Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC.   The obvious advantages would include:

  • Reduced costs:   you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
  • Open-source alternative OS:  the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
  • portability:   unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it).   There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.

Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with.   At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask.    When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff.   It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.

The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to.    My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.

That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:

  • the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds.   Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines.   People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
  • Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses.   One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
  • Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron).    I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well.    This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
  • Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
  • It gets really hot.   It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap.   And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
  • No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use.    Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards.    No Second Life.   No World of Warcraft.

So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes.   The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group.   However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:

  • It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
  • The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
  • A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
  • A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
  • It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
  • There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well.   For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children.    It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
  • Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
  • The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.

In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library.   The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.

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What Librarians Can Learn from (and, yes, I’m serious) Accountants

One of my favorite Monty Python works, is the famous “Accountancy Shanty” coming from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. With the lyrics “It’s fun to charter an accountant and sail the wide accountant-sea,” it’s obviously a satirical look at the idiosyncracies of your friendly neighbourhood bean counter.

Five Accountant-ish Things for Librarians to Know

Well, put your accountant jokes aside. Accountants know things that librarians also should know about. Here are five examples:

  • Relevant Costing

The Principle: Poor decisions in the past should not effect future cost decisions.

Example:

A key priority for your library is the quick circulation of books, DVDs and whatnot. You spent $50,000 on a design for a circulation desk that has made your library’s ability to circulate books even worse. Another product comes along that will improve circulation, but involves losing the old design and spending another $10,000. Whether or not you decide to spend the $10,000 would depend on a lot of things, but the most important thing you should *not* say is “but we invested $50,000 in the old machine, we can’t lose it now.”

Explanation:

You can’t take back a bad decision. Mistakes can be embarrassing and hard to admit, but you can make the problem worse by letting past mistakes impact future correct decisions. While you can learn from mistakes, you should do your best to make sure they do not have a continued lifecycle in your organization. Some times its just better to let go.

  • Gross Margins

The Principle: In business, it’s a measure of your revenue over your cost of good sold; in a public organization, you could think of your margins as the value to the user divided by the budget you put into the service.

Example:

There are two ways to see margins in a library context. 1) You provide a service that patrons love, but for reasons outside your control costs keep creeping up. 2) Costs remain the same to provide a service, but the value to the customer drops over time.

Explanation:

Margins are something to be watched over time. In a business, your margins show the “markup” of your sales per-unit. When these decrease over time, it suggests that managers ought to find ways to reduce product cost — usually through innovation of some sort.

In libraries margins are harder to quantify but that does not mean they are not relevant. Seeing an overall service that uses up the same amount of budget, but appears to lack its old lustre is also a sign that creative heads should bang together for ways to improve the service.

  • Current Ratio

The Principle: Your current assets (mostly cash) over your current liabilities (payable accounts etc.) that measures a firm’s ability to cover short-term debt obligations.

Example:

A general rule of thumb for your average business is that your current assets ought to be twice that of the current liabilities. This basically means that if you want to close up shop, you can do so fairly quickly.

Explanation:

Flexibility is a key component of a good library service. The best projects are the ones you can close up quickly when things do not work out, or priorities change. It’s very important to have a few added resources on hand to adapt to user expectations when you are launching something out into the world.

  • Net Present Value

The Principle: You should always take a lump sum of cash now versus the same amount of cash provided over a period of time (present value);  you need to consider the time value of money when you make costing decisions.

Example:

Two vendors are offering an equal product.   One asks you to pay $10,000 up front, with no payments later on; the other wants to charge you $15,000 over 5 years ($3000 per year).   Which one should you go for?

That would depend on one essential variable:  the interest that you could make on the money you spent over time.   With an assumed 5% interest rate, the value of $10,000 in five years would be $15,591 over 5 years.     A $3000 investment over 5 years on the other hand would be slightly less at $15,576.    The bottom line, however, is that you could always take your money and put it into a bank to collect interest.   If your projects do not provide more value over time than what you put into them, then you should not do them.

Explanation:

Understanding the importance of time on the value of a dollar can be very helpful.   Pumping large amounts of money into an investment that will produce the benefit over a long period of time may not be as effective as a sustained small investment with immediate and logical benefits.   While large, expensive projects can certainly boost a resume, you can provide better bang for buck to your patrons by offering simple, adaptable and logical services over time.    That’s why open source hell (offering open source projects that require later investment of resources) may not be as bad as expensive proprietary hell (expensive projects that may stay fresh longer).

  • Opportunity Costs:

The Principle: The true cost of an activity is equal to the value of doing the next best alternative.

Example:

By choosing to go to graduate school for two years to become a librarian, you gave up two years worth of a potential non-librarian job (plus the advances in pay/experience/seniority that go along with that job).    That’s fine if your librarian earnings now make up for that lost revenue;  it’s not if you could have been making more.    Also, you do not have to think about it always in terms of money.   You could think about it in terms of the happiness lost because you couldn’t join the yacht club/drink more beer/start a family sooner.

Explanation:

Anything you choose to do (or not) has a cost in that you could be doing something else with the same time and resources.     Lots of time spent on pet projects with marginal value has a cost equal to that of the project you could be doing if you were not doing the current project.

Innovation can be another factor.   Put your employees to work on mundane projects with no learning value and you could be risking the benefit of skills and knowledge that come with doing exciting and innovative work.   All in all, thinking about what else you could be working on is an essential skill that librarians can learn from accountants.

Summary

Just because people come from a different environment does not mean that libraries cannot learn from them.   Learning from other groups can make librarians better.   Accountants are one of these groups.    Can you think of other professions we can learn from?

In With the New; In With the New.

Ten more ideas about how I can make my life better, in libraries and elsewhere:

  •  Plan an unconference — somewhere, somehow.

The field needs more unconferences, and I’d like to host/organize one for local librarians this year — probably in the summer sometime.

  •  More controlled and productive computer time.

No, this has nothing to do with social software.   I just found that the end of last year turned my computer into a television/gaming system.    I have nothing against gaming or entertainment, it’s just that my kids are growing up, and I definitely want to spend more time focussed on friends, family and physical fun.

  • Two good books a month.

I want to start tracing my reading just like Jessamyn does.   It’s been a good start though.   I just finished Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms, which is a great book and the first of the Sword of Honor trilogy.

  • 12 Beers (or other favored beverage) for 12 Librarians

Librarians deserve a beer.   12 librarians will get a beer from me.

  • More blogging, but with more citations and reading to go with it.

One of the most satisfying posts from my point of view was my review of Margaret Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination.    I disagree with many points that the book makes, I truly felt that Somerville gets a bad rap around town undeservedly for her views on same-sex marriage.   Further, I am glad Somerville is out there with the guts to say the unpopular thing that she believes needs to be said.   True ethics may just about the opposite of being popular, in my view.

Anyway, even though my online survey (there’s going to be a results post soon!) has suggested that book reviews are not really a priority for my audience, you’ll just have to accept my indulgences here, ‘k?

  •  More fiction/poetry writing, published or not.

I used to love writing fiction and poetry.   I even won the Clare Murray Fooshee poetry prize (first place) once.    I’d like to get back to some of that.   It was a great hobby and it brings back my memories of the rec.arts.poems usenet group (which, like many usenet groups, is a mere shadow of its former glorious self).

  • Pare down the social with social.

Libraries weed books that have lost their relevance over time.   I think I need to think about the relevance of my “friends” and look at doing some serious weeding as well.   Of course, I mean “friends” as in “Facebook friends,” which, in the end, can be likened to a reference source more than it can to a “real” friend.

If you can be of use to me, information-wise, I’ll read your blog.   If I can be of use to you, read mine.   If we have some mutual co-sharing thing going on, you will make my Twitter list.   And, honestly, I’m just about finished with Facebook.

  •  Less money waste.

It’s crazy how the local coffee shop will just eat away at my wallet.   And for what?   It’s not like there is a ton of nutrition there — and it’s not like I couldn’t just drink water.   That’s all money that could go to my kids’ RESPs or some of my favorite charities.

  • No gifts please, and clutter-free-me!

Another one that is just wasteful.    Please, no gifts.   None — except maybe a book I don’t have, or a donation to a charity in my name.

I do not want anything that will end up in a landfill within a year.   I do not want to pay to store stuff that I never use.  Whenever Big Brothers, Big Sisters asks me if we have any used clothing, furniture or appliances to give them, I will say “yes.”

  •  Increase my code-fu.

It’s coming along, and I want to learn more.   At this stage, however, it’s about doing — developing skills versus learning syntax.

That’s 10 and that’s enough.   I look forward to re-visiting this list next year to see how well I did/didn’t do.

What’s on your self-improvement list?

Out With the Old, In With the New. . .

Last year, I created a post of Ideas for the New Year as a way to mark my progress over the year.   Overall, I don’t think I did too bad in completing them.  Here are the ideas, and how well I’ve done in completing them.

  •  New Website for the library.   

Check.  It happened, go look.

  • Contribute to or Create an Open Source product.

Sort of. I did learn a lot more coding this year over last and some of that code could be applied to an open source product.   For instance, I was playing a bit with PHPList, and learned how to create a component for Joomla.    Our website does use a custom component for the Programs section, which may be shared for other libraries in the future. 

  •  Have visible abs.

It did happen, and then I lost them.   My biceps certainly bulged a bit, but the spare tire is still a worthwhile nemesis for me.   Add that to the next list!

  • Learning 2.0 for work.

Check.   We’re half-way through a 6 month program.

  • Reduce my consumption of meat.

Perhaps, but not sufficiently enough if I’m going to be honest with myself.

  • Public something scientific in a journal.

Nope, but I did get approved to present at two big conferences and I had a couple of blog posts added to trade journals as well.

  • Go to a good tech-related conference

Yup!   Computers in Libraries last year was great.   Steven Cohen calls it his favorite.

  •  Be a once-a-month Second Lifer.

You know?  You make these promises to yourself that, in retrospect make no sense.   This is one.   I am glad I did not become a once-a-month Second Lifer.   Although I did try it probably about 12 times last year.

  • Go to One or More of the Following Places: Cuba, Quebec City, London UK, Killarney IR, Savannah GA, Chicago IL or San Francisco CA.

New baby nixed this one.    That said, my 4 year old took up an interest in flags, one of which was Virginia — which I did go to for CIL, and my mother moved to Montreal, passing Quebec City, and came back to visit for the Holidays so I’m accepting this as resolved.

  • Go Out with a Friend once Every Two Months min

Total failure.   I blame LSW and Uncontrolled Vocabulary.

Jerk: the Current Library Brand?

I found this to be an interesting quote from Tim Sanders, who wrote The Likeability Factor, in a news article I read today.

“In this bloggable, cell phone camera world, your brand on the inside is going to be your brand on the outside. If you have a bunch of jerks, your brand is going to be a jerk.”

I think libraries as a whole have to consider the “plays well with others” factor in who they hire — for sure.   It’s pretty simple, if libraries send jerks out to the community — the library is going to be considered a jerk too.   And, however stereotypical, it’s hard to say that “grumpy & scowling” has not been part of the library brand for quite a while now.   (Jerk?   Well, I’d agree with that too, but I won’t add a link for that because I might end up calling some nice guy or girl a jerk).    Thank goodness for efforts to change that image [snark].

This only goes to show that a user-centric library may have to also be fairly librarian-centric in the end.   If we want to change our brand to something positive, we will have to invest our time and energy in attracting positive non-jerk librarians in the end.   For alot of countries (and the U.S. is an exception to this) that are going to be looking at labor shortages in the next couple of years, this is going to be more and more difficult.   In other words, it goes to show that going on a manifesto of user-centricity is not going to be enough to satisfy the needs of our users in the end.   We have to consider the whole package.   We can’t be user-centric, if our employees are jerks.

A Serendipitous 12 hours.

This is kind of like the “day in the life of” except it is a “night in the life of.” I can’t remember the times, but consider that most of this stuff happened between 8pm last night (Tuesday) until I posted the final blog post today.

  1. I logged onto Meebo for fun.
  2. I chatted with Amanda Etches-Johnson. Mostly, to tell her some feedback I received from a co-worker who saw her presentation at Access.
  3. I asked her for help in speaking to Medical librarians, because I expect to be doing that when CHLA comes to Halifax.
  4. Amanda mentioned that her audience really enjoyed playing with an online screencasting software. It turns out that a co-worker of mine just started using Captivate, and I was thinking about whether or not I needed to put in a request for myself.
  5. I found the screencast-o-matic software to be pretty easy to use, so I create a test screencast to show people on the Halifax Public Libraries Learning 2.0 blog. The topic was adding an RSS feed to Google Reader.
  6. While I was doing the screencast, I saw a blog post by Helene Blowers about Michael “The Machine is Us/ing UsWesch‘s latest video about the information revolution. And then another one, which is just as interesting about what students are thinking.
  7. I posted the screencast late last night.
  8. I watched the movies.
  9. This morning, I asked a co-worker to look at the screencast. He is technically more competent than I am, but he didn’t have his Java plug-in updated, which caused some interfacing issues for him. Fortunately, he knows enough about Java to upgrade the plug-in and see the cast. Goes to show how important architecture still is, even for website administrators.
  10. The co-worker with Captivate dropped by and I showed him the screencast I made.
  11. Jeremy later came into my office and told me, “oh yeah — I forgot to mention that there’s a product out there called Wink that available for free, but creates Flash films instead of Java. You might want to check it out. It’s not Web 2.0 though.”
  12. I thought that the screencast is an interesting artifact showing serendipity happening to me via Web 2.0.
  13. Lunchtime came along and I decided to post this experience.

I can’t explain how many times that this sort of thing would have happened to me after I decided to login to a collaborative tool, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Meebo Rooms, any number of Web 2.0 websites.

There are serious learning benefits coming from Web 2.0 — most of the time I don’t even realize it. This time I did — probably because I managed to record my information discovery in a screencast.

And when those medical librarians ask me what they can do to convince their IT departments that these tools are important, I may just tell them about this experience. I don’t know if it will work — but it might just affirm their suspicions that, yes, stringent policies blocking Internet sites for so-called “productivity benefits” is just wrong.

Not only did I learn a heckofalot in just 12 hours. I shared that information with a potential 400 staff and, hopefully, another potential 400 people who read my blog regularly. Loss of productivity my big patootey!

What Can Organizational Structure do for User-centred Change?

 

Designing an organization is not something that managers should take on without a good deal of thought. Unfortunately, the coverage of organizational design in library management courses is often simplified to a toying around with two organizational dichotomies: flat or hierarchical; centralized or decentralized. The impression you get from such a surface understanding of design is that organizations are like play-doh and can be squished and pulled at will.

Organizational Design (OD) is a strategic device. You do it to make your organization more competitive in whatever environment you face. As a strategic device, it ought to be the slave to a strategy — a full-scale plan that covers everything from the values the organization will hold dear, its mission, including the sorts of goals, objectives and actions it will undertake to accomplish it’s mission.

With Library 2.0 advocates calling for radical change in organizations, I fear that libraries could take on organizational design as a symbollic gesture toward more inclusivity, rather than as a strategic maneuver to improve service. For instance, I think frustration over the departmental silos that come with traditional matrix organization structures will cause library leaders to call for “flat” structures, without considering the devil in the details that automatically come with complex organizations.

Flatness in organizational structure is not an end-goal. It achieves certain things that may indeed be desirable. But not without rather considerable costs. There are reasons why hierarchy exists in large organizations and have existed for a long time. If hierarchy did not have its benefits, most currently thriving organizations would not have survived as long as they have.

Here are a few benefits of hierarchical structures:

  • The Division of Labor

Adam Smith and his fellow Utilitarians could be the reason why Western civilization is as rich as it is. You can harp against capitalism all you want, but clearly, the advancement of commerce helped societies uncover major secrets about fulfilling human needs with limited resources. One of the more famous secrets is the division of labor — namely, that when group specialize on particular aspects of the production process, the overall result is much more efficient.This still rings true for libraries. My library does not want me handling the finances. Nor do they want me cataloguing. We have people who know that much better than I do.

  • Comparative Advantage

In theory, the Director/CEO is the organization’s most competent individual. (Yes, I know, in theory.) The problem is, there is only so much a single CEO can do. That’s why he/she hires others to help. Even if a co-worker only performs at 75% of the CEO, it’s still better that 175% is getting done, instead of just 100%.

But there’s more. Comparative advantage tells us that opportunity cost needs to be considered as well. If you have your highly competent CEO busy doing mundane clerical work, your organization is losing the opportunity to have him/her busy engaging city leaders, influencing officials, and making high-level decisions about the workplace. So, you assign your 75% person to the less important task, focusing your high-level employees on high-value areas. Flatter structures tend to mix this advantage up, engaging less proficient individuals in high value areas, resulting in poorer results overall.

  • Avoiding Micromanaging

By having leaders with powers to make decisions, you can avoid micromanagement in organizations. While individual leaders may choose to be micromanagers (which is not a very desirable trait anyway), a hierarchical structure will make it difficult for a director to be looking over the shoulders of his/her employees. Flat organizations can turn into “micromanaged by the CEO” organizations.

  • Fair Compensation, Merit and Rewards

There are two principles that fall here. 1) If you ask staff to be involved in high-level decision making, you ought to pay them for it. 2) Many staff want to see a natural progression to their career path. Hierarchical structures do help signal that a clear path to advancement exists with the organization, and supports a process for paying people based on the degree of risk, difficulty and intellectual gymnastics required to do the job. Flatter organizations often make the advancement path more ambiguous, perhaps encouraging employees to look elsewhere to advance their careers.

  • Reporting Structures

Once organizations reach a certain size, clear communication becomes essential. Directors do not have time to read 1000s of emails, reports, complaints, comments and memos every day. Hierarchical structures offer some reporting control in large organizations, because a director can get reports from a senior management team, instead of from everyone. Again, this keeps the director focussed on high-level thinking and away from the everyday foibles of library work. Flatter structures can lead to confusion and interruption as “little fires” make their way to the director’s desk.

  • Internal Competition

When structures are set up with departmental silos, departments will compete against each other for access to the budget. That will increase their willingness to perform, and (believe or not) encourage innovation within the departments.

The same works for individuals. When two employees want the same higher level job, they will compete against each other to show they are the best person for the job. This can be an advantage and can encourage increased productivity.

  • Accountability

Hierarchies do tend to tie responsibility to individuals, who in turn are likely to respond to reports of poor performance, embarrassing mistakes, and accusations of unethical behavior. By contrast, flat organizations tend to diffuse responsibility to the group, in extreme cases to the point that no one is responsible for any disasters that happen.

  • Diversity

Hierarchical structures promote diversity. Diversity is essential in organizations. When I put a survey out to staff asking them for their feelings on specific problems or issues, the information I receive is extremely valuable because I get responses from people coming from a wide range of perspectives. Some see customers first-hand. Others are closer to the technical side of things. Even others (such as financial and HR people) have no full understanding about the daily operations of a library and have even more interesting perspectives on what should and should not be done.

Organizational flatness can reduce diversity in organizations because culture can take over, and sound out the dissenting voices.

Is Flatness a Bad Idea?

Flat organizations have their own strengths as well. Since I intend this article as a counter-point to the idea that Organizational Flatness is an ideal structure, I will not cover it in depth. You can probably guess the benefits anyway. Staff can have more stake in the organization’s success, more equal/equitable atmosphere, reduced protectionism among departments and so on. In fact, you could probably take the advantages of the hierarchical structure, take them to extreme and show how a flat structure is more efficient.

In the end, the point of this post is not to say that flatness is bad — just that flatness affords advantages that can help achieve certain strategic goals at the cost of other advantages that may be better for other goals.

Does the Library 2.0 movement suggest a move toward flatter structures? Here are some thoughts.

I think a Library 2.0 future implies the following about organizational structures in public libraries:

  • Web and technical service teams will necessitate more communication among service and technical departments and will grow on the whole. Research and Development will probably merge into this area as well.
  • As electronic media continues to grow and resources get easier to use, circulation departments are going to continue to decrease and/or merge into information services departments, resulting in flatter structures.
  • If laptops continue to get cheaper and wireless gains ground (not guaranteed yet), centralized technical support will diffuse into a more front-lines model. This is because libraries desktop hardware will require less maintenance (just replace the old machines with new ones) and laptop service will require a higher degree of support.
  • Teen and Youth services will continue to be their own “silos” in the long run. The skill sets are too unique to lose in a more diffuse structure.
  • Readers and Reference Services will tend to merge.
  • The roving model will lead to more “team” oriented work on the floor, but specialized services for business, government access and more personalized information management services will require “junior” and “senior” information service roles, similar to those found in Policy shops and consultancies.
  • Collaborative communication models via wikis, blogs, etc. will put a more human face on directors and make it easier for them to give and receive feedback from all levels of staff.
  • The same models will facilitate more cross-departmental communication as well.
  • Human Resources will have to communicate more clearly with technical people as well, since e-Learning (via Web tools and Learning 2.0-ish programs) will be key to future professional development of staff.

In sum, yes I do think the future will find libraries getting flatter as a whole. I say that these changes will probably “tip” somewhere between 2015 & 2020. This will not always be a very friendly process though, since it will involve changes in people’s job descriptions, pay-scale, reporting structures, and perhaps even employment. It is important to remember that change in the workplace is not all good. Many times change in the workplace also means change in home-life as people end up moving, re-skilling, and perhaps even making decisions about their future with the organization. We should be sensitive always to the consequences of change, even if the change is both necessary and inevitable.

Most importantly, we should ensure that due process is paid prior to decision making. Studies have clearly shown that people are more willing to accept, even an unfair distribution of work and pay if there was a fair process behind the decision making process.