In June, I participated on the keynote panel at the SLA Denver Conference where we considered this topic and, later that month; I participated in the second annual ALA LITA Great Debate panel at ALA in DC, "Are Libraries Innovative Enough?" (The podcast is on the LITA Web site, www.lita.org.)
I spent the week of Canada Day and Independence Day immersed in the issues of innovation in libraries. On July 4th I was a guest in Joe Jane's summer credit course he was teaching on transforming libraries at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information Studies. And then, coincidentally (are there really any coincidences?), I met an old friend, Mike, for lunch and what was the topic? You guessed it, the innovation gap. Mike is a very talented and senior consultant and he's not from the world of libraries at all. He advises senior executives all over the globe and he and I asked ourselves, in a meandering conversation over Thai and Diet CokeT, the following questions:
- Can organizations be truly innovative? Professions? Is the public sector different?
- What allows good ideas and innovations to diffuse through our organizations?
- What are the root causes or barriers to innovation?
- Are there some solutions to this puzzle?
This is just a column, but it seems to me that a conversation that interested me might interest you. I can't cover everything, but it might spark some conversations with your colleagues.
- So, why does the diffusion of ideas and innovations in libraries feel so slow?
Some definitions of "diffusion" might help:
- dispersion: the act of dispersing or diffusing something; "the dispersion of the troops"; "the diffusion of knowledge" (wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn)
- the spread of a cultural pattern from one culture to another, and where no directed change agent is apparent (oregonstate.edu/instruct/anth370/gloss.html)
- Technology diffusion is the dissemination of technical information and knowledge and the subsequent adoption of new technologies and techniques by users. Technology diffusion is a component in the broader innovation process. (www.smartstate.qld.gov.au/strategy/strategy05_15/glossary.shtm)
At the SLA Leadership Summit in January, I met and heard Chip Heath, co-author with his brother Dan, of the book Made to Stick. I love the story in that book about ulcers. It's almost an updated tale of Sister Kenny who (I learned in an old B&W movie) found a better treatment for paralysis caused by polio, but whose ideas were dismissed for many of the same reasons as those of the doctors in this story.
This is the story of two Australian doctors, Dr. Robin Warren and Dr. Barry Marshall, who discovered that ulcers are caused by bacteria (H. pylori). This is accepted knowledge now, but the story of how the medical establishment resisted the discovery is illuminating. They found the bacteria and its effects in the early `80s and had great difficulty in publishing their results. In 1984, in a pique of frustration, Dr. Marshall (reminiscent of Dr. Banting injecting himself with insulin to prove its safety), had to make himself sick with pre-ulcers by consuming a large dose of H. pylori bacteria and then curing himself with simple antibiotics and Pepto-BismolT ingredients! Eventually (finally?), 10 years later, the National Institutes of Health endorsed antibiotics as the preferred treatment for ulcers. Hundreds of millions of people suffered needlessly for well over a decade because of this delay in accepting the innovation. It ends well with both doctors receiving the Nobel Prize in medicine in Fall 2005.
Now, we information professionals know a little something about the value of information. We can improve health, learning, policy, discovery, competitive advantage, and infinitely more. Do we have to poison ourselves to get attention? I hope not. Can we get our ideas and innovations to diffuse more quickly through our profession, our host institutions, and enterprises? How?
In their book, the Heaths offer that it comes down to trust, credibility, and belief. People believe because their parents and friends believe. (Just think how many people in your community believe that crime is up because everyone believes that - even though it is down in general over 65%!) They say that our personal experiences lead us to our beliefs and, beyond that, faith and the role of authorities that we trust is substantial. Just think of the amazing number of email hoaxes sent to you (if you're anything like me) by people who should know better but who got it from a trusted source - their friends! Personal trust is a very powerful thing.
Now, to be fair, the good Australian doctors also suffered from being outside of mainstream medicine - they were practitioners instead of traditional researchers, and they were from Australia instead of the primary medical R&D centers in the North America and Europe. They were from a hospital and not a university. At one of their early presentations they were openly mocked! That's quite a hole to dig out of in the nasty world of R&D politics.
Now, think about it. Are librarians mostly insiders or outsiders? Are we in the mainstream or on the fringes? Do we speak the language of those we need to influence or our own argot? Are we as trusted as we'd like? Are we personally connected to the social networks through which change and ideas diffuse? Do we have personal equity and professional equity? Hmmmm, I'd hazard that we're not as connected as we'd like or need to be. Do we use our users, trustees, and boards effectively to diffuse our innovations?
What are we innovative at? Does it diffuse through our own networks quickly? Think about some of the things we see that are exciting at our conferences and meetings: customized taxonomies, community programming, buildings, gaming tournaments, blogs, virtual reference and branches, excellent Web sites, creative licensing, imaginative training and marketing programs, research style innovations, and much, much more. We have a lot of WOW factor things to celebrate. What limits them from diffusing more quickly even in our own professional networks? Here are a few thoughts:
In order to learn, we must develop and share our case studies - the whole thing, warts, errors, and missteps and all. Do we have the courage to do this or are we too perfectionist to be totally honest?
Are we limited in many of our environments by worries about the competition, trade secrets, confidentiality, and privacy issues? Do we obey rules too literally? Are there ways to get the message out safely? Sometimes vendors see the innovation and have to make it vanilla in order to get the word out. It's sad the innovators don't get as much credit as they deserve.
Are we just too self-effacing? Do we suffer either from feelings that it won't measure up to public scrutiny or that we'll be embarrassed? Does the solitary nature of many of our positions leave us without the team support to get out there with confidence? Do we just think someone is going to notice without that all-important pointing finger or look-at-me-Mom-on-the-diving-board?
Do we lack the budgets to innovate? Are our environments too visionless to try edgier innovations with bigger payoffs? Do we have too weak of a connection to our organizations' social networks, key influencers like IT, hierarchies.? Are we positioned strongly inside or outside our communities? Are there virtual walls? Maybe we don't just recognize our actual power.
Is our profession conservative and introverted by its very nature? I don't think so, but it needs to be asked. Are we too isolated in our work environments and need the freedom of our associations to learn and experiment? Do we wait for permission instead of asking for it?
All of the above might be true in degrees. Are they reasons or excuses? Are there good workarounds? However, wonderful innovations do happen and ideas do diffuse. How do we get this to happen more and faster, and involve more of us and our ideas and contributions?
Well, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially in the context of what role SirsiDynix can play in making our clients and our profession more innovation-ready and helping diffusion to occur. I said this at the SirsiDynix SuperConference in my keynote - the best ideas are out there in our clients. Somewhere at the core of value is change. Few people tell positive value stories about their colleagues successfully preventing the organization from changing and being able to keep everything the same. The stories are usually about how they led well in periods of intense change. I believe that my colleagues are ready for more leadership roles in aiding our organizations to evolve and adapt to a changing world. I think one important diffusion lubricator is communication. I encourage you to submit articles, blog, build wikis, build webliographies, submit award nominations (even self-nominations), and of course, submit case studies. We need more stories. Find a way.
Where does SirsiDynix try to innovate?
SirsiDynix has a long tradition of innovation having achieved a number of firsts in the industry.
In the last three years, we've:
- Been the first ILS company to add RSS feeds to the OPAC. And we did this right since it's not just the OPAC, but we can also integrate RSS feeds from multiple OPACs, the Web, licensed resources, and more.
- SirsiDynix has been offering APIs and API training for more than a decade now and empowers you to be as flexible as possible with your data and your system - even at the consortia level.
- We launched EPS: The Enterprise Portal Solution. While our competitors are getting their beta versions out, we have years of experience in partnership with our wonderful clients with great EPS implementations in public library, academic, college, school, and special library clients and Web sites in the U.S., Canada, and internationally.
- We introduced Unicode to the ILS and OPAC and implemented it in many sites globally. We have good experience now in the difficult path to supporting the world's whole argot and the diversity of the North American urban and academic needs.
- We launched Rooms and created a new category where content can be organized in context.
- We launched SchoolRooms - the most innovative and amazing school support product ever developed. It's an EPS environment that has lessons to support every student in grades K-12 built in collaboration with hundreds of teachers and librarians. It has been installed and implemented (and occasionally customized) in whole states, public library systems, and after school programs. With integration of local school OPACs and local public libraries, as well as state and board resources, along with animations, visuals, graphics, targeted articles, teacher and parent resources, and much more, this is the most comprehensive solution and biggest innovation to date.
- Our Docutek VRL Plus virtual reference products continue to produce exciting innovations with a particularly exciting project in New Zealand involving a nationwide school's innovation.
- The FSU and SirsiDynix Normative Data Project combined with the SirsiDynix Director's Station and Web Reporter tools have the ability and power to change the way we view public library strategies and strategic insights.
What's coming up in SirsiDynix innovation?
Of course, some stuff is still in the secret vault, but we are providing sneak peaks and some innovations to support your success:
- SirsiDynix has demonstrated a commitment to share our latest usability studies for public and school libraries. Later in 2007 we will publish the results of our personal work that I have promised in recent presentations. This is exciting.
- You will have noticed that we have positioned the free sessions from the SirsiDynix Institute on opportunities for innovation as well as some of the exciting things our clients are doing. The SDI Live sessions at major conferences have been well attended and I travel a lot to spread the word on innovation opportunities.
- Our Serials Solution partnership continues to move federated search and OpenURL into the next phase of development.
- Watch for exciting innovations in SaaS (Software as a Service or ASP), which promises to generate saving for libraries while improving your ability to cost-effectively manage the changing hardware and software space.
- At SuperConference and elsewhere you might have seen some of the advanced user-centered design work we are doing with visual search display and faceted browsing. We don't believe that a third-party product pasted on top of the OPAC is the best solution. It is vitally important that it is integrated in the entire user experience. Watch for exciting things here.
- Lastly, we are doing a lot of research and testing on what the next generation of resource sharing should look like.
The Heaths propose in their book that credibility is a critical component of trust and that by tapping credibility networks, you get your message out to the people you want to influence in a very powerful way. Tap our trustees, leaders, and users' circles of influence so that we can advocate more effectively for ourselves.
Change happens through those who show up. I encourage you to invent the future and not just let it happen to you and your organization. I hope the innovations of SirsiDynix, our partners, and yours can find good alignment. It's a dynamic environment out there. Let's keep sharing.
Stephen Abram, MLS, is Vice President, Innovation, for SirsiDynix. He is the Chief Strategist for the SirsiDynix Institute (http://www.sirsidynixinstitute.com/ ). He is an SLA Fellow, president-elect of SLA, and the past president of the Ontario Library Association and the Canadian Library Association. Stephen would love to hear from you at email@example.com.