Getting smarter

Imagine sending an unexpected video call invite to ten colleagues at different organizations two years ago. My guess is that most would have been surprised, some annoyed. But after a year of working remotely, the response would be much different. And even as we transition back to working in person, that option will be one used more often going forward. Because in many circumstances, it’s simply a smarter choice.

So, why didn’t we make that choice before?

Smarter by necessity

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make smart choices a lot over the past year. I joined OCLC less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I came in with a lot of expectations about how I was going to interact with OCLC members, including travel, face-to-face visits, and live focus groups. Well, you know how that turned out.

Like everyone else, I had to make changes to how I did my job. And video calls ended up being a major part of that. While I’ve deeply missed meeting with coworkers and colleagues in person, there have been countless benefits, like convening larger meetings, staying more easily in contact with folks from different regions, the ability to connect with more diverse groups, and so on.

OCLC’s Peter Collins on how smart fulfillment helps inform faster, better #ResourceSharing Click To Tweet

This gets me back to my earlier question—why didn’t we do more of this kind of engagement before the pandemic? The technology wasn’t the issue. Most of us had smartphones or laptops with cameras and mics. It boils down to this: We didn’t do it because we didn’t have to.

Smarter by design

As our resource sharing team lead, I’ve been focused on developing smart fulfillment capabilities for library services, which plays an important role in our overall “Library on-demand” strategy. In many cases, that means improving the design of specific products so they do what library workers need and users expect—but better, faster, and with more automation and personalization. Smart fulfillment optimizes delivery to meet library and user preferences. By weighing policy data, licensing agreements, lending history, and format preferences, and presenting what’s available, the system can predict which location can deliver it fastest.

Smart fulfillment makes our services smarter by design. It allows libraries to implement dynamic, data-driven processes that deliver accurate options and recommendations based on immediate resource availability. But if you’re just one library or one group or consortium, all those features would be the equivalent, two years ago, of having better video-conferencing apps but very few people to call. Advancing the technology is only one part of saving staff time, increasing delivery speed, and improving outcomes for library users.

Smarter together

The other vital element of successful smart fulfillment is the network itself—the libraries and workers using it and the available centralized data that informs smart choices. Resource sharing, by definition, requires at least two libraries. And in what many of my colleagues call “the bad old days,” that sharing was done manually, with little or no automation. My team sees startling instances of the difference between manual-vs-automated ILL lending activity all the time. Here are just two of the many examples.

  • A manual request for a physical DVD that was initiated on 27 December 2020 wasn’t received at the borrowing library until 8 February 2021. That’s 43 days. But a similar request using OCLC resource sharing automation that was initiated on 4 March 2021 was received at the borrowing library in just 4 days. That’s a difference of 39 days or a time savings of 90%.
  • On the digital lending side, a manual request that began on a Tuesday at 2:28 pm was filled that Thursday at 11:56 am, taking a total of 45 hours and 28 minutes. With automation, a similar request that came in on a Friday at 1:53 pm was filled by 2:08—in just 15 minutes. A time savings of more than 99%.

As video calls became more prevalent during the pandemic and more people got comfortable with the process, it made me think about the power of peer networks. Once we all got zooming, it was no big deal and we all saved a lot of time. But it took a while to build up that momentum, and the knowledge that others, too, were already taking advantage of the technology.

Similarly, smart fulfillment features enable tens of thousands of automated requests to flow through the OCLC resource sharing network—all without the need for any human intervention. But until you know that, it’s harder to understand the benefits of the fantastic, joint arrangement between resource sharing partners to be smarter, together, by consensus.

In a year filled with many struggles and hardships, I was absolutely thrilled to see more than 1,000 resource sharing libraries qualify for and benefit from our new Express digital delivery program. Express is for libraries that consistently deliver articles and other digital resources within 18 hours or less through OCLC’s WorldShare ILL network. In fact, in the first three months of this year, Express libraries filled more than 100,000 requests in right around 10 hours. Express helps libraries instantly recognize other institutions that share their level of commitment.

And speaking of recognizing, I hope to recognize many of them (many of you!) in person soon and talk more about where we’re headed with our smart fulfillment functionality. And when we meet, don’t be surprised if I ask you to join a global user group session via video.

By that time, I may even have figured out how to get a cool digital background working for Zoom and Teams.

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