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Friday, January 20, 2012

Harvard U. Libraries, Reorganization, and Transparency: A Note for Leadership

The libraryverse is a-twitter with talk of the town hall meeting about Harvard University Library's massive re-org project. Chris Bourg collected all of the commentary, sifting fact from fiction from hyperbole when #hlth was fresh (a #hlth search in Twitter will garner you lots of commentary). Tom Bruno's blog post on the facts of the meeting he attended is another must-read. Go see them now before continuing with this. It's necessary background info. I'll wait.

Reorganizations can be a scary business. I was involved in a minor organization at an ARL, my last place of work. It was teeny compared to the scale of the project Harvard is taking on. But know this: the reactions, from librarians and staff, were eerily similar. Everyone wanted to know, at the very least:

(1) Exactly what positions were being eliminated
(2) What would happen to the folks in the eliminated position
(3) How the reorg would affect everyone else in terms of reporting/employment/etc
(4) When we would know all the details so we could prepare for the change

To be honest, "Don't worry about it", "We're working on it", "Soon", and "As soon as we have something concrete" are not satisfying answers. I can only imagine how much less satisfying yesterday when Harvard made it clear that there will be voluntary and involuntary staff reductions to go along with the reorg.

I am not here to rail against change. A library system Harvard's size was going to have to change its organizational structure at some point, whether to better centralize operations, consolidate responsibilities, or simply to handle budget cuts (or lack of significant budget growth in the amount they were used to). Change is necessary for organizations (and organisms) to thrive, particularly when situated within a changing environment. Change happens, change is scary, we have to do it anyway.

But let's not pretend there are no best practices with regard to organizational change. What of involving as many as possible from the ranks in the planning process? What about transparency through the whole process? You might not get the sort of buy-in you hope, since Change is Scary, and Job Loss is terrifying, but if HU librarians and staff were blindsided at this meeting with the amount of change and the speed at which it would happen, someone on the transition team or library leadership hasn't been doing their job. A reorganization of that scale is painful, but the old adage about "ripping a Bandaid off quickly" does not apply. People need time to plan, to digest, to get over being shocked so they can then listen and then understand. And if the consultants on the transition team don't know this, and did not make this very clear to administration before going ahead with yesterday's snafu, they're not worth their weight in salt, since it's the foundation of every single org theory and change class.

In terms of the town hall meetings, (as an outsider who was not in attendance) I wonder how admin thought these meetings would be useful if there were few/no answers to the very obvious questions that were posed by librarians and staff. Perhaps "town hall meeting" itself was a poor misnomer - perhaps they should have called it what it was - an update on the reorg. A town hall meeting implies a sort of give-and-take that appears to have been missing from the meetings. A note to library leaders, admin, managers: what you call things is important. It creates a set of expectations. When those expectations are not met, you leave people confused, and sometimes angry.

And while focus has been on laying off librarians, Tom points out in his post that he feels for his staff, already working understaffed and now faced with the specter of this reorg, after a meeting with lots of scary, vague announcements and few answers to any of their questions. It is one thing to be slightly anxious about the future, but it is a terrible thing to be scared of that future in your own workplace. Scared of being laid off. Scared of being one of the folks *not* laid off and faced with providing the same level and volume of service with fewer resources.

There's got to be a better way than blindsiding people. I still cannot decide what about transparency frustrates leaders so much that they will not engage in its practice.

Is it the fear that your people will see how messy a huge undertaking like a massive reorg is? Let them see that it is messy and difficult. Handing over a major overhaul as a fait accompli, making it look like decisions were easy, is insulting to those affected by those changes. Let people see how things were agonized over, revised, and changed along the way before the decisions were made. In a situation where any answer is going to make someone upset, let them know how and why you reached the decision you did. No, it won't make people happy - but nothing will. This will at least let them relate to the process and your humanity. You lose the power of the facade of Big Library Admin Boss Who Knows All And Shall Dictate, yes - but is that really who you want to be? More importantly, is that who your people need you to be?

Is it the fear that your people will disagree, and disagree loudly? Well, they're going to do that anyway. Better they do it with as much information as possible than in the dark. People are going to disagree, and disagree loudly, at the water cooler, in their cubicles and offices, on the phone, in their blog posts, at ALA MidWinter (nice timing, by the way), and on Twitter. How much of the black hole of information they have to create through gossip and speculation is completely up to leadership. I do not understand why you would not want them to have as much information as possible, both along the way, and once decisions were made. The facts of the matter are often far less terrifying than what we can make up on our own. And we *will* make things up to fill in the blanks - it's human nature. Better to just share the information than have people make up - and spread! - erroneous speculation.

I do understand the desire to break change to people in easily digestible chunks whenever possible, but (again, as an outsider) it does not sound like that is what the town hall meeting accomplished. I do wonder what the meeting was *supposed* to accomplish, given that the questions admin should have expected were not able to be answered.

In any case, I wish the librarians and staff at Harvard luck and strength to make it through what, in the best of times, is a painful and jarring process. These are not the best of times. I also hope that the transition team/admin/leadership will come forward with more information that will help their people, in a timely manner, and in such as way as to make the HU librarians and staff feel they are valued voices - or at least adult enough to be trusted with the information that impacts their livelihoods.

In the meantime, I'm going to add "hug my dean" to my to-do list for when she returns from MidWinter.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Actually, the "why" is pretty obvious, and they should have skipped this part of their presentation entirely. I suspect they should have cancelled the meeting, but they feared that if they did so they'd be confronted with accusations of opacity.

I do have some advice for them:
1) Cancel the meeting if you don't have any answers.
2) Tell us you are cancelling the meeting because the plan has not yet been approved.
3) If you feel you can't cancel the meeting, start out by saying that you wanted to cancel it, but for xxx reason, you decided you shouldn't.
4) Tell people why they are having the meeting.
5) Have some freakin' answers to the most blazingly obvious questions.

Colleen said...

Completely agree, Anonymous. I wonder about their reasons for not taking *any* of those options you mention - is the answer so simple as not wanting to look fallible?

Anonymous said...

Given my knowledge & experience of Harvard's management, they didn't want to look fallible. If you look at the updated information the transition team has posted, they haven't said anything like "Oops, sorry for making everyone freak out. Let us explain why the sky is not actually falling."

Right now staff are being told the transition team is hearing & paying attention to staff complaints. However, I'm not seeing any official acknowledgement of that. Adding more workshops is a scheduling improvement, not a response to staff anxiety.

--anon Lamont library staff person

Colleen said...

Dear anon Lamont staff - it saddens me to hear that estimate of what's going on, although it doesn't surprise me. I do hope they can put your anxieties to rest soon, and with good, thorough information.