Organisational leadership: He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

I was inspired by Kim’s discussion on leadership this week, but a little discomforted by some of the Twitter conversation that followed, in which it was identified (not, if I recall by Kim herself) that change was great, but people could be a barrier.

Don’t get me wrong. I know people, I work with them and I know just how wrong they can be, particularly those who don’t see things the way I do. The problem is, we can’t change people and more to the point, we shouldn’t. My response is informed by one of my favourite Māori proverbs:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? The people! The people! The people!

We don’t want people to change; we want the people, our colleagues, staff, organisational seniors and users to help us realise the change we see as the path to the future. I propose combining three complementary strategies with this in mind.

Identify your allies

This is the one we’re all good at. This is the point of Blogjune – we discuss our ideas and influences so we can connect with others who see the world the same way. There’s been plenty written about personal learning networks and flocks. These are a great emotional and intellectual support when the process of facilitating change gets us down but it’s important to have those conversations within our organisations too.

Anyone can teach us. I’d developed a solid line of expansion in my practice as Librarian, Digital Outreach for Auckland Libraries when I met a colleague I’d assumed to be typical of a manager of a country town library. I’d target retirement communities with a view to explaining the health benefits for ereading (text size plus lightweight reading device) and linking them back to the digital library. I’d always contact the relevant manager and was used to being given a polite hearing before being left to do my job. Not in this case. Within weeks of my first contact, I received an invite to speak to a support group for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. Perfect for the scope of my activity and inclusive of people not findable in my initially defined user group. Someone got it, and was willing to push me in a direction which helped me do what I was doing better.

Create allies

Auckland Libraries was a brand new organisation when I worked for it. Due to staffing gaps, at some point my activity as an outreach librarian started to include activity as a project manager for technological upgrades.

My first major project was an upgrade for one subregions computer suites. I was facilitating an early meeting between my manager, our contractor and the local team of learning centre librarians who were necessary to help steer the activity through.

When it came time for the locals to present their request list, I was surprised to find their representative in a frame of mind to take these big city folks (note: I lived in one country town and worked from another, as did my manager) to task for their high handed ways. He insulted me, my manager, our contractor, the project and proceeded to dramatically overexplain his list with the assumption that none of the three of us knew the slightest thing about technical services provision. I was aghast.

Calming him down and reminding him of the purpose of the meeting – to work together productively – didn’t work either. I made the reluctant decision to play hardball. Noting the length of his list, I let him talk to his pleasure for twenty-five minutes (!!!) which allowed him to finish discussing the first point on his group’s list of 20 or so. I then interjected to clarify that as all of the project team had commitments, we had five minutes left to discuss the remaining points. Suddenly the performance ended. Points were worked through, and almost uniformly agreed to with the assent of the contractor. There was no time for argument, so none happened. Damage done to the organisation’s relationship with our contractor was repaired as he saw his contact wouldn’t allow him to be disrespected.

Later, I had reason to contact my disruptive colleague. As I was going to have to work with him into the future, I let him know the truth – that I’d allowed him to run his mouth in order to demonstrate a point. I let him know it wasn’t by choice, but his behaviour demanded it, and that my preference would be to cooperate in future. He became my staunchest ally on his side of the project, delivering analysis and insight that supported me greatly. Together with his team, my contractor and a number of helpers across the organisation I believe we delivered not only a successful project but one with a large amount of value added to the existing model. The new template we’d steered through the process was being rolled out across the wider organisation at the time I left it. My one-time foe is a firm friend even now.

Treat everone as an ally

If you’re going to place people at the centre of your change process, the minute you start defining people as “outside the box” you’ve failed. It’s easy to look at the reluctant, the frustrated, the burnt out and say – well there is toxicity here. I’ll side step it and find success without them.

Change has a rubber band effect. The more people you leave behind, the more they’ll push against your accomplishment. It’s not possible to inspire everybody or be everybody’s best friend but it’s wise to respect everybody and work hard to find out where they’re coming from and what they need.

Auckland Libraries was a large organisation – the largest public library system in the Southern Hemisphere. With fifty-five branches and more than a thousand staff, the task of “getting to know everyone” was, to be frank, impossible. As mentioned above, I was working a role with two completely incongruous aspects (friendly salesman/dervishlike project manager and technical liaison). I had too much to do and no time to do it in.

I was given the task of completing an informational spreadsheet about each site so that our council-side colleagues in customer services could effectively respond to customer queries about our locations and services. The no-brainer solution would have been to email out copies of the spreadsheet to site managers and respond to queries as they arose. No-brainers don’t work in scaled environments. I’m in the habit of pondering strategies before I put them in place, and I realised I was likely to spend a week dealing with followup queries. My fifty-five libraries were amalgamated from eight organisational cultures, and I’d found previously that statements that made sense in one part of the organisation were unexplainable elsewhere.

I took the radical step of reserving a week for calling each site. Without impacting greatly on their day or workflows, I took a few minutes to connect with each manager, inquire about their challenges, talk a little bit about myself and work through their responses to the spreadsheet. At the end of the week, I was exhausted and nearly mute but I was on a first name conversational basis with fifty-five of the key players in the organisation. Given I was already well known at head office, I viewed this as a success.

That work came to fruition some months later. It had become clear I was leaving the organisation, and I needed to know that the learning I’d developed around communicating our digital product – particularly the then-emerging elibrary collections – would continue to be useful after I left. It was part of a plan I’d had all along; a single outreach specialist cannot cater to a population of one and a half million.

I pulled together my notes into a training plan which described how to communicate the benefits of ereading to customers in need and codified the experience I’d garnered working on the digital helpdesk to bolster my colleagues’ ability to act as a first line of problem resolution. My manager gave me permission to publicise this training, and I basically treated it as a fire sale; going out of business, take advantage before this product is gone. I’m proud to say that based on the socialising I’d done I received invitiations from approximately two thirds of the sites and was given the opportunity to communicate to a majority of the front-facing staff.

What happened next? I don’t know. Working in a huge organisation in a state of chaotic change was exhilarating, challenging and ultimately overwhelming and destructive for me personally. I walked out the door, moved country, started over and had a daughter with Fi. I’m allowing my career in Australia to very quietly build, but am mainly interested in earning enough to help support my family while giving myself plenty of time to hear the laughter of my little girl.

That being said, I’m still doing all of the steps above. One never knows when one will be in a position to help some good take place in the world.


#blogjune 17: Selling the good life in the digital world

Today, having cleared other obligations, I spent the afternoon working in with (for) my dear wife in Helensville Library. I ran the front of house while she and her team cleared up a few tasks, a pleasurable exchange for all.

It was the late night, so I was out back having a bite to eat and a coffee when Sally asked me to talk to a gentleman about our ebooks.

The conversation centred around whether our ebook collection would be usable on his soon-to-arrive Kindle. The short answer, according to our support pages is no. Kindle does not provide support for ePUB documents.

The longer answer is yes, so long as one changes the filetype, thereby stripping the DRM from the file. This was a statement I was not going to make to the gentleman. Safe? If only it were that easy.

Taking the high road, I guided him to our support pages and discussed with him the range of platforms he could use Adobe Editions to manage his borrowed eBooks on. His response:

“Yeah, but I can convert anything to anything.”

He’s right, of course. There are single-purpose websites available for almost any format conversion desired. I’ve used them to tinker with my backing tracks for performance when needing to do quick work on a machine that doesn’t have a music editing suite installed.

I have a response for moments like these. I allowed for the existence of such tools, but asked that the gentleman not to tell me if he chose to use them to circumvent our licensing agreements. When he countered suggesting he could simply use another type of site to download the item directly (I won’t mention the method, but suffice to say it’s not the P2P we’re all supposed to be concerned about) all I could do was raise my eyebrows and smile innocuously, an expression few believe however often I practice it.

We talked some more, and by the end of the conversation I understood he was enthusiastic to use our service so that he could do his eReading ethically and as close to legally as possible. He wished to borrow from us and delete the item at or before the due date, rather than use a possibly more convient pirate source, so that his use of the rights could be correctly reported.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have a set of universally-adopted, standardised file formats. Given that, “close to legal” is an interesting, and perhaps useful, construct although I do not advocate shifting file formats illegally. Over in the Diligent Room I use road speed limits as an analogy; some, in fact, get annoyed at  people who do drive at fifty in a fifty kilometres per hour zone. To drive legally can to disturb the flow of traffic, which is in fact a crime. Just try driving at 30 on the motorway. Is downloading legally disturbing to the flow of information?

I’m put in mind of Aristotle’s good life. We can either identify my customer as a would-be pirate, or as in a very real way opting to make his digital reading a more complicated affair for an ethical reason.

If we decide that the glass is half full here, I think we can refocus our conversation away from breaches and towards the opportunities that selling an ethical digital life affords us. With the eyes of the nation looking at a new law and wondering which of their behaviours will put them on the wrong side we’d be crazy to do otherwise.

#blogjune 15: Quick engagement vs. enhanced features

Whenever I think about design matters I wish for everything to be in a state of zenlike simplicity, but with lots of features.

I definitely think websites should be capable of doing both.

A recent session at work guided by an outside group got me thinking about how this can come about.* There’s the iGoogle model – personalised widgets galore, which I think would be awesome. Visit the generic site first time, then make it your own.

The other model of rich features implies multiple/generated-on-the-fly pages, and (having been told to hurry up before dinner and a hot date watching the start of Criminal Minds season 5… is Hodge ok? If his job gets too dangerous will he move back in with Dharma? Is being able to tell reality from fantasy really necessary in the digital age?) I’ve decided the best way to handle that is to have a frontend URL system that works like a series of folders and subfolders – knowing that getdoc commands are the most efficient way to drive the back end of things.

Always, always, always put the hard work behind the scenes. Always, always, always have that illusory top-of-the-swan floating above the surface.

Okies, dindins. Happy #blogjune!

*Sorry for being vague – I don’t want to prejudice any confidential processes although I’m sure I’d be quite safe.

#blogjune 9: We belong dead…

Or at least I’m dead tired.

The library peeps today were cool. My talks seemed to go over well, and once we got onto discussing licencing models (it was around eBooks) I had some seriously had and interesting questions thrown at me… only some of which I had to deliver my version of “no comment”, which apparently runs thusly:

“I wouldn’t be able to make a meaningful statement at this time.”

The secret is not letting on that I struggle for coherence most of the time.

#blogjune 7: The funnest thing about work for me

is learning alongside others.

I got to do that today.

The funnest thing about life in general: The whole thing, most of the time.

Where I think eBooks are at – or more reviews on obsolescent products

I was reading a post by a gentleman name of Tom I’ve been following a while. He’s active in the library industry and seems fond of eBooks.

I started in with  a comment and realised I was saying a few things outside the purview of his post.

You really should read it but I’ll précis it here.

A recent Listener editorial was negative about eBooks. Tom responds by letter and on his blog*.

In it he posits the obsolescence of books, the foolishness of libraries for missing this, with phrases such as:

  • With ebooks there’s no need for the book buyer, the people (sorry libraries) who hold up the book industry, to visit a physical store anymore.
  • This is our (libraries) fault.

I read this a few days ago now and wasn’t sure of my response, which usually means it’s sparked a few thoughts that need to brew. Many thanks for that, Tom.

I get where he’s going – and particularly with regard to libraries – but I guess my response is around the democratisation and atomisation of creativity. Allow me to explain.

I see the current value of the eBook model as a following stage from the book, but I actually think the book (as a concept, not as a physical thing) itself is what will be outmoded by more short format communication tools such as blogging etc. I’m viewing books and eBooks as the same things, in essence.

One of the factors that I see behind the novel (a relatively recent** phenomenon preceded for millennia by the epic poem cycle) and the “serious nonfiction book” has been the publishing industry’s need to deliver a content package which will gain market respect. If it looks like a book, some people will buy it. This applies in e-form too.

We are increasingly able to finetune our content. I’ve spent a lot of my life reading journalists from PJ O’Rourke to Hunter S. Thompson (actually not that wide a range if you know them both). What I have had access to is book form collections of articles they released over time. This is what a large part of non-fiction book content is. Sometimes it’s honest about it, sometimes it’s hidden but well crafted and sometimes it’s painfully obvious and badly done.

I’d rather find new PJs and HSTs and hear what they’re thinking about the day they’re thinking about it. Yes I know there are issues of authorial voice – but I think that even the concept of author-as-unreachable-expert is breaking down. So for me, a lot of nonfiction publishing in any format is not just obsolescent but obsolete and still twitching. I rarely will read a nonfiction book. The marketplace of ideas is simply too rich.

Longer fictional narratives – ok you got me. I still like to read novels whatever I said above. But that’s me, who has been brought up to function in that system. I believe in it, I love in it – but I’m not so sure I believe it’s here to stay. I definitely believe that large-form text narratives will follow a similar decline as the ranks of gamers, Whedon freaks and right on down to LOLCATivores rise. I’ve watched my 74 year old mother-in-law’s reading habits change since we introduced her to the net. She’s still a voracious linguaphile*** but her wordplay lately includes telling me I’m being basement cat when she feels I’m being an improper son-in-law.

So what am I saying? I’m saying I think classifying long-form eReading as any different from the digital reading we’ve been doing socially since – well you pick. Teletext? BBS? The telegram?

Let’s start that one again. What I’m saying is this: There is no such thing as eReading. There is no eBook. There are short- and longform texts, and some companies around marketing longform (and combined shortform) content packages on digital platforms as eBooks. This too shall pass.

I recommend looking at TOR. They’re a science fiction publishing company. They’ve been putting CDROMs with entire parts of their catalogues in the back of their books for years. Yes, this is essentially freeware booklength content aimed at generating business based on reputation and fair dealing. Yes, this strategy was generated long before the eBook question. Heck, iD software did with the Doom franchise in the 90s.

As for libraries? I guess I’m saying Tom’s wrong, right and wrong again. He’s wrong because he knows full well libraries are aware and thinking of eBooks. He’s right that we should focus more on this question while it is in play. I think – and I’m happy to be told I’m wrong in turn – he’s wrong again because I get the feeling a logical conclusion would be to invest as much of our time in eBooks as possible. I think that would be putting all our eggs into very much the wrong basket.

*a strategy I highly recommend – when I did so over a Sunday Herald article I also emailed the article author to give them a heads up, which also felt like good practice.

** 18th Century or so according to my fave cheap reference source.

*** She was once kicked out of a scrabble club after she complained about people playing with the help of word lists which is my definition of awesome.

Web registrations are a higher barrier than we can afford

Disclaimer: This post is proposes a zero barrier net access ideal. With that in mind, I propose my first blog policy: I shall only include a NSFW warning if I am linking directly to NSFW content. Some sites I suggest may occasionally update with content you find offensive. Please click intelligently.

Currently, most sites invite followers through registration. I’ve become aware over time that more often than not I avoid registering. I don’t think I’m alone in this; does this mean registration itself is a barrer?

Last night I listened to the first podcast of my long-distance friend and fellow blogger Michael J. Parry’s new book.

Michael Parry

It’s enjoyable if you’re a fantasy geek, and I was pleased to find the site offered a subscription programme. All I needed to do was register.

I filled in the little form and clicked go – Name, email x2, password x2 and link at the bottom says “Complete your registration and sign in.” Nice and minimal.

Unfortunately, the sign in page – autofilled by the site (not one of Michael’s excellent designs I must add!) – didn’t work.

No doubt just a little server lag, and because it’s something I’m determined to follow I’ll check back in a short while to fix.

Now, I understand the value of registration. Building a customer identity  is an extremely valuable marketing tool. This sites creaters have chosen to ask their customers for very little at first point of contact, which is a smart choice.

Why? Firstly, and most importantly, a large registration page must turn a significant percentage off.  Secondly, its benefits in terms of customer profile ultimately work against that goal. Registration forms suit generic data, creating broad assumptions that can only mar later analysis. That simply makes it the more blunt-edged tool in the age of freakonomics.

It’s been argued that customer retention is a significantly more efficient way to retain market share than audience capture. I just don’t believe this is so on the web. Things get weird around zeroes and infinities, and with both capacity and audience increasing exponentially internet phenomena simulate this effect. Is audience retention then broken?

Maybe. Recently an internet retailer used extreme harrassment so that his customers responded via complaints sites and their many personal communication channels. His reward?  A number 2 spot on google for his product’s search, delivering massive amounts of new customers even as he haemmorhages the old. That’s a terrible way to behave, but a pretty clever business hack.

The news story is about google as much as the guy, and let’s hope for some discussion about their two edged sword of a response – as usual non-disclosure of the algorithm creates concerns over abuse of their very real power even though I personally feel their intentions are as good as it gets for a company of that size and prominence in this day and age.

There are of course forces working in the retention’s favour. Communities exist, persist and in fact can self-organise to thrive. They are even revitalising lost “real world” communities.

Home crafts, handed down for millennia, were dying due to the impact of workforce entry on women’s lives over the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks to the internet’s drive to sharing cultures, crafts are enjoying a massive renaissance. You can visit a crafts community set up simply to mock another crafts community.  Participate, and you’ll be part of has a massive blended movement as it celebrates itself. What’s the sociology of the interaction between those two groups?

Let’s not say audience retention is wiped out as a strategy. It’s closer to the truth to say retention and capture have equalised their value as strategies.

Registration functions as a significant barrier to audience capture. The 5 line form I encountered was 5 lines too long. That click, one too many. Don’t ask me for my email, as I’ll never opt in to your newsletter. Let me put in a username and password first time I post and leave it at that. I’ll be able to handle it.

So where are libraries at for the most part? Moving on from non-interactive sites. Starting to engage the social web to capture customers: Asking for tags. Asking for ratings.

Still requiring registration. A model needed** for physical items – not for web content.

We started out as institutions hoarding resources for the powerful, but libraries have also thrived as outgrowths of community passion. Let’s at least try to recreate that in the virtual world.

This is how: Open the door. Say, “Come inside”. Give them a reason to stay.

Here’s a starting strategy. Let’s advertise our children’s services this way:

* number of pages*average time to read pages*growth rate/life expectancy

** Maybe –  we can at least start working on closer approaches to trust-based organisations – Waitakere Libraries did well with open membership, a brave and very Westie step to take.