A Compelling Committee (or The Story of UHLSDSC)

By Michelle Boule |
    We will anticipate and respond to the ways our users find, create, and share knowledge, and we will be fully integrated into the personalized library experience for each user and welcoming spaces for collaboration and discovery.

    On campus and online, we will be a valued partner in the academic life of our students, faculty, and community.
    "Our Vision," UH Libraries Strategic Directions, 2006–2010 (PDF)
Michelle BouleFor many libraries, technology training is not formalized, and it often lands on the desk of the lone staff member who happens to be a technology dabbler—or worse, training initiatives fall through the cracks altogether.

There is an alternative to formal training, though, and a way to keep that important tech training at your library from tumbling into oblivion.

A committee, preferably a high-profile committee that already has the momentum for change and innovation, could be the best choice for this chore. But any committee, with a little motivation, can be the galvanizing force for technology training and skill development.

Unlocking the Future
At the University of Houston Libraries, we utilized this committee approach, and thus we have the story of UHLSDSC (Univ. of Houston Libraries' Strategic Directions Steering Committee).

We recognized our work as important to the future of the UH Libraries, UH Libraries' staff, and, ultimately, to UH Libraries' existing and future users. Our serious-minded work, a new building expansion, and the technological promise of the twenty-first century led us to four key strategic directions:
  • Expand our virtual presence. "We will develop a vibrant, responsive website that presents our full array of resources and services. This site will creatively incorporate new technologies and develop in tandem with our users' needs and priorities through ongoing assessment."
  • Become an integrated teaching and learning center. "We will capitalize on our open and inviting new building by developing a Learning Commons equipped to support the entire scholarly process from search and discovery to synthesis and presentation. We will pursue cooperative collection-building and instructional design in conjunction with faculty, and provide technology support for collaborative teaching and learning."
  • Enrich support for scholarly communication. "We will fully develop our role as the campus' intellectual repository and a hub of scholarly communication by digitizing unique collections for greater accessibility, providing a digital repository to collect and preserve University scholarship, and considering long-term access in our collection decisions."
  • Rebrand the Libraries. "The Libraries' 'brand' will be convenient and reliable access to information, technological and professional innovation, and active engagement with our faculty and students to develop collections and services. Systematic programs for internal training and external communication will augment the specific directions above, resulting in a brand that will resonate with our users now and in the future."
The committee gambled that the impending future strategic directions would compel staff—previously unmoved by workshops and technobuzz—to take a look at some new software. Those of us on the committee decided to incorporate technology into our work days in three ways to:
  1. manage staff workflows and projects;
  2. disseminate information to UH Libraries; and
  3. solicit feedback from staff.
Over the course of six short months, this committee acted as technology evangelist for the organization.

Technology-Based Task Tackling 
There are a lot of new work-management/workflow software packages on the market. They are to business what course-management software is to colleges. The only difference is that project-management software is more robust and helps, not hinders, the working atmosphere.

We chose to work with Basecamp. Developed by 37 Signals, Basecamp offers a calendaring system, message boards, and group document-editing areas. The software also employs action items, which can be assigned to certain members; it has the capacity for file uploads and storage; and the developers have recently integrated their Web-based chat feature Campfire. We found the document-editing area to be integral to the success of the project, as our end product was the strategic-directions document.

A Basecamp feature that I appreciated immediately was its ability to set up e-mail-message alerts or an RSS feed so I would be notified when others made changes to a project.

Considering ROI
After the committee members' successful return on our investment with this software, the library staff decided to purchase an account for staff-wide use; UH Libraries now has seven groups using Basecamp to organize their workflows.

For libraries with a budget or in budget flux, Basecamp has a free trial, and the paid versions are offered as a pay-as-you-go service. Even the free version offers an unlimited number of client users on a project—a nice change from the companies that charge per user.

UH Libraries' Strategic Directions Steering Committee's Blog Blogging 101
During the six-month work period, instead of disseminating countless e-mail messages, memos, and newsletters, members decided to disperse almost all of the committee's information on a blog housed on the library intranet. Previous to the committee's work, some staff members had never read or seen a blog, so the first open forum had a section explaining the various new tools we would be using.

Alhough the UH Libraries did have blog software, it was not widely used by the staff. Some months prior to this, I had presented two workshops, one covering blogs, wikis, RSS, and aggregators; the other highlighted the basics of blogging. This started the conversation, but up until the committee's blog, there had been no action on this front.

Reaping Rewards, Seeding Skills
Staff members in the library had a vested interest in knowing what the SDSC was planning, creating, and thinking, and by disseminating our information through a blog, they were compelled to read it. They became more aware of the medium and how a blog worked. All of the committee's related presentations, PowerPoint files, reading lists, and other materials were housed on the blog for quick reference.

The Strategic Directions Steering Committee Blog was the first University of Houston Libraries' internal working group blog. In the last seven months, the UH Libraries' institution has ramped up blogging efforts tremendously. Since past winter, we have gone from zero to sixteen external blogs and nine internal blogs, ranging from ones that facilitate committee work to blogs for department news.

Despite all of the positive rewards, the committee received very little feedback electronically. Most of the feedback from library staff was offered in informal discussions, open forums, and work-group meetings.

Yet the entire committee process was short—six months, so the lack of native electronic feedback may be attributable to comfort level; six months just may have not been enough time for staff members newly introduced and exposed to the technology and the medium to become comfortable commenting. In addition, the committee spent a great deal of time soliciting feedback with every working group within the library—thus, it could be some may have felt that their voices had already been heard.

Seven Tips for Using Committees to Influence Technology Innovation
  1. Start small with one or two committees or work groups.
  2. Find things you can try for free before buying institutional licenses, or look at open-source software that may meet your institution's needs.
  3. Make the content disseminated via the technology—i.e., work-impacting developments and events—important enough to entice staff members to use the technology in their regular work routines.
  4. Offer workshops throughout the process.
  5. Get feedback from staff in technological and traditional ways.
  6. Use your committees to share what committee members have learned with staff members participating in other work groups.
  7. Empower your staff and encourage them to think of new solutions to old problems.
  8.  Remember that technology is the tool, not the outcome!

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