RISWS Works for Libraries, reflections by Magda Pecsenye

I’ve been asked to write a “conclusions” post about this project, and the very short summary is this: The RISWS process works in library management. Our study participants became better managers when they used this process and they experienced better morale and work outcomes when they used the process consistently with their employees. When problems occurred, whether internal to their departments or external from their organizations, the transparent communication process of RISWS helped them manage through these issues without chaos.

I wasn’t surprised by this, because I know RISWS works in any kind of organization that employs people. The process gives a structure for solving problems that rewards the people involved for using their individual skills and experience. So it’s going to work in any situation in which a manager can make it safe for an employee to tell the truth about the work process.

What did surprise me a lot, though, was how chaotic a work environment academic libraries are. They are underfunded and overworked, student-facing but not given enough funding or institutional capital to serve the students the way they should be able to. In addition, library managers are often given employees to manage that they didn’t hire and cannot fire. Being a library manager seems a lot like trying to train for a marathon inside a submarine. Add to that the fact that the org chart of academic institutions is complicated and has a lot of weird corners, and it’s basically a hostage situation.

This means that the results of using the RISWS process revealed themselves more slowly in this study than they do in organizations where employee actions have even a vague relationship to costs and/or revenue. Some of the employees seemed to get it right away, and started reporting in and asking for help with problems in the few weeks. But when employees didn’t get it, they really didn’t get it. It had genuinely never occurred to me that someone would (or could!) file a grievance with their union that their manager was actually trying to manage them.

The other thing I wouldn’t have imagined is that an entire institution could just be defunded suddenly so all the work of using RISWS would fade away because the manager couldn’t actually tell employees if they’d have jobs in a few weeks or not. Private companies go out of business all the time, but one if the benefits of working for a public institution should be knowing that your key is going to work tomorrow morning.

I’d thought I was a hardened observer of capitalism, but with the woes of academic libraries I’m a wide-eyed noob.

Was this project worth doing? Absolutely. Work and life at work has been improved for the manager participants and for the people they manage, though the use of this process.

What would I do differently? I think I would have had the participants ignore entirely the employees they actually had no authority over when they were starting RISWS. I think the early wins with the employees who got it right away were overshadowed by the resistance from the employees who really didn’t want to be there anyway. And I think focusing on those early wins would have made for a smoother process for everyone, and avoided some of the resistance.

I am ready for more library managers who want to be walked through this process. We know it works, so let’s roll it out everywhere.

Reflections On a Year With RISWS, by Valerie Neylon

I’ve really seen a big change throughout this project! I started as a new librarian, and I was faced with a staff very resistant to change. Although, aren’t all staff resistant to change? I think that’s a normal thing.

And I came in ready to make changes. Big changes. I was not happy with the way the library had been running, specifically customer service, and I was hired on the condition of making those tough changes. I was not a department chair, just a full-time faculty member, but I had the support of the department chair to be a supervisor. I implemented a hands-on management technique, which was very new to the staff, and not very welcome at first. I checked in with the staff every day and asked how they were doing. I organized meetings that focused on ways to improve customer service. I let staff know what was allowed and what was not allowed (for example, cell phones are not allowed while you’re covering the circulation desk).  Over time, I started to see improvement. We’re far from perfect, but the school’s administration has acknowledged that there were no student complaints about the library this year!

We’re a unionized school. I’ve never worked in a unionized environment before. Now that I am, I sure did see both sides of the coin. When I implemented the weekly emails with the top challenges and accomplishments, I was faced with a grievance. The circulation staff said that this was not a duty outlined in their contract. Luckily, the grievance was decided in my favor, and the weekly emails continued.

At the beginning of the weekly reports, there were tons of challenges. And, we worked through them. We fixed a lot of things, and a lot of things, like the absence of IT support in the evenings, was something I was incapable of fixing. But we talked about these things as a team and had regularly scheduled meetings and went over these things. It got to the point where the staff started complaining that they couldn’t think of three challenges. Yippee! That means it worked! I’m not sure the staff all had the same level of excitement as I did, but generally I saw some smiles.

In fact, as we progressed, staff members would say to me during the day, “Hey! I found my accomplishment!” I cannot even begin to describe the change in attitude this was. These were staff members who seemed fully checked out, and now they were on board with accomplishments and being proud of what they did. One staff member even asked if they could start reporting accomplishments for co-workers, sort of a “giving a pat on the back” situation. This teamwork was new, and exciting.

I won’t say that it was all easy or all good. There are still times when I have a hard time motivating staff to do something, and there are still most definitely issues. But, I will say that the challenges have been easier to find and solve, and the staff felt they had a hand in that. And positivity erupted from it (but let’s be clear: positivity did not erupt everyday).

Overall, I feel much more confident about my skill as a manager. I was promoted to department chair in the middle of the RISWS project, so that makes me feel that other people feel confident in my management style, as well. I’ve learned quite a bit, and although there are still some day by day challenges that I’m not quite sure how to tackle, I feel better equipped to think about it.

Wrapping up: Thoughts about my management philosophy and RISWS

Last week, we convened for our final project call. The trainee managers Val and Gabrielle, Magda, and I talked through how the past year with RISWS has gone in our libraries, what we’ve learned, and what challenges we still face. It’s been a crazy year in Illinois libraryland. Gabrielle works at Chicago State, one of the public higher education institutions facing severe budget cuts, furloughs and layoffs. It’s not yet clear what that means for library services (and staff jobs) at her school. Val also works at a public institution, Richard J. Daley College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago. The state budget cuts are less of a factor for Daley, but as Val will discuss in her upcoming post, she faced a union grievance as a result of implementing the RISWS weekly report process. Meanwhile, at my school, we’re undergoing an intensive change management initiative and dealing with the realities of a flat budget projected for next fiscal year as a result of low enrollment growth.

RISWS alone can’t solve state economic crises, generate enrollment numbers, or heal rifts between union employees and management. However, the constant stream of employee-provided data CAN help managers know what’s going on with their teams. And it is this information-based reality check that has served me well in the past year. Below I talk a bit more about how the RISWS process and my management philosophy intersect.

I believe in the mission/vision statement of an institution as an important guiding tool for its constituent divisions and departments. In higher education, student service is our raison d’etre; the library exists to help students along every step in their educational journey.  Starting with the mission/vision as a guiding principle and rallying cry, we can then build a strategic plan with “SMART”  (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals or objectives. Depending on context, the library can use a larger division strategic plan as a starting point or build one of its own to specifically delineate how library staff can move the department toward institutional objectives. RISWS data should be invaluable here — by sorting through the weekly reports, I can identify what we’re currently spending time on see whether that matches up with what we should spend time on. Then, I can make data-driven decisions about what might be the better/best use of limited human and financial resources.

One of my core responsibilities as a library manager is building the right team that ensures the library works in service of the overall mission.  I am a librarian by training and a human resources strategist by vocation. As a manager, I strive to empower my team to solve problems and remove system roadblocks to allow us all to work efficiently and from our strengths. This language is straight from the RISWS playbook. I begin with the assumption that people come to work in good faith, wanting to do their best. Sometimes that isn’t the case, and issues of poor performance or low morale need to be addressed with those employees. But hiring smart, capable, and creative individuals at all levels in the library (whether full-time, part-time, interns, contractors, temps, professionals or paraprofessionals), and then devoting time to training, and mentoring them to develop professionally is key to moving a library forward.

To achieve excellence, libraries must have the wholehearted support of and “brand recognition” from key internal and external constituencies. To earn that trust and support, we can use data to tell powerful stories about library value. As a manager, I am an advocate for my library and my team. It is my job to articulate and demonstrate our value to key stakeholders. Sometimes, I need a soundbite for impromptu meetings with leadership. Other times, I need a longer answer to the question, “what is the library staff doing this week?” RISWS data helps me in those moments I am called upon to articulate library value and win support. The good news is that I can now bring RISWS information into play alongside the typical metrics of circulation stats, archive research requests, and database usage. I believe in assessment and evaluation as a means to reality-check our assumptions about our success.

What’s next?

In the next year, I hope to spend more time analyzing data from FY16 and working with my team to craft a plan for library service that can further big institutional goals and more clearly mirror our school’s priorities. Then, I want to create a feedback loop that flows from my school’s mission statement and strategic plan into individual performance evaluations and employee goal-setting. That is, let’s see what happens when I weave institutional aspirations and markers of school success into the job descriptions and expectations for my individual team members!