Saturday, July 31, 2004

Open-letter to my front-line staff

(Otherwise known as “Rantings of a Branch Manager” - I seem to be prone to ranting these days. It's getting addictive. As with my previous open-letter, the tone of this letter may be exaggerated, but not by much. )

Dear colleagues,

This letter took me 5 hours to think, draft and finally send.

Yesterday I was talking to a few managers and they say how their staff was concerned about being transferred to other branches, due to the pending re-organisation. So I thought to email you some highlights of the new organisation structure (as much information as I knew anyway).

But I kept thinking about it the whole of it last night and came to the conclusion that the re-organisation was not the real staff concerns. I woke at 6am on my off-day, thought through some points the managers mentioned, and so instead of telling you about the new divisional structure, let me address these 5 points:

1) Longer distance to new work location
2) Getting new colleagues who are “not as good as those at my previous branch”
3) Loss of status at my new branch
4) Not being able to fit in at new branch
5) Personal issues

#1 - Longer distance to new work location
Distance to work is a fact. But this is Singapore - a small red dot. Personally, I hate to wake early. But got no choice, so to get more sleep, I just have to pay more and take taxi. In life, we all have to make a choice, right?

So you say, "You are a manager and you earn more. For a lowly front-line staff like me, every cent counts." My response would be, "We're paid for our responsibilities and accountabilities. And if you already think you are 'lowly', then you have to question your own sense of self-worth. As for increase in living expenses, we all have to manage our finances as best we can."

Let me be very blunt – If you have been in the same branch for donkey-years and have not been moved, either you have been so critical to the branch that you cannot be replaced, or that you nobody in the organisation wants you.

Distance to work has always been the first issue that staff mention when asked to transfer. But I think it’s not the real reason why you are worried.

#2 - Getting new colleagues who are “not as good as those at my previous branch”
We cannot choose who we want to work with. We are not paid to be good friends. The first consideration is to ask if we do our job competently. Maybe the other branch staff would feel that we are not as good as them. So we must prove ourselves first.

If you feel your new branch has certain practices that are not so good, it’s your job to alert the colleagues and manager to suggest change. How you go about convincing your new colleagues, you have to use your people skills. If your people skills are terrible, then the fault is with you.

I think there are 3 things we can TRY to change - our environment, the people around us, and ourselves. If it turns out that ALL the staff in your new branch (from top to bottom of the org structure) are "lousy", then you’d better ask for transfer or resign. It could just be a bad fit between yourself and the rest; it may not be that you are a bad person (although it can be, too).

#3 - Loss of status at my new branch
Some of us may feel that we’d be losing all that we've built up at our current branch - our goodwill, trust and authority. If we move to new branch, then we have to start from scratch. We have no “power”.

As mentioned in #2, so long we prove yourself, know how to mix around and talk to new colleagues, we should be readily accepted. Don't worry - if you're good, you'll find some way to thrive. There aren't that many staff in each branch these days. The organisation is flat. It is very easy to spot talented people. Also easy to spot not-so-good staff.

#4 - Not being able to fit in at new branch – don’t gel with new colleagues
Please see earlier points in #2 & #3. Also, there are many books on how to build up our people skills. Discussion with your manager for training courses.

#5 - Personal Issues
We are all unique individuals and have our unique set of problems. All I can say about this is that we each have to find our own solutions.

In life, for every Plus, there is a Minus. We cannot have our cake and eat it. If you know of a work location that is near my home, where every single staff is excellent and highly motivated, where the customers are very polite, please let me know where is this perfect place. I'd like to transfer there.

If we have some personal problems, talking to fellow colleagues may help. Sometimes, if we open-up and genuinely share with them, we'd be surprised at the responses. Of course, if all we do is complain, then we're basically wasting everybody’s time.

So dear colleagues, if you’ve read this far, then I thank you. The above points may or may not be relevant to you.

Don't know if I've made you angrier or happier. Hope I was of some help. I just thought you should know what I'm thinking about.

Yours Sincerely,
The Rambling Librarian/ Manager

From the
2nd Library Leadership Institute course

Vision + Skills + Incentives + Resources + Action Plans = Desired Results

[x] + Skills + Incentives + Resources + Action Plans = Confusion/ Conflict
Vision + [x] + Incentives + Resources + Action Plans = Performance Anxiety
Vision + Skills + [x] + Resources + Action Plans = Backsliding
Vision + Skills + Incentives + [x] + Action Plans = Frustration/ Anger
Vision + Skills + Incentives + Resources + [x] = False Starts/ No results

People resist change because of what they think they stand to lose.
E.g. control, choice, competencies, self-worth.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Open-letter to my PLS librarian colleagues

(Otherwise known as “Rantings of a PLS Librarian Hyped on Caffeine.”)
 * Every blogger seems to write an open-letter sooner or later. The tone of this letter may be exaggerated, but not by much.

Dear PLS librarian,

Let’s call a cow a cow: Many of us in PLS think that we are the poorer professional cousins to our colleagues in Reference and Technical Services. The crux of the matter is this – we often derive our self-worth from the things we do. And with that, we think handling irate readers and pointing directions to toilets are demeaning. 

In PLS, there are the inevitable Self-Important-People (SIP) who sap so much of our time and energy dealing with their endless complaints (many of them are simply using us as an outlet for their vehemence against the government and society at large).

We cannot control what these SIP say or do. But we can control how we react. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote: "Don't burn a blanket because of one flea! Don't waste a day on trivial irritation, some gnat's headache."

When we talk about offering bigger and better services and information products, I’ve heard many of us say that we are not ready. I wonder what is it that we are “not ready”? For failure? We are always ready for that. It seems that we procrastinate because we are not ready for the possibility of success.

Librarians have the notion that “top management” must initiate projects and give direction. Who is “top management”? What can they do for us? Why can't we give them directions for a change?

Many of us expect to be given money, time, and staff in order for things to happen. We proclaim that no budget equals no initiative. But is this just a convenient excuse for inaction? When one is in danger of dying of thirst, one does not wait for a well to be dug.

Many of us claim that we don’t have time to read or write; to hone our professional skills. Yes, there are many things that tie us down like administrative duties. But I say we show them the money first. Let’s simply write what we can, and if we’re good enough, they will be compelled to give us money, time and more staff to do even more. But first, we need to start writing. And to write well, we need to read. A lot.

I know we tend to be introverts & thinned-skinned – which is a liability as a large part of the job requires us to aggressively sell our products. What we “sell” is exactly like Insurance. It’s something which benefits people, but they don’t instantly see its value. The value of our work may not be evident til much much later, and even then, perhaps only cherished by its absence.

But unlike Insurance Agents, we in the public service do not have huge financial rewards and bonuses to entice us to work. Each of us has to delve down deep into our insides and ask why we are in this line of work.

What is the VISION for the team, we ask? We don't think we all know the BIG PICTURE and DIRECTION. But hey, if the direction is not there, what is stopping us from creating it? Some of us actually prefer situations where directions are not clear. It means we get to define what we want to do.

Bosses need to set examples too. If they expect librarians to write and read and share, why not start from them and cascade downwards? Seriously, if bosses themselves say they have no time, then should they be surprised that staff down the line also say they have no time?

And why stop there? Why not have our board of directors to form Book clubs? Get them to get other Movers & Shakers in Singapore to also read. Do what our Thai counterparts have managed to do – get their Prime Minister to read a story on national radio.

Not all of us have that same philosophical outlook nor equal levels of “mental stamina”. Not all have the staying power to see results in long term. 

How do we get comfortable with failing and trying again? That which doesn’t kill us, will only make us stronger. And if we have to perish professionally, then let’s go down with guns blazing. What have we to lose?

I’m convinced that our Public Library Service is on the edge of a quiet revolution – there will be no fanfare, no high-powered government-initiated commissions and report like Library 2000. In fact, I think it has already started. We are at a professional crossroad where we must, simply, make a choice.

Not least, let's consider what legacy we would like to leave behind. Here’s something out of a passage in "Transforming the Organization" by Francis J. Gouillart & James N. Kelly (1995):
"It's a hundred years later and you've been in your grave for years. So let's talk about the legacy you left. What? You've never heard of Martin Van Buren or James Monroe? They were American presidents, but almost no one remembers anything about them. Now, why should anyone care that you created the best customer service in the cosmetics industry?"
So adapting that, let’s fill in the following blanks: 
Why should we invest so much time and effort in ________?
Because by doing so, at the end of _________ years, our customers & users will be able to say _________.

Yours Sincerely,
The Rambling Librarian

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Blogs - a social media phenomenon

At 2 am this morning, I read an email from Shel inviting me to login to one of the BlogonEvent webcast, in which he was moderating. I didn't read his mail in time, so by the time I logged in, his session was over. I managed to listen in to something else, and what follows are some points and thoughts, as far as my sleep-deprived mind could understand:

  • People who visit specific blogs tend to look for specific content. On the other hand, with a blog being what it is, the blogger may tend to post varied types of content. I think most bloggers want to be read (otherwise, why publish?) . Hence, it would be in the blogger's interest to be focused on what they blog, akin to carving out one's own specific content-niche market in the Blogosphere. Perhaps it's time that I drop the "rambling" from my blog URL.
  • The "Web", in future context, will be perceived as something very different from today's definition. The closest analogy I can think of to explain this statement is to use the term "Cavalry" in the US Armed Forces context, i.e. from horses to helicopters to tanks. They still call these divisions "Cavalry" but the technology has changed.
  • Discussion of how search engines were not able to make sense of the contextual content on a HTML page (e.g. combination of graphics and text). Unlike human beings, who can quickly place information in context, search engines cannot (at present). I thought this sounds a lot like what libraries are trying to resolve by developing "metadata" and "taxonomies".
  • Media companies are now looking at blogs as the next big thing to market products to specific niches. Who's to say libraries can't promote content in a similar way?

I'm beginning to piece together many terms and concepts I've heard in the last 2 or 3 years, like RSS, syndication, XML feeds etc. They're all making more sense to me now, though I clearly have much more to learn and assimilate.

Dr. Anthony Ferguson (of HKU) emailed me that some of his staff is developing something called power blogging to handle their "conference & professional development opportunity information". Sure sounds exciting. I hope Tony continues to keep me posted on this.

I learnt that within NLB, there was some discussion about using blog tools some 2 years back. For some reason it didn't take off beyond the preliminary discussion stage (as far as I know). I think now NLB can't afford not to. Librarians would agree that libraries have a social function to fulfill. If blogging is the current social media phenomenon, then all the more libraries should take a longer and harder look at the Blogosphere.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Little ado about Blogs - Part 1

Ever since Shel's post on Blogging comes to Singapore, I've been thinking a lot about blogs. Initially I felt pretty smart after commenting his post, where I posted examples to back my argument that blogging already came to Singapore.

My smugness was quickly snuffed, in a nice way of course.

I'm glad I was corrected. It forced me to look around and ask. I conducted an informal survey among colleagues and acquaintances. I'm still in the midst of compiling their responses but one thing's pretty consistent. Where blogs are concerned, it's true that Singaporeans don't really care about blogs. Relative to the rest of the Blogosphere, the number of blogs by Singaporeans is insignificant.

The general consensus (among my respondents) is that most know blogs as "personal web diaries" but beyond that, there isn't much interest about blogs. Blogs aren't seen as productive or "legitimate" tools for work or personal development. Most of my respondents, in my very unscientific and informal study, seemed to care little about blogs indeed.

More on the survey results later.

So thank you, Shel, for correcting me. I'm seeing possibilities now, when all I used to see was a myopic and blinkered view of the Blogosphere.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Liblogarians, Nairarbils & nIrVANa

I asked my new friends* if they knew of any Blogs by Asian librarians, or librarians from Asia, for that matter.
[* A great bunch of people - hailing from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Fiji - librarians whom I met during the HKUL Leadership Institute 2004]

Not unexpectedly, there do not seem to be many. There are quite a few librarians and library professionals in the Blogosphere. Just doesn't seem to be many (or any) from Asia.

A few days later, out of the blue (or whatever colour the Internet might be), I received an email with the subject header "liblogarian". The email address was legitimate and so was the name, just that I didn't know who that person was. To add to the mystery, the email merely contained a link to a blog.

Since the terrorists have not yet invented email-explosives (now that's a scary thought!), I clicked without hesitation (ok, maybe a tiny tiny wee bit) and was brought to a blog, whose stated goal was to expire after one thousand, [nine hundred] and ninety-seven posts.

BINGO! I've met my first Asian Liblogarian!

I'd wished I'd thought of this very cool term, "Liblogarian" - a combination of "Librarian" and "Blogger". But I didn't. Kudos to Gah Gah.

Clearly, Gah Gah has a penchant for cool (or in IRC-speak, "kewl") names and catchy terminologies. Well, Gah Gah, you're "Nairarbil**" no longer (someone include the word in the dictionary please!)
[**Quote: Nairarbil - a backward librarian, librarian spelt backward]

BTW, a fellow librarian from Wuhan University Library very kindly shared that a Blog was 'Bo ke' or 'Wang Luo Ri Ji' in Mandarin. The former (sounds like "Broker") was a direct phonetic translation of the English 'Blog'. The latter was a four-character combination to mean "Internet Diary", i.e. "Wang Luo" = Internet; "Ri Ji" = Diary.

I think there will be more Asian Liblogarians. Dr. Anthony Ferguson (of Hong Kong University Libraries) emailed me that he'd recently looked into Blogs and referred the idea to their collection development librarians, who do a lot of liaison work with the faculty. He thought that a Science Library Materials blog might be a good idea.

I think so too.

It's my hope that librarians and library professionals in Asia would have an active and productive presence on the Internet or Blogosphere. An Asian Liblogarians Blogosphere that is inclusive in all sense of the word... (there's the language barrier to overcome, but well, that's fodder for another Blog post).

When that day comes, I'd really be in nIrVANa***.
[*** A nickname from Gah Gah, which is a play on my name, "Ivan". Is Gah Gah a wordsmith or what? :) ]

So readers & fellow bloggers, if you know of weblogs written by Liblogarians in Asia, I'd appreciate if you could drop me an email. I'll include it in the list of Liblograrians in Asia (see my list of links on the right).