Leadership in an Information-Rich Society

What an innovative bunch of students they have at Dalhousie.   They are hosting their own conference.     I really like how they pulled away from library jargon and focussed in on the broader world of innovation, information and leadership.

This session that caught my eye:

Panel Two: Growing a Knowledge Society: Leadership in the Private Sector, Education and Government
Knowledge societies require more than an abundance of information and information communication technologies. Leveraging information and technology provides new ways for citizens and organizations to interact with, share and create knowledge.
What initiatives are being undertaken by the private sector? By government? How do we enable people to participate in a knowledge society?

 Very 2.0 without ever using the term!   And one of the panel speakers is Mark Leggott.

That’s pretty nifty work!

Measuring Staff Time — Is it Costing Us in Innovation?

I was basically going to put up another top-ten list, and then decided that I really only have one thing to say.

I have, on occassion, heard people use this logic:

When you have the choice of between outsourcing a piece of technology or building it in-house. You ask a tech-savy staff person how long the project would take him/her to develop. Two weeks? That’s over a thousand dollars if you count the person’s salary! We can outsource for [marginally] cheaper than that.

This, in a word, is a poor way to manage staff resources.

Taking a dollar-for-dollar match for staff time is not really good managerial accounting. See, you have to consider relevant costing. You already spent the money on the staff member, and probably can’t ask for it back. So the only relevant costs are the total value of what that staff member would be doing instead of doing the project. That number may be a thousand, it may be something more or it may be something less.

If you’d be taking that staff person away from a really valuable project, then I’d say you are justified in outsourcing. If that staff is just twiddling his or her thumbs then you are losing lots. Consider:

  1. The loss of dollars spent on the outsourced product.
  2. The lost productivity caused by putting your developer to less valuable or “make work” projects.
  3. The lost knowledge and skills that could result from your staff doing the project.

Other things come into play here, of course. For example, will the in-house developed project be as secure, usable and/or maintainable as the proprietary one? One way or another you have to do better than a dollar-for-dollar costing of your project. If your staff member has a spare week to build something quality without getting in the way of other projects & activities, then the benefit is the same and the cost is pretty much zero.

I think people began to think this way because of an emphasis on private sector thinking. I have nothing against private sector thinking, actually. The problem is that, sometimes when people are told to think out of their element, they basically learn just enough to be dangerous.

The relevant costing scenario is a good one. Libraries want to put their decisions up to solid cost-benefit analysis. This is responsible decision making. But then people start measuring in present-day dollars, or adding sunk costs to their analysis. “Oh no! We spent all this money on a now ineffective system. I guess we are stuck with it. . .” This is just wrong! The fact that you spent money on something in the past means nothing in deciding whether to use a new system. You can’t get the money back, so losing the system is not a cost. You can only measure the benefits of the current system against the benefits of the new system minus the costs of purchasing it. If the benefit is still greater, then you should change despite the fact that you made a bad decision in the past.

Anyway, I was thinking that this sort of analysis has cost libraries even more than just bad purchasing decisions. In automatically thinking that purchased products are cheaper than staff time, we may have caused a serious de-skilling of the profession. We say that we will outsource different things to leave time for staff to do more important things. Then the more important things never materialize.

What results is a library staff that spends time doing minor updates on a web site that someone else designed for them. And I expect that, soon, we will begin to see the results of this. Libraries using CMSs with designs that don’t hide the product. Joomla sites will look like Joomla. Drupal sites will look like Drupal. And because we don’t know how to code a little bit of php, we put up with it — even when we know that the site will get really tired fast.

Part of library 2.0 and/or slow library may mean finding the meaningful “more important” work for librarians to do. We need to consider developing some things on our own — things that make sense for librarians to do, like architecting information, informing the design process and by gonnit, imagining a better OPAC!

Top Ten Zero-tech Library 2.0 “no brainers” for Public Libraries

TopTen LogoWhen I wrote the “Top Ten no brainers” post a week or so ago, I broke one of the major tenets of Library 2.0 — the idea that it is not all about technology. I am absolutely proud that so many people appeared to find the list of “low tech” recommendations useful, but I also feel like I gave the idea that L2 is all about implementing collaborative technology.

Well, I thought I’d temper my technology message with a library 2.0 “no technology” message. I bet most librarians know these ten messages and can probably add more, but collaboration in a no-tech environment is important too! So here you go. Ten Library 2.0 things you can do that have little or no connection to technology. Feel free to add your own!

  • Pretend you are not a librarian and try one, many or all of your services

Why is it L2? One of the main goals of L2 is user-centeredness. If you are pretending you are a user (or a non-user) than you are that much closer to seeing things the user’s way.

Why would your users want it? The more you see things the user’s way, the more you are going to understand that “database,” or “OPAC,” or “circulation” means jack-squat to non-librarians. “Last week’s local news available online?” Now you are talking!

If you get really advanced at pretending to be a user you can even imagine specific scenarios like “I am a low-vision user who wants to email a friend” or “I am teenager who found out cute boys/girls hang out at the library.” Having that brief experience of walking in someone else’s shoes should help alleviate the “library jargon blues.”

  • Learn something then write a brief about it (and that means YOU, whatever level you are)

Why is it L2? If you can distill a whole bunch of reading into one page, then you are perhaps doing more for your colleagues than 50 wikipedia pages. This is a good way to achieve collaborative thinking without touching tech (of course, there are alot of tech options for sharing that brief).

Why will my users want it? Lets say you share a brief that provides the “5 things staff ought to know about internet safety.” That means seniors managers can create policy documents highlighting these 5 things. Middle managers can offer more effective training. Branch managers can remind staff of the mantra and all staff are more confident discussing the issue of internet safety on the whole. Better information and better confidence means more effective communication and better service to users.

More importantly, no one has had to face the “you should read this great 200 page report on open source” (aka: the never-read tree-killing report) pile-up on their desks. Get the message down on one page and you are going to open up L2 windows.

  • Volunteer in the Community

Why is it L2? Taking a few hours out of a weekend or weekday evening to do some community volunteering is the non-tech equivalent of starting a blog. In your casual conversations you can voice some ideas to people and — guess what — they can comment too! That information you share will get out there by word of mouth (and someone may even blog it)!

Why will my users want it? Being community involved will help you become aware of some of the big picture issues in the community, and help you speak to those issues more precisely at work. Let’s say you live where I live and know nothing about Hockey, but by volunteering to help raise money for the local soccer team you hear how great local kids think Sydney Crosby is. And it just turns out that he’s from Cole Harbour? Sounds like you ought to be feeling a little Crosby-ish in your library, eh?

  • Go to a Conference Presentation prepared with Questions

Why is it L2? A conference is a time to re-charge your library batteries. If you come to presentation prepared with lots of questions and ideas, you may be able to take those old L1 batteries and get the fully-charged L2 or L3 upgrade!

Why would my users want it? There are probably three kinds of presentation attenders: 1) the say-nothing kind, 2) the blow-hard kind (like me) and 3) the question askers.

If you say nothing, you basically get someone else’s take on a topic, generalized to a fairly ubiquitous audience, leaving the topic fairly un-implementable.

If you are the blow hard kind, you get yourself trying to take the topic and applying it to your own situation or mindset — and the presenter is probably just going to nod and smile at you.

If you are the question asker, you get a fresh look at a situation tailored to your own needs. That fresh look could bring you that much closer to your user.

  • Have a can of desk-repellent available for all staff at all levels.

Why is it L2? One thing that L2 is trying to say loud and clear is that “the desk has got to go!” The less we sit at our respective desks, the more we are bring the service to the user. That’s L2.

Why would my users want it? This is not anything new, but the desk is intimidating. The desk is the thing that is being made fun of in this library/librarian parody. People are not supposed to “boogey” on a desk, or laugh, or have fun anywhere near it. The desk says “I’m busy — leave me alone.” Desks have gavels on them for rash judgements. Leave the desk and all of the sudden you are not intimidating. Users will like not-intimidating.

I admit the desk is a habit, but how about applying desk repellent just one shift per week for starters? And as I said, that goes for everyone, not just front-line staff.

  • Use the Interview, Luke

Why is it L2? Well, it’s sort of not. Instead, it is an L1 thing at the centre of what makes L2 possible. The reference interview is the librarian’s light sabre. It deflects the barrage of red herrings that come from how difficult it is to voice an information need. It also slices through information overload. Use it and not only will you save the user from the dark side, you will win the user’s heart.

Why will my users want it? Used tactfully and effectively, the reference interview will show you are interested in what he/she is doing. You will learn more about the user (and yourself) and the user will be better able to solve his/her own problem. Some of the best interviews I ever had resulted in the user saying “hey! I think I know how to find this now for myself!” Yet another Jedi working to fight the dark side. Hurray!

Oh yeah. The reference interview is still relevant at the manager level too. The user may be slightly different, but the technique is still the same.

  • Do Problem Formulation

Why is it L2? No, creating problems is not L2, nor is it what I’m talking about. Never in life is there an occasion where we cannot do small things to make the world just a little bit better. But sometimes we do a really good job at implementing the wrong things. Sitting down and thinking about what you are *really* trying to do is a good way to begin the problem solving process. For instance, not having an RSS feed on your website is not a “problem” per se, but the fact that users don’t have up-to-date information about your programs and services _is_ a problem. Any implementation of a service, tech or otherwise ought to get at a problem if it is going to be L2. Otherwise, we are probably just doing something to boost our own egos.

Why Might My Users Want It? It’s fairly simple: the WTF? factor. Services that do not address user needs will have your users saying “What the Fuck?” (and, yes, they will swear while they are thinking it). WTF? is fine when you are doing your own thing (like creating an ugly MySpace page), but WTF on the user’s time and tax dollars is going to make people angry.

  • Learn about technology

Why is it L2? Technology and information go together and people expect you to know about it. Actually, a book is technology too. Could you imagine serving your users without knowing how to operate a book? Well, there are a lot of users who like to get information using technology. Learn about technology and you are thinking like that user just a bit more.

Why will My User Want It? Tell me you aren’t being asked technology-related questions at the desk. ‘Nuff said.

  • Use Creative Problem Solving Methods

Why is it L2? Creative problem solving is about finding new and/or unusual approaches to the same problems. Creativity is L2.

Why will My User Want it? Well, let me explain sort of how it works. Take a problem like “staff aren’t putting their litter in the garbage.” Then you pick 5 random things: aardvark, Chateau Frontenac, Harper’s magazine, cranberries & flesh.

The you provide 5 things that describe of each of the 5 things (eg. Aardvarks have long snouts, eat ants, are furry, live in South America and are featured in a famous Sesame Street song.)

Then you relate those descriptions to the problem: “dress the garbage can as an aardvark to demostrate how litter can lead to an ant problem.” The result is that you get unusual ideas that might be workable into something that can be implemented. Better to tame a wild idea than to make a dull idea interesting.

In the end, your “workable unusual ideas” will differentiate you from everyone else and make your library special. Users will like that their library is so unique.

  • Ask someone somewhere else something about something

Why is it L2? I know the heading for this sounds like a Dean Martin song, but the point is that there is a wide online community out there just dying to share information about everything. This may seem techie (because the easiest way to access these people is to email or IM them), but it really isn’t. The people talking about L2 (favorably or unfavorably) really want to collaborate with you and collaboration is L2.

Why will my Users Want it? “Think Globally, act Locally” is pretty much the story here. Getting global ideas and seeing how they can be applied to your local situation will make your user’s life just that much better.

That’s that. These ideas may not be as novel as the quick-and-dirty technology ideas I had, but I felt the need to share them anyway. The last thing on earth I could ever want is for people to think this Library 2.0 stuff is all about technology. Many non-tech L2 things have a tech connection (some of these ideas make for better tech implementation for instance) , and vice versa (some of these things — especially #10 — are very Web 2.0 conscious), but in the end it is all about collaboration, sharing ideas and thinking about what your user thinks.

And if all else fails, please somebody YouTube a flash piece where a reference interview is likened to a Jedi duel. That would be cool. 🙂

Architecture for Joomla — Part One: The Parts

Having invited a few people to play around with a test server and default version of Joomla, I figured I could start sharing what I know about this Content Management System (CMS) and how I think you should approach a website architecture with the knowledge that you are moving from a static website to a CMS.

The first thing you should know about CMS is that it is designed to divide tasks into pieces so that people with different skills can handle the most relevant aspects of the website. Designers can manage the look of the site without interfering with content. Coders can add functionality without mucking up the design. And the architect or user-experience folks can deal with navigation issues with only limited impacts on the content, design and functionality of the site.

The benefits of dividing up tasks are fairly obvious, but for the architect, it makes coming up with a site design a bit more complicated. For instance, if the content is going to be added collaboratively, how can you create a vision for the site and then explain this vision to your managers? Well, this is a stab at doing this, by working with the Joomla CMS.

Joomla Architecture

By all means, this is not to say that a CMS should dictate for you what the site design should be. Still, if you are settled in a static page mindset, you may very well benefit by understanding what Joomla is trying to do before creating your design document. The parts of Joomla are the same parts of any website (content, navigation, functionality, colour/design scheme), but the nomenclature is different as are some of the choices in each section. Also, Joomla gives you the ability to establish Global settings for content.

Oh yeah, I should also add that this applies only to the current (as of today) stable release 1.0.12 only. A couple of things may be changed in the 1.5 version.

  • The Global Settings

As you would expect, the global settings involve full-site changes on everything from content to the database for the website.
Who should handle: probably a web architect or systems person, with input from designers.

Why this is useful: Global settings set the default for most content and functions. You can always deviate, but it’s nice to have a fairly consistent approach.

Basic examples:

  1. Do you have a front-end login or not?
  2. Does content offer an option to print or email to a friend? Is the button an icon or text?
  3. What is the length of your average list of items on the site?
  4. What timezone does the website use?
  5. Do you allow user ratings?
  6. What are the database settings?
  7. What are the global metadata for the site?
  8. Do you allow a mass mailer?
  • Content

In Joomla, all content is handled by a MySQL database and divided into sections, categories and content items. The important thing to remember here is that sections, categories and content items have almost nothing to do with the navigation of the site. They are just bits of content in a database that you can later refer to when you develop menus.
Who should handle? This can vary depending on your situation. In general, you can let anyone add content items, but probably should have an architect and or communications team handle sections and categories.

Why this is useful? Content is what differentiates your site from others. Having many people add content to the site without having to deal [too much] with formats, fonts, colors, placement and etc. is one of the reasons you probably got into CMS-based design in the first place.

Explain this process further, please:

Sections are the uppermost bit in the taxonomy. They have a description and, if you choose, can list the categories that are contained within. You can also choose a directory that stores images related to this content.

Categories are next in line. To make a category, you have to choose a section for it to live in. Categories also have a box for a description. You can also choose an image directory for your category as well.

Content Items are where you finally add content. All content has a section and a category to live in. Here is some more choices you have to make with content items:

  1. What is the title of your entry?
  2. What is the intro text & what is the main (“read more”) text? The latter is optional.
  3. Whether the item is “published” or just stored in the database for later.
  4. When the item gets published and when it gets taken down.
  5. Who is the author of the item.
  6. Does this go on the front page as a feature?
  7. What images are applied to this page? Is there a caption? Alternate text (for screen readers)?
  8. Does the item show the category and/or section to which it belongs?
  9. Does this page have unique settings or just use the global ones?
  10. What metadata do you want to apply to the page?
  11. Does this item have a menu link? Where?

Ok. How about one example?

Ok. Section = “About the Library” Category = “People” Content Item = “About Our CEO,” with a picture of the CEO on the upper-left-hand side and a caption. It has a brief profile in the intro text and a longer CV/Bio in the main text. There is an option to print that uses a print icon, and uses global settings. It is not linked up to any main menus (but is linked to on the About the Library page.

  • Navigation

Navigation in Joomla is handled through modules. The most popular module is the menu (which is really a nav bar). The menus seem fairly simple at first, but actually they have a lot of say in how your content is displayed.

Who should handle? Your web architect, and perhaps some of your design folks.

Why this is useful? As content gets added to your site, you are going to need a way (even many ways) to make sure people can access it.

Explain this further please?

Essentially, a module is a block of content that can be moved around the website and applied to different pages. There is a module that shows random pictures, a module that lets people change the template (the look) for the site, a module that shows the most popular content items on the site, or most recent, or related items (based on metadata).

A menu is a kind of module that does navigation. In a menu, you set the labels for your navigation and where each label takes your user when it gets clicked. Your menu can be verticle or horizonal, straight or faceted.

There are also a wide range of modules created for Joomla by various developers.

For a menu, you need to set a number of things.

  1. What are the labels for the menu and what is the order?
  2. To what content, category or section does the menu item link?
  3. Does the menu item show the content as a list, table or blog?
  4. If it is a blog, how many columns across? What size?
  5. Does the menu item show an image?
  6. If there is a list, is it searchable? Will you enable filters?
  7. Where does the menu show (top, bottom, left, right) and in what pages does it show (all of them or just some?)?
  • Templates

The template is probably the hardest part of the website, because it requires some coding. Fortunately, you can probably use a product like dreamweaver to create the template and then put the bits of php code (the ones that say “load the front page content here” for instance) afterward.

Who should handle? You design team with help from a coder.

Why this is useful? Having a standard look and feel will set the experience for your user. It’s also cool to jump from template to template just to show how drastically you can change the site without ever changing the content.

How does it work? Basically, you have a CSS file that handles all of the colors, alignments, and fonts. Then you have an html file that establishes where your content goes by default. Within that html file are a number of scripts that basically load content such as images, menus, manners and the like. There’s not that much to it actually. Well, that’s a lie. Your template will decide things like:

  1. What color is your body text? What font? What point-size?
  2. What is the predominant background color? Does it use an image? Which one?
  3. Where do your menus go by default? What colors do they use? Do the settings change once they are visited or when someone puts the mouse pointer over them?
  4. How are links differentiated from regular text?
  5. etc.
  • Functionality

Joomla helps to add some functional capabilities through “Mambots” and “components”. It’s really hard to differentiate between these two items though, other than through the sorts of things they provide. Essentially, both of these things offer the sorts of wonders a bit of code can offer.

Who should handle? Adding a component or Mambot that is pre-done is easy enough for an architect, although you do have to consider long-term support for the product. Scripting your own Mambot or component is advanced and probably should be handled by a techie.

What is it useful? Uh, can you say “search bar?”

Some examples:

  1. There are a variety of search Mambots that will search specific categories for instance.
  2. There is an email cloaker that helps prevent webpage-based spam.
  3. Mass mailing is available through a component.
  4. There are advanced WYSIWYG editors available as components for Joomla.
  5. How about a chess club? Yup. There’s a component available for this (though I’ve never tried it myself).
  6. RSS feeds are available as components (you also need an RSS feed module as well).
  7. Polling mechanisms. etc.

So this is a basic explanation of the main parts of Joomla that are relevant to a Website Architect. While you always should think of an architecture project from the point of view of the user, it helps to know some of the functional benefits, limits and constraints that get applied when you use a content management system.

My experience, however, is that Joomla is flexible enough to handle just about any design or architecture. If anything, the main problem is that Joomla gives you too many options and approaches to specific problems.

Part Two will look at how one should approach content in Joomla.