My top ten “pills” for partnership headaches (Part One)

A big part of public librarianship is community partnerships. In a world of shrinking budgets and misplaced perceptions, Public libraries survive by networking with relevant community groups, non-profit organizations, businesses and government institutions. Some partnerships are obligations; Some are by choice; Others just happen because of circumstance.

My job is two-parts technology, one part partnerships. So, now I feel a little qualified to say something about partnerships. So, I created this “top ten pills” list for partnership. It will take me two entries to explain this all.

  1. Partnerships are hard.
  2. Dimension One: Risk
  3. Dimension Two: Relationship
  4. Have a Plan
  5. Know How to Negotiate
  6. Separate Your Pain from Your Customer’s Pleasure
  7. Find Your Avatar
  8. Be Your Avatar
  9. Key Support
  10. Communicate the Vision
  • Partnerships are Hard

I get annoyed at people who rah-rah about partnerships. “So many advantages,” they say. “Collaboration means less waste” they say. Yet, when I head home and do some light reading I read about how hard the dating scene is.

Isn’t it odd that we live in a world that thinks a no-obligation meeting of two individuals, motivated (perhaps) by the prospect of a long-term relationship is *harder* than a high-risk meeting of two organizations consisting of many individual personalities and interests and an uncertain prospect of future benefit?

The answer to this puzzle is that we assume the dating scene has a direct emotional impact on who we are as people, and that the organizational partnership is nothing personal — just business as usual. Anyone who has gone through a civil budgeting process will know how emotional partnerships can be when the chips are down, someone has not pulled through, or a deadline is quickly looming.

The point is that partnerships are not fun by default. They are work. The benefits libraries earn from partnerships go to the customer and not to the staff. I think this is a positive thing. However, it requires that you take an extra step back when you ask yourself “what’s the ROI here?” The returns may be higher than you think and the emotional investment ought not be considered too highly when you think about cutting the cord. Work is supposed to challenge — it cannot always be fun.

  • Dimension One — Risk

There are two dimensions to partnerships that decide how formal they should be. The first is risk.

Economists and Philosophers will recall Game Theory, Nash’s equilibrium and the Prisoner’s Dilemna. The general point of these logic games is “even if two or more individuals serve to benefit significantly by collaborating, and gather the most cost by competing, they may still choose to compete due to the risk factor created by the other “balking” on a commitment.” Wikipedia offers more on the prisoner’s dilemma and Game Theory.

There are two ways to break the prisoner’s dilemma. The first is formal agreement, backed by a neutral yet powerful body who can punish the person for “balking” on the agreement. The second is collaboration over time. Given practice of the prisoner’s dilemma over time, the competitors will eventually learn to trust each other and collaborate effectively.

If the risks are high, and there is no previous relationship between the partners, then a formal agreement is required. A library cannot risk “practising” high-stakes partnerships, hoping that the trust relationship will develop quickly and everyone will be happy. High risk usually refers to high-money, but can also mean high community image-impact, a serious change in organizational culture and strategy or high-level resource sharing.

The basic tenure of this rule is simple. If there’s risk involved, get your agreement in writing.

  • Dimension Two — Relationships

Formal agreements are costly, however, and sometimes the written-down solution to a partnership seems overly dogmatic and restrictive. Sometimes it is better to start small and build the trust relationship over a few pilot projects, rather than jumping right into a big consortial arrangement.

Informal relationships can be developed in many ways. Here are three examples.

  1. Small, simple projects that lead toward larger collaborations.
  2. Use open space or world cafe to spark interest and/or commitment to mutual projects.
  3. Simply keep lines of communication open and wait for opportunities to share knowledge.
  • Have a Plan

A partnership plan is a good way to approach partnerships. Public Libraries have no shortage of people coming up to them asking for support for various projects and activities.

Sometimes projects speak “partnership” when, in fact, they mean “your support.” In other words, sometimes libraries find themselves involved in projects that require many resources, with little return on the investment. For public libraries, that means tax dollars intended for library services get re-allocated to the local community group. In my view, this is not only sadly annoying, but it is an unethical and undemocratic approach to librarianship.

But a plan that sets priorities, outlines library interests and highlights broad sectors appropriate for partnership can help set the tone for such projects. That way, a branch manager who is approached by a community group with a project idea can say “this is not a library priority right now” or “let’s talk about this further.” Clear direction on partnerships is bound to provide a more positive partnership experience for everyone involved.

  • Know How to Negotiate

I really can’t offer more than what Getting to Yes can offer. Know your own interests, establish a BATNA (best alternative to no agreement), and insist that furture actions or agreements focus on the mutual problem that both of you are trying to resolve with the partnership.

Negotiations, when done well, are very positive and invigorating for both parties. Everyone should feel good after an agreement has been established — otherwise you risk the prospect of someone saying one thing, but not following through. Partnerships are exercises in leadership as well as in relationships.

A Bit about Me

Couple of things about where I’m at right now:

  • What’s On my iPod?

Ok.   Overdone, but not to me.  So here goes:

  1. Gustav Holst —  “Mars the Bringer of War” from The Planets.  (I actually like “Jupiter” more because there’s a theme in there that my wife and I used as the procession at our wedding.)
  2. Raffi — “Tingalayo” from One Light, One Sun.   My son gives me a great opportunity to listen to Raffi and not feel childish.  🙂
  3. Jale — “Drag” from So Wound.   (I’m grooving on Jale recently.   They are sort of local and sort of coming out of the old grunge scene.   But they are great for sure.)
  4. Robert Charlebois — “Demain L’hiver”.   (A separatist-ish Quebecois singer song-writer from the 60s.  After Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, maybe the best Canadian song writer ever.  I love this song, alot of interesting tirades in french that are both sassy and hilarious.)
  5. Gladys Knight and the Pips “Every beat of my heart”.   (Sweet, sweet voice that Gladys Knight.)
  6. Edith Piaf, “Histoire de Coeur.”   (I love that French cafe sound and noone does it better than Edith Piaf.)
  7. Leonard Cohen “Sisters of Mercy”.   (There’s Leonard!   My favorite.   I am clapping somewhere in the recording of this song from his Live album.)
  8. The Clash “Know Your Rights”.   (Sarcastic lyrics with cool bass guitar.)
  9. Ives “Symphony no. 2”.   (Charles Ives is wonderful.   Always surprising.)
  10. Bill Henderson “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”  (I’m a Gershwin fan.)
  • What’s MPOW?

Halifax Public Libraries.   That’s Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada — not England.  I’m the eLearning Services Manager there.

  • My Philosophy?

Probably a pragmatist.   I don’t believe in complaining without offering something resembling a solution to go with it.   As far as religion, spirituality, etc., i say — “do what works.”   If the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster bring spiritual fulfillment, then that’s the way to go.

  • Dream?

I think I would like to help communities build libraries in developing countries.

  • What are you reading right now?

David Vise and Mark Malseed, The Google Story.    A little rah-rah, but Google anything is an amazing story.

  • Favorite thing to do?

Playing with my son.   I want to get back into playing badminton again, though.   I also used to sing some jazz.

  • Why did you start a blog?

I realized that I was a bit isolated at MPOW from a learning perspective.    I am sort of like a department of one, which means I don’t get to talk about things techie with others very often.   So, blogging is my way of gathering a network of people who know more about this stuff than I do.

  • Other social softwares?

I don’t use Flickr to the max because I don’t own a digital camera.   I hate taking photos anyway.

I have a MySpace account but i don’t really use it.

I guess the online networking thing is not something I’m attached to that much.

I think I said before that I am more interested in people’s ideas than I am their lives.   That’s supposed to be an entp trait.   But I have a few good online friends that keep me in touch.

That’s it for now.   In lieu of good discussion, I offer this.  I hope it is reasonably interesting.

Communicating Effectively to Librarians (and Wannabees) — The Chessboard Syndrome

Ever play chess? No? Me neither. Not often anyway. But I do know enough about chess to recognize that each piece has its own way of moving. Here’s the list:

  • Queen: Any number of squares, horizontally, vertically or diagonally.
  • King: Same as Queen, except moves only 1 square.
  • Bishop: Any number of squares diagonally.
  • Knight: One square horizontally or vertically and one square diagonally (it travels kind of like an “L”). It is the only piece that can “jump” over another.
  • Rook: Any number of squares horizontally or vertically.
  • Pawn: One square forward or “attacks” one square diagonally (forward only).
  • Rook and King together: Called a “castle” — King moves two squares to the right or left and the corresponding Rook moves 2 squares right (if King’s side) or 3 squares left (if Queen’s side).

So, if you didn’t know already, you now know enough to understand that chess is complicated. Big deal. You have your first-ever conference presentation to design and write. Well, how about this:

Did you ever find that attempting to present something meaningful to a group of librarians is like presenting to a chess board?

Honestly. Librarians are such a diverse group of people, I never really know what angle will be useful to them. For all my criticism of library school, I don’t envy the job of library profs and instructors. Here are just a few tricky points about librarians and what it implies to me when making a presentation:

  • Some librarians come to a presentation because they know alot about a topic and they want to comment or challenge the presenter.
    • “I have to be compelling, credible, armed with rock-solid evidence to defend my views.”
  • Some come because they know very little and want to learn more.
    • “I have to be instructional, informative and not too technical.”
  • Librarians have different bachelor degrees.
    • “I have to offer a very general perspective, connecting my topic to a wide range of theories and perspectives.”
  • Librarians emphasize different ideological aspects of information management.
    • “I have to use the words ‘customer’ and ‘patron’ interchangably.”
  • Some librarians are very tech-savy.
    • “I need to include the obligatory litany of three-letter acronyms (XML, RSS, DRM etc.) in my presentation.”
  • Some librarians are technophobes.
    • “I need to make at least one mean-hearted swipe at the ‘Blog People.'”
  • Some librarians work for an academic library.
    • “Research is important.”
  • Some librarians work for a public library.
    • “‘Budgets don’t reflect the valuable work libraries do.'”
  • Some librarians work for a special library.
    • “I need dollar figures.”
  • Some librarians are cataloguers/records managers.
    • “OPAC central.”
  • Some librarians do public service/reference.
    • “Include the obligatory allusion to Desk Set.”
  • Some librarians are managers.
    • “I need to show confidence, authority and tact.”
  • Some librarians never want to have to manage.
    • “I need to criticize the status quo”
  • Some librarians are professionals.
    • “Values, ethics, and lofty ideals galore.”
  • Some librarians are paraprofessional.
    • “And every bit as good as those so-called ‘pros’ too!”
  • Some librarians will be librarians when they graduate.
    • “The jobs are coming! The jobs are coming! No, really — they are!”

Bottom line is that communicating effectively to librarians requires particular attention to an audience that is as diverse as the pieces on a chessboard. Focus too much on what the Queen’s up to and you’ll find yourself caught in a knight fork or pinned Queen or some other heinous maneuver coming from a secondary audience.Strategies? Well, most of them are fairly typical. But I’ll try.

  • Explain what you are trying to achieve with your presentation. That way, people will know first-off whether your presentation was for them.
  • Consider using some powerpoint design techniques so you can illustrate your point without getting locked up in nomenclature.
  • Be honest if you do not know something.
  • Admit when you are wrong.
  • Prepare by a) doing your homework and b) knowing your homework so well that you dream about it.
  • Test your presentation on someone else.

Admittedly, these are nothing special. But I guess the ultimate thing I have learned in my speckled past communicating with librarians is that you just got to revel in the diversity a bit.

People do not easily come out of library presentations looking like rock stars. This aspect of the profession may be the single most important factor contributing to its longevity, despite the adversity. Think about this next time you struggle over your next presentation.

Why I think Open Space is Cool

There are detailed articles about how to host Open Space Technology, but for now I just want to list the one law and four principles.

The Law of Two Feet: “If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t learning or contributing, go somewhere else.”

The Four Principles:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time.
  4. When it is over it is over.
  • Just Action Oriented?

These principles suggest that Open Space emphasizes individual accountability, and much of this is true. The participants set their own agenda, design their action plans and make commitments to their cause (which, if people are following the instructions, ought to be at the core of their desires).

But the emphasis on action does more than set accountability. It removes the tendency towards “language battles” that happen in many other large group discussions. A symposium on “Social Justice” will inevitably degrade into wars about what “justice” means. Full restitution? For recent injustices or historical ones as well? Ultimately the discussion is a power struggle for the definition. The group who chooses the language also chooses its limits, which often means that the popular, rich or otherwise authoritative groups get to make up the rules to suit their own interests. Or worse, no consensus is reached and nothing gets done.

By focussing on the here and now, and tying actions to the agenda, language battles are mostly subverted. Boundaries of a word have no meaning, because the boundaries are no longer set by the environment, but instead by the commitment of the individual.

I cannot dictate a quantitative income for the poverty level in an open space. I can only do those things that result in less poverty — however I interpret that to mean. My interpretation will be informed by the experiences brought forth by others, but the law of two feet lets me set my own rules for engagement.

  • Just Authority Devolving?

Open Space has a habit of re-shaping cultural or traditional authority structures. I say “re-shape” because the structure of Open Space is not perfect. In fact, those who have a high individuality orientation are apt to become quite influential in an Open Space project. But, unless he or she can be everwhere at all times, it is unlikely that a CEO or high-ranking official will be able to dictate to the whole group what ought to happen in the organization.

Open Space is not anarchical though. Authority exists, but on merit, commitment or plausibility, instead of a structural norm.

  • The Gap? — Bring Open Space to the Online World

I think that there has to be a way to enable this sort of discussion over the internet. There barriers are familiar:

  • Inherent power given to the tech-savy.
  • Anonymity and distance impact on accountability.
  • Visual cues and body language are lost in online conversations.
  • “Listening” is not a pre-requisite in the online world.

The online Open Space situation is imperfect, but not impossible. In fact, as with e-learning, a mix of the two is probably in order.

Feminism, Menminism, and Doctor Doom Delusions

In a previous post, I cited an article about how women tend to underestimate their ability to use the Internet, while men consistently think they are better than women in this regard. On average, they have equal skills.

Now there is a buzz about sexism in the techno-librarian world. Karen Schneider recalls how she called “sexism” regarding a conference and ended up ticking people off. Dorothea from Caveat Lector recalls how a community of practice asked her to pipe down on an issue with a co-worker.

The early response is to think of this in terms of action. “So do something about it if it bugs you so much.” Well, actually, Karen and Dorothea are doing something. They are addressing that a problem exists.

Another response is the “not my problem” response. Why should Dorothea and Karen expect men not to behave as men? Can men be at fault if they are blind to feminist issues? Feminist issues are “women” issues afterall.

Well, that’s not true either. Inequality impact men as much as it does women. I think it’s fair for Karen to say “Did the men think about speaking up?” Or at least to take responsibility for a problem when it is extremely obvious.

So, there is a glass ceiling in the library world. In a female-dominated workforce, men are more easily able to make it to management positions. There are external issues that cause parts of this. Here are some possibles:

  • Sexism generally means that an organization is taken more seriously if it has men at the helm. Thus, women managers seek men managers to give them some external pull, ensuring that they are not perceived as doing the dreaded “women’s work” which will ultimately mean less pay, less power and continuously precarious job security.
  • For some reason I cannot fathom, a good number of women I know defer to me for anything remotely technical. I have experience this even when it was obvious that the person deferring was more cabable than I was. I don’t know if this is cultural or biological, but it is a pattern in my life that is so consistent that I cannot fathom it being only my perception.
  • Men like the spotlight and will take it, even when it means they are there with their pants down.
  • The Doctor Doom myth. Men always imagine themselves being able to design gadgets that make them invulnerable to everything, with a lot of cool beams and stuff hanging out of their fingers. Women may think the same way, but the role models (in the comic world at least) aren’t there for them. The closest I can remember is Vindicator, and she died off rather embarrasingly with the rest of Alpha Flight in New Avengers #16.

But if men are deluded about their abilities, everyone suffers in the end. It means we have the blind leading the blind in some cases, while the sighted are sitting there waiting for someone to see how messed up the situation is.

Well, if you are blind, you best make sure you open your ears. What something can men do to catalyse change in the library 2.0 world.

  • Inquire rather than present.
  • Go to library 2.0 conferences with questions rather than a presentation.
  • Recommend and encourage female colleagues to present at library tech conferences.
  • Insist that women take the lead on important somethings.
  • Shut the hell up for a second!
  • Feminist does not mean “bitch.” It means “I’m willing to label myself as something most people think is synonymous with “bitch,” so you will listen for a change!”

That said, women also have to change. But women already know this, and I’m not about to give suggestions on how they should. Not yet. I’d rather hear what the women have to say.

I also think there has to be a connection between the voice and the path to solution. Airing a commentary about sexism in libraries is fair. Airing “dirty laundry” is not a fair path to take on the sexism train. I don’t need to know that someone is sexist or hard to work with (actually gender doesn’t really matter) — the sexist someone needs to know first and then the employer. And then you work it out — doctor doom to doctor doom.

Ostranenie as a Change Management Tool

I was thinking back to my English major days and remembered ostranenie as one of my favorite literary devices.

Essentially, ostranenie is the practice of making ordinary things appear odd or strange.   My favorite example in literature is Gulliver’s Travels where rather typical human behavior is made strange by Jonathan Swift’s shifting of Gulliver’s perspective from very large in Lilliput to being very large in Brobdingnag and eventually to being a “Yahoo” from the perspective of the Houyhnhnms.

As Gulliver sees himself as the bizarre or strange, he gains special insight into who he is and what his community stands for.

When I introduced this blog as the “Other” librarian, I proposed that it is important to see oneself as “other” in order to understand one’s habits and culture. Ostranenie is an opportunity to do that.   Here is my point form “ostranenie” of a public library given the perspective of Socrates who had suddenly found himself transported into the 21st century.

  • Aha!  I have finally found the agora.   I wonder if anyone is willing to provide me with a feast of knowledge, so that I may inquire about those need I do not understand.
  • There is a desk here at the entrance that must be where I set up my appointment for discussion.  There is a line-up, I cannot wait to start.
  • Very difficult conversation with the person at the desk and even worse vibes from the person behind me.   I guess my method of inquiring about all things does not work very well with the phrase “Can we move on here please?”
  • Well, I did not get my appointment with the wise man, but they did provide me with a plastic card to identify myself.   The only problem is that they have their name in big letters and only a small place for mine.   I did find a way to place the card on my Toga, but with my name so small, how are people going to know who I am?
  • I have been sent to the “information desk” and was encouraged by the small group of people who gathered around to hear the symposium I had with the wise woman at the desk.   I was very impressed, because as I assume “not to know” so did the wise woman.   Every question I asked was further examined with other questions, helping me to specify what knowledge I needed.   I must complain that the wise woman got increasingly quieter as I got louder.   Didn’t she believe in speaking up so the audience could hear?   Further, I never really got the information I wanted — instead the woman clacked on a box and beckoned me to follow her.
  • I have been handed a small wooden buckler, with an interesting feature.   It can be opened and expanded to twice its size.   With some kind of adhesive, I believe you can change the thickness, so to increase or decrease the protection on either half.
  • The buckler must be decorative, since the woman spoke something about “damaging the spine” as I practiced my defensive maneuvers.
  • That wise Aristophanes  found a way to communicate to me over such a wide chasm.  As we discussed the nature and origins of “love” I was tapped on the shoulder and told “no cell phones.”   I thought this might be the native tongue for “no symposia.”   I explained that I was not drinking any wine.   She gave me a missive on how food and drinks might damaged the bucklers.
  • I have decided that I have not entered an agora, but instead some kind of temple worshipping some god of wooden armour.   The god might be Athena, just not as clever.  I have been asked to quiet my voice as well.   Perhaps the goddess is a voiceless one?
  • I thought I had breached some custom until my departure was announced by a singing gate.   Jubilant, I turned to bid farewell to the front desk clerk.   She put out her hand to ask for my “card.”   I realized that she meant the buckler that I had been presented.   I bowed and ceremoniously presented her with the armor and thanked her, since I no longer had need of armor since I was now too old to do battle.
  • I left feeling recharged somehow, but no more wise.   I hear that there is a place called a “shopping mall” that may lead me to the wisest that this culture has to offer.

It’s a weak attempt, but an interesting one.   Are libraries more like a temple than a place for learning?   Are we more concerned with traditional practices than we are for those trying to achieve wisdom in their lives?   What does the placement of a circulation and information desk (usually at the front, to keep the thieves from running off) say about the ultimate values of the library?

Of course, we cannot assume Socrates is our customer, but I have seen customers who walk into a library without a sense of what to do.  It is not unlike the non-churchgoer when first walking into a church and seeing the natives genuflect for the first time.