery mechanism.

I believe that alliances are built on enlightened self-interest. This requires that you and your ally have a shared vision or at the very least that you understand each other’s visions and missions fully. If you can’t answer “What’s in it for me?” not only for yourself but also for those you seek to form alliances with, you probably won’t be effective in creating the alliance—even though it might be the most effective way to bring that troublesome bottleneck tumbling down. The path is strewn with failed partnerships where the end might have been laudable, but the price was just too high (and price is not always measured in dollars; it can be ego, perceived independence, etc.). But, when done right, the results can be amazing and can help all parties succeed.

Look, for example, at the amazing and continuing success of OCLC, an alliance of libraries now worldwide in scope. Not all alliances, however, are that grand. Simple collaborations with other components of your organization (infrastructure units such as telecommunications or computing, for example) may be the most significant efforts you can implement to pursue your mission and reduce bottlenecks to achieve your vision.

Thinking strategically to be considered ‘strategic’
What do I mean when I suggest that you should be thinking strategically? To understand this phrase, you must understand what I mean by strategies. I maintain that strategies are the policies (written or unwritten) that guide organizational decisions, and they are tied inextricably to the nature, direction, and basic purpose of an organization (or individual). These policies are connected to an organization’s mission and vision, but are more about how the mission and vision are achieved. They are not always explicit (or written, but strategies can (and must actively) be deduced from the actions of people and organizations crucial to you. This deductive process goes on all the time in the minds of your users, for example. They think about what is important to their efforts, and if your strategies seem to be to their benefit, then your organization is important to them as well. Because your organization’s importance is best measured in the minds of your customers, or key stakeholders, your strategies must align with theirs. If your actions (and strategies) communicate that you are vital to their interests and strategies, then your organization is “strategically positioned” with respect to them.

When marketing professionals talk about “positioning” they never mean what they think of a product or service but what a potential customer thinks. You must do the same thing. You must put yourself in the shoes of your customers and other key individuals. Remember the sample mission that said “making users more effective in a competitive environment”—if you are not vital, in your customer’s eyes, then you are not strategically “positioned” with respect to them. Simple as that is to describe, it is not so simple to execute, for this alignment is fundamentally a communication problem. You can’t operate effectively without explicitly portraying the value you contribute to your users. You can’t “not communicate.” Inaction as well as action “positions” you in the minds of your customers and other important stakeholders.

It is important to be positioned well with both your “users” and “choosers” (i.e. those who choose what you will get in the way of resources). Customers are only one of the key groups. They may not be the direct users of your services, but they are certainly just as vital. There are board members, senior executives, other managers, user group representatives, etc.

In short, you must have a clear understanding of your own strategies, though it is not always easy to keep them consistent and explicit. Even more crucial is to have a clear understanding of the strategies of the community in which you reside and which you serve. You must align your strategies with the strategies of your key stakeholders (and there may be many different types). And, finally, you must always make explicit the value of your organization to those you serve, and that is primarily a communication challenge.

Mashing gophers and smashing bottlenecks
To borrow from a popular desktop sign, “Don’t let the bottlenecks wear you down.” I have been arguing for partnerships or alliances as one means of battling the bottlenecks. In many arcades there is a “gopher game” in which the player wields a padded mallet against gophers popping up randomly from a variety of holes. The faster the player mashes the gopher back into the hole, the faster the next gopher pops up. But some of these games have two mallets and can be played by a pair of gopher mashers. Then the gopher is really in trouble. That’s what I like about partnerships.

What other strategies are available to address the bottlenecks in this age of the Internet? Certainly user education is one. But one that I like even more is provider education, and by that I mean learning from the user. Listening to the user via focus group interviews, exit interviews, user groups, surveys, advisory boards (selected to represent both those who use your services and those who decide how much resource you will get) is important—more important in many ways than having them listen to you.

Don’t fight battles on all fronts. Select the most significant obstacles and evaluate them against current resources and available technology. By looking at both cost of eliminating the bottleneck and payoff when the bottleneck is diminished or gone, you can select your strategies for optimum use of your time, energy, and other resources.

I used the phrase “age of the Internet,” which is just a shorthand way of saying a time of rapid change. Really, when haven’t we lived in a age of rapid change? My grandmother, who died at the age of 93, saw more change than I think I will even if I live that long. As a new bride, she rode from the church in a horse and buggy used by her husband, a country doctor, to make his rounds. Before she died, she was flying on a jet passenger aircraft to visit relatives in California she had never seen before. What change could I ever experience, Internet not withstanding, that could equal that? Perhaps a vacation on the moon would be comparable.

Short of such a vacation, your pursuit of change should be consistent with your (unchanging) vision and mission. So spend your time now on that aspect of planning and then the “age of Internet” will be just one more phase in your own process of eliminating bottlenecks.

By W. David Penniman
W. David Penniman currently serves as professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee and is the director of the Center for Information Studies. He is also a consultant to senior management in information systems, resources, and services. He holds an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in behavioural science from Ohio State University. His e-mail address is

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