Posted by: bluesyemre | May 23, 2020

#UniversityLibraries (Why transformation is key to future survival)


Monash University Library

Nigel Penny – Nigel is an experienced strategy consultant and trainer with over 35 year’s experience internationally. He is an ex-partner at KPMG and has worked with strategy gurus such as Professor Robert Kaplan of Harvard Business School. He works with large public and private sector institutions on strategy facilitation and development. He has extensive experience in the library world, having worked with the Director Generals of national and state libraries in Australia and Singapore. He has further worked on library strategy issues in universities in UK, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, and is passionate about the value of library institutions worldwide.

In this article he argues for a fundamental rethink of university library strategies. He proposes the use of new planning tools and recommends a new set of competencies required by the successful library manager of the future. For further information and discussions, contact Nigel at or else call him at +44 7460 563036

The ‘perfect storm’ facing UK universities

A future ‘perfect storm’ is forming for the UK university world; – and without some radical rethinking, university library existence will be challenged as never before!

The ‘storm’ is obvious for all to see. University expansion, fuelled by questionable projections of future student numbers and changing government policies towards funding, has led to a ‘dash for growth’ which has all the hallmarks of a ‘bubble.’ Many universities are already embarking on professional staff reduction programmes as they struggle with current year budget deficits. Those deficits will become further exacerbated as these same universities have saddled themselves with up to 50 years of future debt through capital market borrowings to fund campus building and student accommodation projects. The full extent of this future debt may still be hidden, as often these projects are funded in conjunction with the private sector through off balance sheet ‘special purpose vehicles’ (SPVs).

This comes at a time when we are now seeing external market pressure to reduce fees (which were never intended to be at the highest levels permitted across all universities). Any further reduction in income from this downward fee pressure is unlikely to be made up by increasing government contribution and so the deficit growth will accelerate. The solution of increasing numbers in higher fee paying, foreign students has the potential to reduce overall quality through putting pressures to reduce admission requirements, which in turn leads to a downward spiral in quality and an undermining of the very reason that these foreign students elect for the UK as their place of choice for tertiary education. We are already seeing the consequences of this in the recent successful ‘damages’ case brought by an overseas student against Anglia Ruskin university in the UK. If we add the possibility of successful civil actions for damages into this financial management equation, and place this in the context of a wider cost reduction programme across universities, then the ‘perfect storm’ gathers pace.

The inevitable consequence will be the failure of some institutions, coupled with a spate of mergers amongst others. In the event of failure, it is again unlikely, given all the wider financial pressures of a post Brexit world, that the government will mount any rescue operations for failing universities.

The impact on university libraries

So, what does this mean for the management of university libraries? First and foremost, the university library is always an easy target for short term cost reduction. Why should this be? Well, despite the efforts of library management, in most institutions the library has failed to fully embed itself as an essential and integral component of the academic offering in the minds of wider university staff. This is evidenced in simple issues such as the challenge that many librarians still face in working with their academics to compile reading lists for all courses. In itself this seems such a trivial task to complete, but still requires an inordinate amount of effort on behalf of library staff liaising with their academic counterparts.

The hard conclusion that we must draw from this is –libraries have failed to demonstrate their value as a ‘non-negotiable’ component of the university experience.

Tough as this may be to swallow, libraries also need to look at those areas beyond support of academia (the ‘reactive’ role), to where it may offer other unique value to students (the ‘proactive’ role). What unique capabilities exist in the library skill set that can offer an additional component to add value to the university experience perhaps in fields of electronic literacy or in conjunction with student employment and employability needs? Additionally, if the university future is inextricably built around an increasing overseas student cohort, what steps has the library taken to address the needs of this demographic? In a research driven world, what does the library do to promote the university’s research to the wider research community (academic and commercial)? The library may also wish to look outside its immediate university environment and understand if it has a role in its immediate geographic community or in aligned business and societal groups.

Many university libraries have looked at some, or all, of the possible avenues above to cement their roles in the university. The dilemma is that in creating such a ‘shopping list’ one inevitably runs up against how to adequately fund additional activities at a time when budgets are under downward pressure anyway?

A rethink of library planning approaches is needed

University library management must look to new processes to underpin their strategic planning. These processes may force them to challenge their current resource allocations and modus operandi and allow them to develop a viable financial model to support what may be a substantially redesigned purpose and processes. This may also radically alter the skill sets needed within the library.

The good news is that university libraries are now generally required to prepare an annual strategic plan. This is often the consequence of a wider university planning process. Whereas, historically, university library planning did not often extend beyond a budgeting process of last year +/- depending on wider directives from the university, today, libraries are required to draw up a strategic plan that details their objectives and plans for the future.

Nonetheless, these plans are still often just an extension of the current modus operandi of the library and do not address fundamental questions such as –

‘what does the university of the future look like, and what does this mean for the role of the library?’

‘how will we measure future success?’

‘what are the skill sets necessary to deliver on a changed future library model?’

Instead many library strategic plans are still little more than a list of projects and initiatives that the library will deliver over the next 12 months. This does not constitute a strategy and fails to prepare the library for a potentially conceptually different future.

The tools of the new planning approach

How should we redesign our library planning process? What are the constituent tools that allow us to design a strategic plan that increases our role, relevance and value delivered to the university?

In the remainder of this article, we set out key elements of a planning process that will ensure a higher quality of strategic plan that addresses the challenges outlined previously.

The first point to make here is that there is no one outcome (strategy) that will necessarily be appropriate for each university library. Whereas, historically, most university libraries have effectively been mirror images of each other – providing the same range of services and purpose and differentiated primarily in the quality of their execution of these services – in the future, libraries may take quite different pathways to construct their own library purpose. The design of these pathways forms the first step in a new planning process and are ultimately articulated in a ‘statement of purpose.’ This first step may well be the most contentious and time consuming in the development of the library strategy. The statement of purpose will describe the unique components on how the library will deliver value in the years ahead. It will do this by describing those components which collectively will define what the library does in real terms.

Below is a statement of purpose for a small regional museum in Weston Super Mare. It is a first-rate example of what such a statement should contain.

“Weston Museum celebrates the history of Weston-Super-Mare and its surrounding areas from prehistoric times to the present day using the distinctive historic building that houses the Museum and the diverse museum collection of North Somerset Council. Through inspiration, learning and enjoyment, we will help the local community and its visitors to understand their past and ask questions about the present and future. The Town Council will maintain the Museum as a tourist attraction and develop it as an arts and cultural facility for the benefit of the local community and visitors to the town.”

This relatively short paragraph packs in so much insight into how this museum sees itself and its future. It discusses its geographic reach, leveraging an iconic building, key aspects of its delivery philosophy (‘inspiration, learning and enjoyment’), its target audience, its timeline of coverage, as well as its breadth as an ‘arts and cultural facility.’ Collectively it’s ‘statement of purpose’ sets out a framework which far transcends typical delivery expectations for an institution of this size. However the point here, is not the extent of the aspiration, but the fact that, from this statement, so many different strands of activity start to emerge which can be built on to develop a detailed set of programmes leading to the development of each of the pieces in this strategic jigsaw of purpose.  It further implies a set of behaviours that will underpin these outcomes, and which will need to permeate the thinking of all members of staff.

There is no simple process that will develop the statement of purpose. It requires strong management from the top and a level of inclusivity from other members of the library management team, often coupled with consultations with wider library staff. These latter must be managed carefully as they should not been providing an opportunity for developing a strategy which is a ‘shopping list’ of everyone’s individual desires. Several pre work sessions at the senior team level may be necessary to establish some broad principles of library purpose and then staff may be guided to add value against this emerging framework rather than being given a ‘blank sheet of paper’ which may raise subsequently unfulfilled expectations.

As we have stated before, its not about seeing what else can be added to an already full agenda. Its about a total rethink of where libraries can add value. This means letting go, as well as doing new ‘stuff.’ A useful framework to deploy here is the ‘ERRC’ approach promulgated as part of the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ toolkit developed by Professors Chan Kim and Mauborgne. ‘ERRC’ stands for eliminate, reduce, raise and create and sets a framework for looking at current offerings as well as future new directions. Raise and create are always easy to address, but the real challenge is looking at what to eliminate or reduce in terms of current offering. Here reduce may also relate to previously free of charge services where we may now levy a commercial charge. If adopted, this may be one of the more contentious areas, as it will potentially go far beyond trivial charges for photocopying! However, remember that it is not about contracting or subtracting services, but instead is about creating a new strategic model where the value add may be different from that previously offered, and consequently may need to be funded differently.

Once the statement of purpose is in place, the emerging strategy is cemented into more detail through the design of strategy map. The link below shows an example of this type of approach as part of the strategic plan developed for Monash University library in 2017 in Australia.

The strategy map is a clear statement of the components of how the plan will be delivered and drives both the development of specific initiatives and process enhancements, as well as establishing a framework for performance measurement of the subsequent implementation. It ensures that there can be a logical link with the budgeting process and establishes skill sets necessary to support the delivery of the plan.

Changing management skills

A final piece to be considered in the strategic transformation of the library is the likely change and development needed in university library management team skills (as well as the new skills and thinking that may be required throughout the library staff base).

In my experience the library world is characterised by staff who have huge passion and commitment for what they see as the role of the library. However, this passion is often a barrier to change, as deeply held beliefs (and in some instances personal preferences for types of activity performed) often act as a barrier to change, which is then seen as a threat to their current skills and a challenge to what they hold dear and precious.

The new library manager needs to think outside the scope of traditional library custom and practice. They need to acquire the skills of a marketeer (to promote the library); a negotiator (to drive outcomes both within the library and across the wider university); a communicator (to front interactions with multiple stakeholders); and a change agent (able to persevere and take ‘tough’ decisions in the face of resistance). In my experience, these are not all comfortable skill sets for many people in the library world. However, as leaders and managers, we need to face the reality that our role is changing and requires us to confront and overcome our own comfort barriers. The process may be painful, and indeed, there may be casualties, but we need to engage wholeheartedly in driving transformation if we are to ensure the survival and success of institutions that we hold valuable and essential.

In summary

The world is changing. In all aspects of work and life, we are confronting change. Our future world will be different. Libraries are not immune to these forces. Indeed, the future survival of university libraries will be dependent on the ability of today’s library leadership to craft a new future and purpose for these venerable institutions. There are huge challenges ahead, and we will be buffeted by many shockwaves on this journey. We need to act now to create a framework for shaping and managing our future. This needs to include enhanced planning mechanisms and a commitment to establish the necessary future skills and mindsets that will define success in our re-engineered university libraries.

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