Change Management in Information Services
Change Management in Information Services. By Lyndon Pugh, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-0754646655, 242 pages.
This book is, as can be seen from the extensive bibliography, a comprehensive review of the literature on change management as well as a study of how - and how not! - to apply it to the running of an information service. The basic premise, which is reiterated through the book, is that in a time of rapid technological development an information service needs to be readily adaptable, flexible, and prepared to be in constant change. Lyndon Pugh describes the factors which have led to this need, principally the spread of digital information and the wide diversity of staff skills now incorporated within information services. He argues that classical management theory, which bases its structures on specialisations (acquisitions, cataloguing, reader services etc), fails to make use of the potential of staff and the informal networks which exist within a diverse service. He describes ways in which a change culture can be introduced, and also ways in which specific changes can be made acceptable to staff and users. In both, there is great emphasis on the need for consultation, for facilitating initiatives from front-line staff, and obtaining ownership of new systems. There is a substantial section on appropriate structures and the use of teams to ease these processes, and this is complemented by chapters on the skills of leadership and of change management.
This book, like its predecessor, starts from the premise that change in information services is the result of the ever-increasing power of technology. Specifically, Pugh points to the changes which have occurred as a result of digitisation and the spread of the World Wide Web, changing the relationship between librarian and user. (It is interesting that the terms 'librarian' and 'library' are used frequently throughout the book, rather than 'information professional' and 'information service'; for all his belief in change, the author's mindset seems to have limits to its flexibility.) There can be no doubt of the truth of this, although there may be more variety between sectors than he gives credit for: industry and commerce may well still believe that highly-paid researchers should be given pre-digested information rather than expose themselves to the vagaries of the Web, while public libraries still require a level of user education in how to use digital resources. Much of this book seems to be geared to the academic information service.
However, even accepting the importance of technology, there is another aspect to the changes in information services. There have been major societal changes which need to be recognised if change is to be properly managed. The whole hierarchical structure of society is changing. Since the 1980s there has been a tendency to discount expertise as self-interest, as when lawyers suggest that unqualified people should not write contracts, or teachers comment on how children should be taught. Coupled with this is an acceptance that some members of the general public will benefit from more information, giving rise to patient information services in hospitals, and the 'expert patient' programmes. Deference to people in respect of the position they hold, as opposed to their personal qualities, is (rightly) rapidly vanishing, and this in places where technology has no direct impact. Some of the flatter management and team structures which Pugh proposes would need to happen even in a manuscript archive with a sheaf catalogue.
Pugh suggests that the modern information service should recognise that it is in a period of discontinuous change, which 'demands a distinguishable break with past practice, and requires the recognition that the former ways of doing things will not create and sustain successful organisations' (p.5). There is a need for a 'change culture', which makes use of the theories (inter alia) of organisational development:
'OD [Organisational Development] is about changing attitudes. It is about refocusing people's perceptions of the organisation they work in. It is also about improving communication and interaction through new structures and through harnessing the informal patterns which underpin structures. As this is done, the capability to innovate grows as the organisation becomes more adept at making the best of all the talents available to it.' (p.43)
We see here a hint of the dangerous concept of change for change's sake, and there are other places where this concept can be identified. Speaking of the need to review the success of changes which are made, he comments that
'If the indications are negative, the circle of change can begin again, starting with alternatives or modification, or in extreme cases the restoration of the status quo' (p.92)
If the status quo works better than any suggested changes, perhaps it should never have been altered. That it should have been would seem to be the consequence of following Cage's principle, which Pugh quotes with approval, 'If it ain't broke, break it'.
However, there is also a paradox here, for the basic structures which Pugh suggests for the modern, flexible information service - flatter management, self-managing teams - would seem to be in place for the foreseeable future. There is an assumption that once change has been introduced to thinking, it will always be there, and that there might never come a time when consolidation might be appropriate. In this assumption he is not alone, as any review of the last fifteen years of education or health services will demonstrate. The structures which are established, flatter and more democratic than those of existing services, may nevertheless come to be the specialisations of the future, replacing technical competences with, for example, subject competences. Those structures may then themselves need to be superseded as technology and information requirements continue to evolve.
Change and People
The book not only explains what is meant by a change culture, but also suggests ways in which this may be inculcated. Underlying this, however, is an assumption that staff will want to change. 'There is little evidence in the literature of resistance to change in the abstract' (p74) - who would write (or who would publish) an article on 'How I was an obstacle to change'? People do resist change, even when the reasons for it are cogent and indeed unanswerable. Change may involve what some see as de-skilling: staff who were appointed to write programs for researchers, programs which have been overtaken by packages on the market or an increase in programming skills by research staff, may feel badly used if redeployed to offer support to users of such packages - let alone to assist undergraduates with word processing.
'For the individual there may be psychological implications stemming from attitudes, skills issues, location, responsibilities and roles. Providing at best some reassurance in these areas, and at least clarity and honesty about what is likely to happen, will further reduce uncertainty and worry.' (p.180)
This is a singularly optimistic outlook; clarity and honesty - and I advocate both - may reduce uncertainty, but can increase worry and disaffection to a dangerous level.
Of course, one answer is that staff, if they will not change, are redundant. However, parent organisations may have human resources policies which do not allow for mass dismissal and the re-hiring of more suitable people. Apart from one mention of change being imposed from outside the information service, Pugh gives little consideration to external and unalterable constraints; yet these can negate the best attempts at the necessary structural changes. Multi-skilled teams may be difficult to establish in a public library context, where certain skills - AV, Computing - may be necessarily concentrated in a central library; they can, I know, be impossible to effect in an academic service where a small professional staff is spread across two main buildings separated by a hill, and six satellite libraries including three at one mile, three miles and seventy miles respectively from the centre. To adapt the Irish saying, if flexibility and teamwork is where you are going I wouldn't start from here!
Pugh emphasises the importance of communication: formal communication from the senior management team to other teams (and its flow the other way), but even more importantly the informal communications networks which exist within any medium sized organisation. His diagram on p.132 is impressive, with everyone talking to almost everyone else, and all of them (except, interestingly, the Director of Media Services, whose only external contact is the Director of Information Services) talking to people outside the group. Again, alas, the real world may be different: perhaps Lyndon Pugh has never been reported to a trade union for 'making' a member of staff have coffee once a week with his line manager so that each could update the other on what was happening in two buildings!
There is something slightly unreal about his whole approach to finding out and making use of the networks which exist. In a section headed 'The manager's approach to understanding and managing informal networks' (pp.130-1) he lays out a series of bullet points which sound as if they describe a sociology project:
- 'Understand who is talking to whom, how frequently, and about what
- Understand who is interacting with whom, how frequently, and in what ways
- Identify the focal points of the network,on the basis of the number of exchanges and interactions individuals are involved in'
One cannot help but visualise the Director of Information Services standing to one side of the staff-room with a clipboard! Interestingly, in all the discussion of networking and communication there is no mention of the major importance of having suitable places where staff can meet and talk - and where middle and senior management can not only observe but be part of these networks. Their essence is informality, for which reason attempting a formal analysis of them may prove very difficult.
I may have given the impression that this book is of little value; that would be incorrect. Like most management texts, it lives in an ideal world which is rarely reflected in any actual environment. Nevertheless, the principles which it puts forward for enabling change to be accepted are sound; but it is more a description of what should be aimed at than a handbook of how to achieve it. Pugh himself recognises this in his chapter of process and models:
'All change projects are unique. The variables of organisational characteristics, leadership, environmental influences and skills and competencies, for example, all act to change the weighting given to the various steps in the process. This should therefore be regarded as one of many useful possibilities rather than a prescription for managing change'. (p81)
If for much of the book he seems to lose sight of this, it doesn't invalidate the value of this 'one of many possibilities'.
Moreover, there are sections of the book on which I have not commented - most notably those on leadership and the skills required for change management - because they are an excellent description of what is required. The importance of relating to users as well as to staff, the need for flexibility in management and in structure, all these are identified and a way - not necessarily the way - of dealing with them is proposed. A wholly inexperienced manager attempting to implement change would find this book a little confusing in itself, and very confusing in the context of an actual service; a manager who can bring to the book his or her own experience will find ideas which are worth trying, and others which at least stimulate thought about why they might not be appropriate in a specific circumstance.