Tag Archives: collaboration

Narrative and compassion in management practice

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For many years now I have been reminding myself of the reasons why my studies in English Literature have been so important to my own professional development. Through this self-reassurance I have constantly re-affirmed the concept that if one can understand the way a story or narrative in constructed, then one can understand better how the world itself is created. In this sense, it is interesting that Peter Brophy draws upon theories of narrative and story to inform ‘Evidence Based Library and Information Practice’ (ELIB). However, I do feel as though there is one key characteristic that is missing from his theory and that is of primary importance to storytelling. This year, I have read a lot of information and management theory relating to managing, teamwork, collaboration and leadership among others, but nowhere in that material have I encountered reflections on the importance of ‘compassion’ in both management and teamwork. It is only through compassion that a narrator can effectively create characters in stories, and, in organisations, having compassion is the only way one can understand and work with people’s own subjective and personal circumstances that they bring to work with them everyday, as well as understanding and accepting employees’ and customers’ limitations, while finding a way to work within them to achieve goals.

Brophy, drawing from Eldredge, outlines that evidence based learning and practice is both quantitative and qualitative but that there remains an imbalance in which emphasis is placed more on objective quantitative measures. However, he argues that this positivist approach does not apply well to librarianship because it involves a social system with variables that cannot be controlled within human interactions. Brophy shows an awareness of the prevalence of poststructuralism in contemporary social, cultural and linguistic theory: “To add to the complexity, all we have to describe the world is language, which itself introduces ambiguity, bias and difference.” Poststructuralism dictates that signs are not word-images but are experiences which are directed towards other signs based on the context of the receiver. To then try and take quantitative measures and apply them objectivity is an impossible task. Even one can take objective measures, these still have to be related to other people who are free to interpret the findings based on their own observations, meaning there is never a complete consensus agreed about the evidence collected and how it is to be used.

This leads Brophy on to consider post-positivism and social constructivism as qualitative approaches the may inform EBLIB by affirming the prevalence of narrative in human interactions. He argues that “These approaches suggest that rather than emphasising the transmission of “facts” (accepted knowledge about the world), modern societies need to encourage learning which encompasses both openness to differing world views and the ability to relate new ideas to existing knowledge in meaningful ways, so that each of us is continually constructing, sharing, and reconstructing our understanding of the world in all its complexity.” Such an approach emphasises the value of narrative in developing a more complete understanding of contexts and that can lead to greater decision-making for managers. This is because narrative allows one to look at evidence in context through structures: Culture, Holism, In-depth Studies, Chronology.

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One practical way that this can be applied to a library’s ability to understand user services could be in the use of surveys. Surveys are, of course, a quantitative method of research. However, it is also possible to hold interviews with users about the survey itself in order to add a layer of understand to the results in which users have the ability to express their ideas in more subjective, less structured ways. This kind of evidence feeds into Brophy’s narrative approach. Of course, what it creates is a sequence of narratives which will still need to be gathered together into a coherent structure so that it can be applied to improving a service. In order to truly understand a user-group, one not only needs to create quantitative analysis of their habits and needs, but also to understand why they behave as they do, their motivations and their needs or desires. In order to successfully achieve this, managers need not only to know how to read graphs and charts, but also need to be able to read and understand people. And for this compassion is a quality that all good readers and subsequent narrators retain because it allows them to more fully understand the qualitative aspects to social interactions and systems.

Environment, Hierarchy and Cultural Stagnation

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Chapter two of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire (2013) examines the ways in which an organization’s environment influences behavior. I noticed a pervading trend within the chapter’s discussion of libraries as organization, and that trend is that all environments are retained within a hierarchal structure based around the external and parent environments. I can certainly see how a public or educational library could be considered as ‘placid-clustered’ in terms of it adopting long term goals with some short term objectives that are determined by environmental factors. However, I can also see how this kind of structure may well be limiting within a library also. Long term goals tend to be quite rigid and strict and I think there is a danger of suppressing innovation in so far as the manager is rigidly focused on the pre-established long term goals. In times of a funding lull, this may well mean that a long term project may need to be paused. An example of the negative impact that this strategy can have was given by Katherine McSharry of National Library when she spoke to our class about pausing the digitization project of photographs in Ireland. There is always the danger in an ever-diversifying information age, that long term goals blind organizations to more innovative opportunities.

I say this in agreement with Childs and the anti-environmental argument. It seems to me that a major flaw in many organizations is that they see themselves as subordinate to the ‘whole’, or parent/ external organization. However, there is scope within any organization to influence and shape the whole to the demands and innovations of the organization itself. I think the concept of relevance is important here. The parent organization would like to find ways of operating that are more efficient and effective. Libraries should not wait for the parent company to set the parameters of policy, but should look to find ways to influence the external environment. Companies have often been revolutionized by innovation that has taken place within just one small department.

I think the fact that culture is mentioned in this chapter is interesting. In many ways, there is a defeatist mentality involved in many discussions of culture in which culture is seen as something unchangeable. All too often we throw our hands up in the air and say ‘that’s just the culture!’. There is a sense in this chapter that playing with cultural norms is too dangerous for managers to contemplate, as though all culture is inherently good. I have worked in organizations that have been destroyed by an adherence to negative cultural norms. As someone who has taught English Literature at third level, I am always amazed at the collections of English Literature in university libraries. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands of books gathering dust on the shelves of academic libraries. Many of these books are wasted. Examine the curriculum of UCD’s Department of English in relation to the library’s collection of literary texts. I think 80% of those books will never be read by any students or staff at UCD. But there is a culture within libraries to hang on to and accumulate objects. Maybe many books were donated by a sponsor and the library feels obligated to retain the books on the shelves even if they are not useful? It is useful to ask how much waste exists in our libraries as a result of culture. How could that space be used in ways that are more useful? Could the opening of that space lead to more innovative use of it that might alter the environment (internal & external) for the good of the library and the parent organization? Culture, if seen as a homogenous unwavering influence can be highly destructive to an organization’s development. However, I believe that if it is seen as a heterogenous malleable condition that we can move away from its limiting influence on our learning environments.

Not-so Flat Management?

Today’s post focuses on the main ideas contained within Chapter 14 of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire. The chapter begins with the assertion that younger generations are more likely to engage in teamwork based on a more inclusive, team-centred upbringing. This is an idea that I would like to return to in a few moments and to discuss in relation to a social media generation.

However, before I do that, it is important to give an outline of Evans and Alire’s position in this essay. They put forward the argument that teamwork is more productive and effective than traditional management styles, so long as the teamwork is organised and set up effectively. This means that a clear goal needs to be established at the beginning of the task by an external team manager; that team members need to be then selected according to their skills, attitudes towards team work and their personal characteristics; once the team is selected, they then need to undergo some training to ensure that they communicate effectively, that they give feedback in an open, honest and transparent way, that they understand the concepts of accountability and empowerment, and finally that they are prepared to collaborate effectively within a team rewards system.

I am not going to go into the chapter details any further, but part of the argument is that this kind of structure should see traditional top-down management being replaced by a ‘flat’ system in which people collaborate on collective goals. However, I can’t help but to think that the model outlined by Evans and Alire is not so flat after all. I mean, it seems to me that there is a lot of management and organisation required to set up a team project. I would argue that their model is certainly ‘flatter’ than traditional models, but it is still highly structured and systematic at the same time, perhaps representing a more tightly packed hierarchy rather than an actual flat system. I am not altogether sure that a truly flat system is possible within an institution in that institutions rely quite heavily on pre-established rules and regulations.

Of course, as someone who is interested in postmodernism, I do believe that a flat system works best, but one in which true autonomy is granted to a group. This can perhaps only really happen with a new start-up company in which the parameters have not already been set; I believe there are many tech companies that qualify, as well as the open source movement. Teams within institutions are always working within certain parameters. Institutions can of course change the rules a little, but they never throw the rule book away. I don’t disagree with Evans and Alire. Their model certainly would work best within an already structured organisation, hence the need for so much planning and organising of human resources. Their essay needs to be considered within this context rather than seen as a truly flat model. However it is assessed, Evans and Alire’s model still retains an external manager who in turn may well be subordinate to a top-level manager also. Hierarchy still exists and the external manager is still responsible. If the team fails, then there will be questions as to whether or not it was set up effectively. The team of course will always be aware of this and so will, perhaps, not be as accountable as the external manager may like. It is a flatter hierarchy, but a hierarchy all the same.

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I would like now to return to the idea that younger generations are more prone to succeed at teamwork than their older counterparts. Younger generations certainly are more comfortable with the idea of community if we consider the range of social media that they/we (I am 33, do I count!?) engage with. But at the same time, is this really community? And does such social network community really prepare people for collaborative efforts?

Social media definitely does help people to connect, and does so while increasing cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness. But then again, think about the nature of social media. Most sites (twitter, Instagram, WordPress, etc.) are set up for people to become followers. Even Facebook’s ‘friends’ does not truly mimic a professional team in that you very often, within an organisation, do not get to choose your team. Is this model really conducive to being part of a team? I believe that Evans and Alire are promoting a team within which people do not simply follow, but who become co-leaders in the completing of a task. Social media ventures usually have people only engaging on a superficial, surface level. These platforms really lack the depth of personality that is required for effective teamwork.

I accept that Evans and Alire did not mention social media in their examples, but it is interesting to consider whether or not, as social media becomes more and more apart of how we connect, whether it is fostering individual innovation and responsibility, or whether it is simply another part of the ‘brain-drain’ of technology.