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SLA 2011: Alignment

Unsurprisingly, one recurring theme at SLA 2011 was the idea of alignment. I say unsurprisingly because a couple of years ago, SLA undertook a substantial amount of research into the users and stakeholders of special libraries, as part of the alignment project. The idea behind alignment is to ensure that the values, language and goals of the library or information centre are aligned with that of its stakeholders, funders and/or parent organisation. It sounds like an obvious idea but one of the key findings of the research was that there was an enormous gulf between what we as librarians consider important, and what our key stakeholders actually value.

Several sessions I attended focused on the alignment project specifically, such as the LMD marketing breakfast and the session on “The Corporate Library in Turbulent Times”, and many more referenced it indirectly. I was pleased to see that so many people had taken the project to heart, as I really think the lessons contained are incredibly valuable for all librarians, but as Jim Matarazzo and Toby Pearlstein noted in their session, talking about it isn’t enough. As long as there is a disconnect between what libraries value and promote and what our stakeholders are actually interested in – and there still is – we as information professionals can’t really claim to be partners in the success of the enterprise. If we want to be seen as an embedded part of the organisation, contributing to and invested in its success, then we need to make sure that we fully understand what the decision makers in our organisation actually want to see and align ourselves accordingly. If we don’t do this, then the risk is that information services will continue to be seen as simply a service provider, separate from the business as a whole and therefore easy to get rid of if savings need to be made.

This was also discussed in Amy Plympton, Lynn Donches and Susan Cronizer‘s session on “Strategic Information Initiatives”. The panelists discussed the importance of being aware of your organisations strategic plan when writing your own for your department, so you can demonstrate to senior management how information services is supporting the goals of the organisation as a whole. If other business units within the firm also have their own strategic plans, these can be useful for reference too so you can see how all the sections of the business fit together.

This session also focused on the importance of measuring the right things. For example, if you give your clients access to databases at their desktops that can free you up for more value-add work, but if you base your usage stats on how many enquiries you answer then that number will probably go down once people can answer simple queries for themselves. The panelists advised, basically, working out which stats make you look the best – do you measure number of enquiries handled, number of hours spent on research, or something more sophisticated such as costs saved through using the librarians’ expertise? Which metric you focus on will of course depend on how your service is set up, but make sure you’ve thought about what you’re measuring and aren’t just counting whatever is easiest to count.

The panelists in “The Corporate Library in Turbulent Times” also discussed the importance of measuring, but were a bit more strident about it! One speaker (can’t remember if it was Jim or Toby, sorry!) said that if you haven’t been measuring and evaluating your service all along, then by the time you find out your job or even your department is in line for the axe then it’s too late (I think the actual phrased used was “if you haven’t been evaluating all along, then shame on you”!). I got into a bit of a debate on Twitter about this with some people who thought that this was needlessly inflammatory, but I actually agree completely. You can’t wait until you think you might be in trouble to start measuring and evaluating, it has to be an ongoing process. Otherwise, how do you know why you’re not valued, and thus why your service is in trouble? How can you benchmark against what has worked well in the past if you don’t have any data to benchmark against?

Jim and Toby also stressed the need to know your parent company inside out, so you have plenty of advance warning if they’re in financial troubles that could affect your department. For me, this goes hand-in-hand with the whole concept of alignment: if you’re an embedded part of your organisation, you shouldn’t have to wait for year-end announcements to have an idea of how the firm is doing. As was pointed out, if you don’t have sufficient knowledge of your company, decisions that affect your service can be made without time for you to prepare.

Much of the alignment research centres around finding the right language to use around stakeholders. This was touched on in various sessions, and discussed in depth at the LMD marketing breakfast. Librarians speak our own language, and it’s easy to forget how little much of it means to users. Some examples given were “database” and “search”. Users don’t know what a database is: to them, it’s a website. And if you’re running training sessions on searching, remember that users don’t really want to search, they want to find. So instead of teaching users how to search databases, why not teach them how to find things on websites? It’s a simple difference, but if it eases communication and helps people to understand what it is you actually do, then it’s worth making that small change.

Further to this, remember that your users generally don’t care that much about searching/finding on databases/websites at all: what they care about is making their jobs easier. So don’t promote the tool, promote what it’ll help them do. My users are lawyers, who work incredibly long hours and are highly risk-averse, so the best way to promote various tools to them would probably be to explain how they can save time and avoid mistakes.

I would really advise looking at the alignment materials on the SLA website, and if you’re an SLA member have a look at the recently launched Future Ready toolkit, which incorporates a lot of the findings of the alignment research. There’s a huge amount of incredibly valuable material there which I can only really touch on in the space of a blog post, but that I think is vital for information professionals in all sectors to be aware of.

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One comment on “SLA 2011: Alignment

  1. […] to the strategic plan of their institution. Laura Woods also discusses the alignment project here. In the elevator speech session, Gayle and Mary referred to the results of the research conducted […]

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