Working inside the box: Why creative/intellectual industries need systems and processes

I am a librarian. I like to bring order to chaos. I love taxonomies, metadata, classification systems, and org charts. Sometimes I work to bring order to shelves of books or caches of records. More frequently lately, I bring my systems orientation to managing people and creating efficient workflows and processes. For a librarian-manager who has spent ten years working in public, special/non-profit, and academic libraries, this project – implementing the RISWS management method in three academic libraries in Illinois – hits all those sweet spots. Yet, as we’ve watched the weekly reports filter in from our diverse schools (a large urban state university campus, a branch of the City Colleges of Chicago, and a private theological graduate school), and when we meet in our monthly training calls, I’m continually struck by the similarities in the struggles we managers face.

Many of these challenges have roots in the structural particularities of academic libraries. As a creative industry, academia provides fertile ground for management problems to arise.

Librarians are faculty. Or staff. Or both/neither.

In the libraries we’re studying, there is a professional librarian vs. clerical/civil service employee divide. The professional librarians are classified as faculty in tenure-track positions and hold the MLS degree. This means they are evaluated in terms of teaching, service, and scholarship alongside subject matter faculty peers, while the staff they manage (often circulation desk or tech services folks) are evaluated through their union or another performance evaluation process. As faculty, we managers are encouraged to undertake research projects, find grant funding, and bring our whole creative selves to the job, pursuing intellectual passions that enrich our work. Faculty librarians follow a prescribed path of evaluation leading to advancement and, ultimately, tenure. Meanwhile, our staffs (because of how their positions are classified) do not enjoy much freedom or support for professional development. Many lack clear paths to promotion. Managers and staff are in different boxes and are evaluated based on different expectations. RISWS helps to even the field a bit, as the same methods are used for all employees. But, some tension remains between the groups.

How do we measure success?

In most corporate environments, the bottom line is king. If a unit of XYZ Corp. isn’t clearly contributing to the profit margin, positions can be cut and money reallocated to more successful parts of the operation. In academia, our success metrics are fuzzier. While we do face very real budget limitations as public institutions, our evaluation and success as libraries or librarians is not spoken of in terms of dollars but in the language of enrollment targets and FTE and “student satisfaction.” At times, we may know that a reallocation of funding (from an outdated collection priority to another, for example) is needed, but we are not always empowered to make those changes.

Using a management method in a creative profession.

One of my literature professors in undergrad (at The Evergreen State College, an extremely liberal and “outside the box” institution) told my class that you can mess with the conventions of grammar and usage and break new ground in creative writing once you’ve learned the rules. Meaning, before you can go crazy with the free verse poetry and leave conventions of capitalization and spelling behind, you need to know how to write a grammatically-correct sentence and craft a 5-paragraph essay.

Before you can subvert a process or function well outside the box, you need to appreciate the benefits of structure and work within it.

Academia is a strange beast that defies easy classification. We’re definitely not corporate, but (as far as public institutions go), we are not independent (or independently wealthy) little islands of pure workplace freedom, either. The beauty of RISWS is that it works in any office setting or industry. In RISWS, Magda has created something truly agnostic, that fits alongside any other reporting or performance measurement/evaluation system you might have at your library or university. RISWS has shown each of us the trouble spots within our libraries and team workflows; the data has also made clear when library staff encounter challenges that are truly institutional, or bigger than the manager can handle on her own. When appropriate, our managers can use the RISWS data to work within the org chart to address bigger problems with superiors and work for broader institutional change.

So far this academic year, we’ve encountered a fair bit of resistance to the simple RISWS methodology, from direct reports and from union representatives. I am starting to believe that if your organization is vociferously resistant to a process that is a sign a process is sorely needed.

Employees need structure in which to flourish.

Regardless of union/civil service or tenure-track faculty status, our team members need clear reporting structures so that they know their work is useful and appreciated. I’ve interviewed several candidates this week for a couple of open positions in my library and, without fail, they all say they want clear expectations from their managers and freedom to run with ideas within an established framework. They want to know what their goals should be and then have the flexibility to reach those goals however they see fit, using their skills, creativity, and expertise.

I am not a micro-manager. I don’t hover. As long as the work is getting done, I usually don’t care how it’s happening on a day-to-day basis. I hire my staff to be experts in their assigned areas of responsibility and I want to see them engaged and creatively working to solve workplace problems. But I also want to give them clear benchmarks and ways to measure their achievement. I have to give my team a certain amount of structure (a box!) and support (a process!) so that we all know we’re moving in the same direction and I can be sure that the unit I manage is truly supporting the mission of our parent school.

A process like RISWS that is simple to implement gives management a foothold to see and solve problems, helps employees thrive, and enables the team to move the library in a single, strategic direction. It brings a little bit of order to the chaos. And that makes me happy.

More in January after our holiday break.

The Benefits of Consistency

Now that our participants have been asking for weekly reports for a few months, they’re starting to see the benefits of consistency. At first, reading all the reports (and dealing with employees who made a fuss about sending in the reports) took a lot of time and thought about what to do about each complaint and how to categorize each accomplishment. But after a few months of regular reporting, our managers were starting to anticipate what they were going to get. Here are the main benefits they’re seeing of this consistency:

1. Issues with different job roles and positions are exposed that they wouldn’t have been able to see before. And now that the managers know what’s blocking people, they can figure out how to deal with it. Some of it can’t be resolved, but now at least everyone knows about it and can acknowledge it.

2. Collective sigh of relief from the people who are working in good faith. The managers found that people who were facing challenges in doing their jobs as well as they wanted to were hungry for the chance to simply tell someone and have their issue reports noted officially. They knew that once it was in the “official record” that they’d reported problems with something, it would be as easy to be held accountable for later failures, since they’d reported what they knew. That allowed people to relax and focus on what they could do.

3. Better goal setting and assignments. Our managers are pleasantly surprised by things their employees are reporting as accomplishments, and are able to give employees more responsibilities and assignments in the areas they are excelling at.

4. Nowhere to hide. The employees who are sitting around resisting work are outing themselves, either by refusing to do the reports or by missing the mark completely on the reports. Our managers usually knew who wasn’t doing the job, but now they had confirmation of that.

5. Opportunity for a priorities review with each employee. One of our managers inherited a bunch of employees without completely understanding their area or job duties, and our other manager had a few positions cut and needed remaining employees to pick up some extra duties. In both cases, the reports told our managers what each employee assumed were the priorities of their role and the managers got to have alignment one-on-ones with each employee to make sure the manager and employee both had the same idea of the priorities for each role.

The first few weeks of reporting were slightly terrifying for the managers, but once the initial panic subsided, the managers started seeing how these quick check-ins could tell them more about how their department were running than they could see just by walking around or following project management report progress.