Moving Forward and Eating Elephants

On October 25th I have a Skype interview with UC Berkeley. Yay! But, that’s not what this post is really about.

Everyone in my workplace knows that I am looking for another job. I am well aware that my openness on this matter is a luxury not afforded to many. It just so happens that it is understood that there is no place for me to go at my current library, primarily for budgetary reasons.

Because I have this openness I can go to my supervisor freely and ask for time off for interviews, or sometimes, take an interview while in the office. It’s a convenient setup for me. It also means that I and my department are in a constant state of limbo. I have to act like I’m not going anywhere to maintain my level of service, while also keeping one eye on the door. This open setup is also inconvenient in this way.

I have a certain set of duties that I alone am responsible for, plus those shared with my colleagues. I also have institutional knowledge built up that contains the soft skills I need to be successful. The loss of my position after I leave — and I am guaranteed not to be replaced — is the cause of some fretting in my office. How will the evening schedules work out after they go from five to four closers? Who will get my weekend shifts? How will they ensure that my duties are carried out? What even are my duties?

In theory, I could get a call on Monday and two weeks later be out the door. Or, it could take another two years. This unknown causes much of the consternation, both at work and at home. No one knows how much urgency is required on the matter of succession; on when, how, and to whom the responsibilities will fall.

Let’s Back Up

Cast your mind back, if you will, to summer of 2010, a simpler and less Trumpy time. I was languishing in a position that had never developed into the job I had been promised. I had little responsibility and less to do. Three things were about to happen, though. We were getting a new Head of Access Services, the night manager and supervisor of consortial lending was retiring, and I was going on a two-week vacation to the Grand Canyon.

We were already experiencing the budgetary shortfalls that made hiring a new person impossible. So, someone inside the department was going to have to take over the consortial lending duties. The most logical person for that position was me. The Dean, however, wasn’t sure about me. After two years of my service he didn’t know me at all, really. Before making things official he requested a meeting with me to get a sense of just who I was and my suitability for the position. I didn’t think of it as such at the time, and the format was much more casual than I would grow accustomed to, but it was similar to job interview for a position I already had. We talked about service models and temperament. I don’t remember much about the conversation, now, six years later, but it was sufficient that he was comfortable giving me reigns of this position and putting me in a position of very limited power.

What was left was to train me on the actual position. For several days over the next few weeks I spent time with the kindly Iranian man who I’d be replacing upon his retirement. By “several,” of course, I mean three. I think. You may be thinking, “Three day’s training for a new job? That’s crazy!” Or, you’re thinking, “Wow! you got three whole days!?” Either way, you’re wrong. What was astonishing to me is that this man — who’d held this position for the last nine years — basically did nothing. His job, according to my “training” consisted of occasionally phoning people about overdue or damaged items, and occasionally arranging replacements with the acquisitions department.

I asked him, “What is your process? What is the first thing you do when you get here?”

“Well,” he says in his gentle Farsi accent, “I say hello to Barbara. I make coffee. I turn on the computer.

“Now, this book here is damaged. I called the young lady who checked it out and talked to her grandmother, a very nice lady. These books over here? Chris in acquisitions knows about these. Do not worry about them…”

This was my training. He had no process. He never acted proactively. He seemed to think that it was sufficient to sit back and wait to be needed and, I guess he was right because for nine years no one had made him do anything different.

As the days went by I only got the barest of nuggets of what I was responsible for, until eventually we reached his retirement party where we all said “bon voyage,” to this kindly, but, lazy man.

Then, it was time for my vacation!

Meanwhile, while I was gone, our new Head of Access Services started and began to get settled in. Upon meeting me, nearly the first thing he impishly said to me was “While you were gone it became clear that this just isn’t the right fit for me, so I’ll be resigning as of Friday.”

After the shock and laugh of the joke subsided I was left to look at my new desk in my new part of the library and say to myself, “What’s my job again?”

Two weeks after my predecessor retired, and following an eventful vacation in which I was not thinking about work at all. I was faced with the writer’s terror of the blank page. What was my purpose? What were my responsibilities? How was I to spend my time? I really had no idea.

What did I do? I did what I do anytime I’m faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem. I ate the elephant.

Eating the Elephant

How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I had to break my job down into its most basic parts from which to build. What was my primary function? To see the proper circulation of items through our consortium system. What is that made up of? Circulation of books across the circ desk and the processing of incoming and outgoing courier shipment.

What were the circulation policies? How are shipments processed? Luckily, I had a certain amount of institutional knowledge available to help with the first question. The second question was answered by working with the two highly capable student assistants I had inherited. I had to go to my employees to learn how to do their job, and therefore mine.

I had another method for learning my new job, too. I wrote down everything.

The year before, when I was still an ILL assistant we began using the ILLiad software package to process our requests. After receiving our training, and then the software, my colleagues and I were unsure how to actually use it, so I took on the challenge of writing procedure manuals that included information from the online tutorials, but also incorporated local practice. In this way we were all able to learn the new way to do our old jobs.

With that experience behind me I applied the same technique to my new job. To make a long story slightly less long I spent six months, through trial and error, building tasks for a job that never had any before. I made mistakes along the way and irritated some of my lending partners, but eventually, I created a system that now runs nearly on autopilot and takes up a surprisingly small number of hours of my workday, so long as I have student assistants. Now, the job proactively looks for long-overdue books and reconciliations happen one-by-one. Rarely, do we have large reconciliations with another institution because I stay on top of the issues.

Over the years I have refined every one of those procedure manuals. They exist in ILL for borrowing, lending, and doc del. They exist in consortial lending for the supervisor, and the students. I have them printed in what I call the Big Book and Little Book of Merlin-MOBIUS policies and procedures. The Big Book has everything ILL and consortial lending needs, where the little book is everything that the consortial lending student assistants need.

Everyone knows these books exist. I use the Big Book regularly, just as my student assistants use the Little Book. They do not exist to supplant formal training, but to supplement it and exist as a reference for when one takes on a task they are unfamiliar with.

I created these manuals for two reasons:

  1. So that I would know what the heck my job was.
  2. So that no one else would ever be in the position that I was in when I took over the consortial lending job.

Let’s Move Forward

I never thought about it in these terms, but the truth is I was working in the realm of knowledge management. Knowledge management (KM) is something that always seemed like a buzz word to me, which my personality reflexively rejected, and my library education did not focus on — at least, not in those terms — but, the core of librarianship is just that. We are cultural knowledge managers, regardless of the realm of libraries in which we work. We organize culture in a way that is accessible to users. We manage the collected knowledge and art of our predecessors.

This is true and looks great on the “So, You Want to Be a Librarian” brochure, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on internal knowledge management. Without getting into another long anecdote about my work history I have had another experience with succession planning that was less than ideal. I was working with another soon-to-be-retired colleague to document her work. After several days of sitting with her and me asking repeatedly if there was anything else I needed to know for her successor, I was told that what I had was all I needed. Trusting her, I let it lay. Then a few months after she’d left we realized that there were significant holes she left in my training. These holes are still being repaired more than a year after her retirement.

Her attitude was that her job was hers, and hers alone. She never wanted anyone else to know what she was doing, because that would make her vulnerable. She believed that if she kept some knowledge secret, then she couldn’t be fired. I suppose that worked, but when it came for her to retire, she still didn’t relinquish that knowledge and the department has suffered for it.

I came to believe a long time ago that no one is irreplaceable. If a dictatorial tyrant can be deposed after thirty year’s in power, a penny-ante library assistant doesn’t have a prayer. That being so, there is no good philosophical reason to keep knowledge secret. I say open the gates and give away all your secrets to your colleagues. Because we librarians are not usually part of a for-profit enterprise, and the nature of the job is to freely share information, anyway, it is strange that any of my colleagues would ever feel posessive of the particulars of their job. In the end you will only hurt your organization.

It is probably not reasonable to expect — or even ask — employees to document every tiny aspect of their job. A) Most people don’t have that kind of time. B) Most people aren’t that detail oriented, even in libraries. But they can freely share their work details with colleagues when asked, and some aspects of their positions can and should be written down. This is especially necessary when tasks are infrequently performed. We don’t need to know what the rate of library fines was in 1986, but we do need to know how to bill deliquent patrons. The more knowledge is concentrated in a few people the more the library will suffer when those individuals are no longer employed.

“I’m not going anywhere.” You may be saying. “I’m only thirty-eight. I’m going to be in my job for the next twenty years, at least.”

That’s all fine and good until you get hit by a bus; something that nearly happened to me last year. Or, that’s all fine and good until you hit the lottery. My ticket is in my sweater pocket. Where’s yours?

You don’t need a Big Book of procedures like I have. You don’t even need a Little Book. But you need something. There are lots of KM products that can be purchased, but you don’t need to spend any money for them, either. We have a home-made Knowledge Base that is built on HTML code probably from 1996. KM is vital to the continued success of you and your colleagues, and more importantly, your successors.

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