Tag Archives: Collaboration

The powers of library consortia 2: Soft power and purposeful mobilization: scaling learning and innovation

This is the second of 4 blog posts about library consortia. I will link to the others here as they appear:

  1. The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence  
  2. The powers of library consortia 2: Soft power and purposeful mobilization: scaling learning and innovation
  3. The powers of library consortia 3: Scaling influence and capacity
  4. The powers of library consortia 4: Scoping, sourcing and scaling

Library consortia play an important role in scaling learning and innovation – this will become both more purposeful and more important in coming years.

While one might first think of scaling capacity (e.g. shared infrastructure) or scaling influence (e.g. lobbying government on public policy issues affecting scholarly communication) in connection with library consortia, learning and innovation are increasingly central.

scaling

Learning and innovation

Learning and innovation have become crucial for successful library activity. As the practices and expectations of library users – as creators and users of information in their research, learning and general lives – continue to change and as the information environment continues to diversify, it becomes increasingly important for libraries to be able to respond quickly. To do this effectively, the library needs to understand directions and develop responsive services. And this in turn depends on effectively scaling learning and innovation within and across libraries.

Scaling learning

Professional development or continuing education is an important part of many groups’ activities. The group may provide some economies of provision or shared expertise, and for this reason could have been included in the later scaling capacity section.

However, I am thinking here of learning in a broader sense. John Hagel talks about the importance of learning and the exchange of tacit knowledge in environments of uncertainty like ours:

In rapidly changing environments, it’s important to realize that tacit knowledge trumps explicit knowledge. The latter can be articulated and written down and it usually takes time before it can be expressed clearly and coherently to others. Tacit knowledge is within our heads and we have a hard time even expressing it to ourselves, much less to anyone else. Because tacit knowledge is generally newer knowledge, emerging from new experiences that we’ve encountered, it’s often the most valuable knowledge, providing us with insight into how to act in a rapidly evolving environment.

Tacit knowledge becomes accessible through shared practice

Because it’s so hard to express, tacit knowledge is not easily accessible. The best way to access it is to work together and to observe the practices that emerge from this tacit knowledge. By working together, we also develop deeper, trust-based relationships that create a safer environment for us to explore new insights with others in our group that we have a hard time expressing to ourselves. [Scaling Learning in an Exponential World. Edge Perspectives by John Hagel.]

The importance of learning through shared practices highlights the importance of people networks. Those networks in turn foster trust and ongoing serendipitous interactions. While there may be some concern about groupthink, trust also encourages an environment of frank discussion and challenge.

The importance of learning through shared practices highlights the importance of people networks. Those networks in turn foster trust and ongoing serendipitous interactions. Click To Tweet

This provides the context for my thinking about two related aspects of library groups.

First, there are those groups which have an explicit and central role in facilitating professional networks, communities of practice, leadership development and peer learning. This may be the primary focus of some groups. Think, for example, in their different ways, of CNI, the OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP), DLF, or the DPC (in the UK). Or it may be one element of a group’s activity. LIBER, for example, notes on its website: “Moreover, we contribute towards the development of innovative library leaders through our many conferences, workshops and seminars.” Think of the ALA divisions, LLAMA, ACRL or LITA, for example, where professional development is a driver of participation. One of the stated purposes of ARL is “fostering the exchange of ideas and expertise.” And it now has an explicitly programmatic approach to scaling learning through the ARL Academy, which aims to give attention to communities of practice, leadership development and workforce transformation. RLUK’s initiatives around unique and distinctive collections is a further example of a programmatic approach. JULAC, the consortium of university libraries in Hong Kong, also has a programmatic approach to creating learning opportunities across the libraries.

This learning role is also an important and explicit part of more functionally specific groups, Duraspace, the Digital Preservation Coalition or the Library Publishing Coalition, for example, or the Data Curation Network, which was explicitly created to scale expertise across the members. The Library Publishing Coalition notes that it “fosters collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and the development of common practices for library publishers.”

The second way in which scaling learning is important for groups relates to what I have called the ‘soft power’ of groups. I spoke to a library director a couple of years ago who was trying to join a larger regional consortium. Scaling capacity was certainly an important driver, around digital infrastructure, shared systems and negotiation. However, scaling learning was an equally strong incentive. She wanted her colleagues to mix with their peers in a broader group, to have a community within which to understand shared print, research data management, the different strands of open access, and other emerging service areas. Having such a peer group also gave access to “evidence and arguments” which could be used in discussions with administration and faculty in her own institution. The group would make her library smarter in terms of direction and local advocacy. In this way, the group scales learning across the members, and engagement in shared practices potentially accelerates local developments. Groups allow library staff to network with each other, to discuss direction, to come to shared decisions, to ‘pool uncertainty’ (and to reduce uncertainty as shared perspectives shed light on problems), and to build confidence in judgements. Staff can work with peers from other institutions, or mix with people with different experience and perspectives. Managing committees and working groups provides leadership and other development opportunities. In this way, a group may be an important factor in individual advancement or succession planning as participation becomes a platform for personal development as opportunities arise within the consortium.

Librarians come together around shared practices. The value of this soft power should not be underestimated. This is a central reason for the persistence of many groups.

Scaling innovation

When we think of innovation, we tend to think of novel or interesting new approaches. These may arise in multiple contexts: in libraries, from vendors, and so on.

However, for an innovation to have impact beyond its original context it must be adopted by a wider group. At the same time, an institution will want to adopt appropriate innovation from elsewhere. Much innovation needs to become systemic to have an impact or to become economical. Innovation is especially important, again, in an environment where research and learning behaviors are changing and in turn changing the demands placed on libraries. Innovations may be around workflow, use of spaces, services, technology, and so on.

UIA logo

The University Innovation Alliance is an interesting experiment in relation to what I mean by scaling innovation. A group of public research universities dedicated to increasing access and student success, they are looking at techniques for diffusing the innovation of individual institutions across the group to see what works on a larger scale. The goal is to leverage individual institutional successes, while reducing redundant experimentation within the group. It is an example of a consortium explicitly focused on scaling innovation: they will “innovate, scale and diffuse.” Their first focus is learning analytics, looking at how developments at pioneer institutions might be adapted by others.

The UIA has a three-stage scaling model:

  1. Identifying new solutions.
  2. Scaling proven innovations.
  3. Communication and diffusion.

We have yet to see what impact the UIA has, but the motivation and the approach are intriguing.

Scaling innovation is an important part of library groups, although there is not a library group with the very specific focus of the UIA. The Urban Libraries Council, for example, holds an annual competition to demonstrate innovation in several categories. A part of the purpose is to promote innovation by example across the membership. The Lyrasis Catalyst Fund provides another example, which supports projects with potential community wide impact. SCELC has a competitive Project Initiatives Fund to advance its strategic initiatives.

Creating a network is central to each of the examples above – a network in which new approaches can be socialized and embedded. This is an important aspect of  library (and related) consortial activity. This may be in specialist groups like the Open Text Network or Data Curation Network. Or it may be more general – Educopia or Duraspace, for example, have a mission to develop networks which support diffusion and adoption of innovations. Likewise, CNI, the OCLC Research Library Partnership or DLF have an important goal  to help socialize and embed innovation. This is certainly also the case with broader groups: Jisc in the UK comes to mind which has a very specific goal of helping to identify, incubate and diffuse innovation.

Again, the soft power of consortia is important here: ‘network making’ helps diffuse innovation, moving it into practice. However, there is also scope for more purposeful work to scale innovation across institutions, which is what makes the example of the UIA interesting.

Conclusion

Scaling learning and innovation is actually a central part of library groups and consortia. Often this is a by-product of the “soft power” of such groups, bringing people together around shared practices and problems, mobilizing the trust networks they have created. In this way learning and innovation are emergent – building on the sharing of knowledge and experience in ongoing organizational relationships. From the point of view of consortium staff this is a critically important and valuable benefit, even if it is not always called out explicitly as a service. It would make sense to make it more explicit.

Scaling learning and innovation is actually a central part of library groups and consortia. Often this is a by-product of the “soft power” of such groups, bringing people together around shared practices and problems, mobilizing the trust… Click To Tweet

We are also seeing more purposeful approaches, which recognize the importance of learning and innovation – and their intimate connection – in an environment of uncertainty and change. As libraries work to be more active partners and advocates for their communities, they recognize the need to be more responsive and adaptive. This makes it vital to have good mechanisms for scaling learning and innovation within and across libraries, and through the collaboration networks which consortia create.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to the following people for generous comments on earlier drafts: Gwen Evans, Mike Furlough, Kevin Guthrie, Susan Haigh, Brian Lavoie, Kirsten Leonard, Rick Lugg, John MacColl, Constance Malpas, Barbara Preece, Judy Ruttenberg, Katherine Skinner, John Wilkin, Nicola Wright. Of course, I alone am responsible for the use to which I have put their advice and they do not necessarily share any of the views expressed here! I presented some of this material at the JULAC 50th Anniversary Conference in Hong Kong, and I benefited from the views outlined in the formal responses of Peter Sidorko and Louise Jones.

The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence

This is the first of 4 blog posts about library consortia. I will link to the others here as they appear:

  1. The powers of library consortia 1: How consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence
  2. The powers of library consortia 2: Soft power and purposeful mobilization: scaling learning and innovation
  3. The powers of library consortia 3: Scaling influence and capacity
  4. The powers of library consortia 4: Scoping, sourcing and scaling

Scaling capacity, learning, innovation and influence

Libraries and related organizations group together in a variety of ways to get their work done. They consort where there are scale advantages: to lobby, for example, to negotiate and license, to reduce costs, or to build shared infrastructure. The ‘soft power’ of such groups is also important – the relationship building, the trust, the sharing of learning and innovation that comes from working together over time is an important reason that such groups persist.

They consort where there are scale advantages: to lobby, for example, to negotiate and license, to reduce costs, or to build shared infrastructure. Click To Tweet

In each case, libraries recognize that collective action or building shared capacity delivers scale benefits.

scaling

In this context, it is interesting to think about collaboration for scale in four areas: influence, learning, innovation and capacity. Some collaborative organizations span several of these areas, some are more specialized. In all these areas consortial or collective activity potentially creates scale advantages.

Organizations which primarily scale influence have an advocacy or representative role, and are often at national (e.g. ALA, RLUK) or international (e.g. LIBER, IFLA) levels, or come together around particular issues (e.g. SPARC around open access). A regional dimension is often very important for organizations which scale capacity (e.g. OhioLINK or OCUL), either for logistical reasons or because there is public support (at the level of a state or province, or at national level). Other organizations may pull together peer groups (e.g. PALNI or Ivies Plus) or particular functional or interest groups (e.g. DPN or Duraspace). And in an environment of evolving user expectations and behaviors, there is a growing recognition that libraries need to think purposefully about shared approaches to learning and innovation which better prepare them to respond to new needs. Some groups are focused on learning and innovation (e.g. CNI or the Digital Preservation Coalition), while it is also increasingly an important part of all groups.

Of course, groups come into existence and persist for different reasons and in different ways. But they often have overlapping roles and individual libraries typically support several. The organizational context of collaborative or consortial activity is surprisingly little explored in the library literature, in terms of incentives, organizational patterns, successful models, etc. There is certainly a descriptive body of work about classic library consortia (such consortia are often organized around some combination of licensing, resource sharing and training, or sometimes manage a shared library system), but the more general perspective is missing. It is this gap which prompts this series of blog entries.

The organizational context of collaborative or consortial activity is surprisingly little explored in the library literature, in terms of incentives, organizational patterns, successful models, etc. Click To Tweet

In four blog entries I am going to consider library consortia or collaborative organizations using this framework. I have two purposes:

  1. The first is to ask some questions about the shape and dynamics of consortia, in order to contribute to thinking about an important and underexamined topic. Clearly, this can only be preliminary and suggestive in this form; I offer some observations, rather than a full grounded analysis. I use some simple heuristic frameworks to structure my discussion (scaling influence/learning/innovation/capacity and scoping/sourcing/rightscaling), while acknowledging that a fuller treatment might generate better approaches. I would note in particular that there is a large literature on organizations across several disciplines which would provide a valuable context for the examination of collaborative library work.
  2. The second is to underline how scaling learning and innovation have become important shared concerns in complex times, and deserve increased investment of both attention and resources.

In this introductory post I put consortial activity in the context of other approaches to scaling, and I touch on some general issues that will be discussed in more detail in later posts. In particular I am interested in scoping, sourcing and (right)scaling, three ways in which choices about collaborative activity need to be made.

Patterns of scaling

Of course, collaborative activity is only one way in which libraries acquire shared services or connect to broader resources, or in other words scale their capabilities. Reductively, one can point to three patterns which deliver shared library services at a level above the institution.

  1. Public – Shared infrastructure or services is provided through a public agency or with public support, often involving national (or regional) coordination. Think variously of services historically provided by Jisc in the UK, or the regional bibliographic networks in Germany, or Libraries Australia, or Bibsys in Norway. This is a common pattern outside the US, although within the US there is often some support through state-supported agencies (e.g. OhioLINK).
  2. Collaborative – A group of libraries works together to get something done. Formality, size and scope vary enormously. This collaboration often takes the form of a consortium, and libraries support many consortia.
  3. Third party – A shared service can be bought from a provider (publisher, system vendor, aggregator, etc). Consultancy is another example of a third party service, as a way of scaling learning by tapping into broader expertise or experience. Of course, this is a major way in which libraries scale their services – for example this is largely how they acquire the journal literature, automation, and other central services.

These three patterns may be layered or blurred in various ways. A library may collaboratively source a service through a consortium, but the consortium may then contract with a third party to actually provide it (a shared library management system for example, or a digital preservation service). In fact, one important function of collaborative or public provision is to efficiently or cost-effectively procure shared services from third parties. Publicly supported groups may have a strong collaborative element, or have contributions from members; OhioLINK is an example here. Jisc in the UK describes itself as a ‘membership’ organization – it is moving from its centrally publicly funded model to one in which universities and others subscribe to benefit from services.

So, while library collaboration (typically through consortia) is my major focus here, intersections with public and third party provision are frequent.

Contrasts in consortial activity

The variety of library collaborations is great, and this translates into great variety of consortial organizations and directions. These also change over time. By way of example, I note three important contrasts about consortial activity here.

  • Single-purpose or multi-purpose. Some groups may specialize around one function or direction. SPARC for example is focused on an open agenda. HathiTrust is focused on preservation of and access to the digitized collections of its members, in support – more broadly – of the preservation of the scholarly and cultural record. However, other groups may do many things. Take PALNI for example. PALNI is a consortium of private academic libraries in Indiana, and provides a range of services around a deep collaboration focus – sharing infrastructure, expertise, and other capabilities of member libraries. PALNI will adapt to support the changing priorities of its members, and so, for example, it recently developed programmatic support for digital scholarship. In this way, there may be an interesting balance between economies of scope (where, for example, it makes sense for members to centralise a variety of different functions with a consortium, including shared infrastructure and attention to evolving service areas) and economies of scale (where the costs of providing a service, including infrastructure, marketing, R&D, etc, are spread across many participants, as in, for example, HathiTrust). Of course, many third-party providers exploit economies of scale to deliver services in focused areas (e.g. cloud system providers, aggregators, publishers). A related issue here is the relative homogeneity of members. The intersection of member interests bounds the scope of the consortium. Where a consortium comprises members of different types (large, small; academic, public) then the intersection of interests may need be quite tightly scoped (resource sharing, for example) to achieve desired advantages and the consortium may be focused on those. Where consortium members form more of a peer group, then the intersection of interests is greater, and the consortium may move shared concerns forward across a broader range.
  • Agent or provider. There is no one model of collaboration. Libraries may work together informally to get things done. They may add progressively more structure: convene member working groups, hire staff, hire an executive director, constitute the collaboration as an independent entity. Of course, once the collaboration is structured as an independent entity, it has to sustain itself and issues of alignment and governance come to the fore. Over time, this may become more important as original personalities or organizational contexts may change, new requirements may emerge, activities may grow or become more diverse. As the organization grows, it may outgrow the ability or interest of members to entirely support its activities it through dues and it may seek to diversify revenue streams by offering additional services, applying for grants, and so on. This means that the balance between the group as a direct agent of the member library interest, a collective resource to be directed, as it were, and the group as a provider to the libraries, independently developing potential products, can change. As a provider, the consortium needs to supply support and training, upgrade the service in line with user expectations, and generally offer the support that libraries might expect from third party providers. This means in turn that services are potentially compared with those of third party providers – think of, for example, of a shared institutional repository provided by the consortium, and the comparison to, say, bepress. This service relationship can change the dynamic between members and consortium. Size is an important factor here also, given that as an organization grows it may be difficult for all members to directly participate in decision making. One important dynamic is where the membership is no longer a mutually ‘known community’ with regular social interaction. Other factors are diversification of funding, or different types of library served. As size or complexity grows in this way, so likely does the focus on representative and decision-making structures in governance, and on the role, accountability and authority of the executive director. Typically, an executive director will be accountable to the membership for decisions through a representative Board. The balance between agent and provider is an important contributor to the sense of ownership and belonging that members will have towards a consortium, as is the participation in governance mechanisms.
  • Collective action and rightscaling. Consortia are effectively a response to a collective action question (is it more efficient to solve some questions in a group, or to turn to a group to acquire capabilities you cannot generate internally?), which in turn raises a right-scaling question (at what level is action desirable, or what is the optimum size of a group?). For many issues, a regional scale is important, where personal networks within that known community are an important part of the value a consortium delivers. For others, especially in a network environment, it makes sense to scale to much broader groups. For example, OCLC has built platforms on which thousands of libraries collaborate at scale around cataloging, resource sharing and discoverability. Jisc provides infrastructure solutions which scale to the national level. Scale also becomes an important part of scoping decisions. There is one network-level HathiTrust, for example, which makes more sense than multiple regional ones. This again underlines the diversity of consortial activity, from locally-constituted groups to large providers of community infrastructure.
The intersection of member interests bounds the scope of the consortium. Click To Tweet

In each of these cases, there is a spectrum of choices or evolving stages. One of the more interesting things about this space is how groups can evolve: consortia may change over time as circumstances and environment change.

For many issues, a regional scale is important, where personal networks within that known community are an important part of the value a consortium delivers. Click To Tweet

So, for example think of a group that is set up to serve a single purpose – over time, this purpose may shift, or other activities may be added. In some cases, a consortium can evolve into a general collaborative apparatus that members reflexively turn to when new or shared needs arise. In this way they may reduce the cost of building a new service, partnership or network from scratch. However, it also means that the consortium needs to be clear about what the appropriate response is – developing a service, contracting for a service, ruling it out of scope, and so on. Consortia may also want to attract new members, and evolve services in that context. The evolution of Lyrasis in recent years is an interesting example of diversification.

Similarly, the transition from agent to provider may be prompted by various steps. For example a university hosted consortium is a common model. However, a decision may be made to independently incorporate to get more flexibility – to avoid university procurement or HR processes for example. If a group develops shared infrastructure, there may be a decision to diversify revenue or to grow membership to support greater capital investment for R&D, platform development, and so on.

If a group develops shared infrastructure, there may be a decision to diversify revenue or to grow membership to support greater capital investment for R&D, platform development, and so on. Click To Tweet

Finally, it may make sense to carry out some activity at a broader level. The ‘O’ in OCLC originally stood for Ohio: it was an organization set up to provide shared services to Ohio colleges. It has grown to serve thousands of libraries around the world, as the services it provides benefit from network effects. HathiTrust was originally set up at a BTAA level. It quickly grew to operate at a national scale, and is also looking at an international membership model. In other cases, an organization may deliberately restrict growth; trusted interaction with a known local ‘known community’ may be an important attribute which the group wishes to maintain.

These three cases are examples respectively of what I later discuss under scoping (what is the appropriate range of activity?), sourcing (how should the activity be procured?) and rightscaling (at what level should the activity be carried out?).

Conclusion

For convenience in these posts, I use the terms ‘consortia’ or ‘collaborative groups’ to refer to organizations which support some form of general collective activity, and which are supported by libraries, acknowledging that this may not always be the term used in a specific context.

Given the scale of the US – in terms of both the size of the sector and geographic extent – and the comparative absence of the overarching national public provision which is present in many other countries, it offers many examples of collaborative activity at different levels. While I emphasize the US in my examples, I also include some developments from other countries. In general, where I provide examples, I do not comment on how effective or efficient a particular approach is.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to the following people for generous comments on earlier drafts: Gwen Evans, Mike Furlough, Kevin Guthrie, Susan Haigh, Brian Lavoie, Kirsten Leonard, Rick Lugg, John MacColl, Constance Malpas, Barbara Preece, Judy Ruttenberg, Katherine Skinner, John Wilkin, Nicola Wright. Of course, I alone am responsible for the use to which I have put their advice and they do not necessarily share any of the views expressed here! I presented some of this material at the JULAC 50th Anniversary Conference in Hong Kong, and I benefited from the views outlined in the formal responses of Peter Sidorko and Louise Jones.