Library Workflow Redesign: Concepts and Results

Marilyn Mitchell

Libraries throughout academia are familiar with the scenario: expensive technology, demands for more services, opportunties for better service, tight budgets, and competition with outside providers to implement services once solely their own. In meeting these challenges and pursuing these opportunities, libraries have looked to the worlds of business and management for tools and techniques, engaging the principles and practices of total quality management, strategic planning, customer-directed service, and team-based management, to name a few. Some cynically refer to this as management du jour, but others acknowledge each contribution as an important step in understanding better how organizations work and how people in organizations make them work better.

Library workflow redesign, the topic of this work, comes on the heels of the business process-reengineering movement introduced in the early 1990s and further elucidated by Michael Hammer and James Champy in their 2001 work, Reengineering the Corporation (Harper Collins). The authors promoted the idea that radical redesign and reorganization of an enterprise are sometimes necessary to lower costs and increase the quality of service, and that information technology is the primary enabler for this radical change. Librarians have seen the possibilities of such reengineering applied to their workflows. While these processes are frequently mandated by rules and standards, they are just as frequently driven by precedent, habit, and convention. Examining workflow in light of changes in the work environment and evolving library technologies seems a natural development in the push for improvement demanded by the times.

Libraries have a tradition of cooperation. While they may borrow techniques from the business world, it is improved services, rather than profit, that motivates libraries to examine their operations. Likewise, service improvements often come as a result of library cooperation. Recognizing this, granting agencies routinely make cooperation among libraries a requirement for funding. The projects described in this volume focus on reengineering workflows for improved service, and all involve interlibrary cooperation and the sharing of results.

Getting Started

In spring 2003, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a planning grant of $48,625 to the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to work with The Stillwater Group, a firm that specializes in work reengineering and financial management of higher education institutions, and with seven liberal arts colleges to offer training in workflow redesign. This request came as the result of discussions with directors of liberal arts college libraries at Mellon Foundation offices in the summer of 2002.

Many of the library directors at that meeting believed that technological advances make it possible for libraries to offer new services that are more responsive to student and faculty needs. At the same time, they agreed that to take advantage of these opportunities, libraries would have to drop some of their existing services and practices. The directors asked for help in deciding which of the “old” work could be dropped in favor of innovative services.

Stillwater planned two workshops to help a pilot group of librarians prepare for this workflow-redesign project. The first workshop was held at CLIR in May 2003. In preparation for the second workshop, each director was asked to submit a written description of a project that involved a specific type of workflow redesign and to appoint a project manager. That workshop was held in July 2003.

Six directors developed projects and identified the resources needed to implement them. The directors represented the Appalachian College Association, the Libraries of The Claremont Colleges, the Denison University/Kenyon College collaboration, Smith College, Tri-College Consortium, and Robert W. Woodruff Library. Each director also appointed a team to head the project. During the summer of 2003, CLIR requested an implementation grant of $600,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support awards of $100,000 to each of these teams.

The projects began in fall 2003 and ended in December 2005. Susan Perry, director of programs for CLIR and a senior adviser to the Mellon Foundation, in consultation with Deanna Marcum, then president of CLIR, helped participants refine their projects and gave advice on resources. Perry provided oversight and support for each project, from inception to completion.

All six libraries completed their projects. All were enthusiastic about their experiences and satisfied with the results. Each project manager submitted a written report to CLIR upon completion of the project. CLIR believed the information in those reports could help the broader library community understand the importance of rethinking the activities and services of the college library. This monograph, which summarizes the results for each project, is written for that community. Much of the data in the colleges’ reports was submitted as appendixes. For practical purposes, these appendixes are not included in this publication; however, they are available on CLIR’s Web site at

The Projects

Each library or group of libraries undertook a unique project to meet a specific need. The Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center and the Libraries of The Claremont Colleges improved the ways in which they serve their patrons. Woodruff took a holistic approach, engaging in a library-wide values clarification. In a matrix, they grouped services throughout the library whose goals and processes corresponded, then allowed staff with similar problems to work together to improve service delivery in their respective areas. Taking a more focused approach, Claremont redesigned its reference and information services. The project required extensive cooperation and communication among staff and resulted in significant changes-from desk relocation and redesign to instant messaging to creation of a reference blog.

The 32-member Appalachian College Association (ACA) was the largest consortium in the project, although many of its members have very small libraries. ACA focused on making the principles and techniques of redesign available to staff in all its member libraries and on encouraging them to identify projects on the basis of individual and collective needs. ACA trained at least one staff member in all but two of its member institutions in workflow redesign. The consortium established an exchange program so that staff from the various schools could call on each other’s expertise. ACA member schools implemented impressive projects that addressed such topics as assigning tasks to student workers, innovations in processing, technical services workflow, shelving, systems administration, document delivery, and rare-book preservation.

Smith College Libraries, a member of the Five College Libraries of Western Massachusetts, was facing the challenge of staffing cuts when the project began. Its effort centered on the redesign of all cataloging and materials workflow processes as well as all purchasing functions. Other members of the Five College Libraries of Western Massachusetts were unable to participate during the grant period, but Smith expects to include them in technical services process improvement as they move to a new, integrated library system.

Building on past successes, in particular the development of a shared electronic resource-management system, the Tri-College Consortium libraries of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges partnered with two vendors to achieve their joint goal of more comprehensive e-resource management. They worked with VTLS (Visionary Technology in Library Solutions) in the development of its Verify system and with Harrassowitz’ HERMIS in the application of its e-resource customer services. In addition, they produced a model consortium license agreement for electronic resources that governs the terms of use for e-resources purchased by libraries.

The libraries at Denison University and Kenyon College, members of the Five Colleges of Ohio consortium, identified the merger of their technical services operations as a logical extension of past cooperative ventures. Their merger entailed applying redesign techniques to their individual workflows and then recombining them into a single workflow.

All participants reported that work redesign is now a part of their decision-making toolkit, and many said that they had only just begun to use these techniques to improve or streamline workflow. All said that they would continue to use the techniques to complete work begun during this project or to begin new work.

Lessons Learned

Although individual projects varied widely, the processes they used had much in common. The insights they gained not only confirmed the value of traditional organizational practices but also led to new connections and conclusions.

As Christopher Loring notes in his report, motivation can arise from crisis or opportunity. Among the participants, Smith and Woodruff faced crises. Smith anticipated a 10 percent staff reduction, and Woodruff was experiencing a significant decline in library service. ACA and Claremont recognized the need to change long-standing practices in order to keep up and do better. Denison, Kenyon, and Tri-Colleges, having participated in successful joint ventures in the past, wanted to try more ambitious cooperative projects. All participants were energized by the redesign training they received, and all saw opportunities for improvement. The common motivation was the realization of a unique opportunity to effect fundamental changes both in workflow and in library culture.

Change and Risk
Redesign implies change. It is commonly avowed that no one likes change, that change is difficult, and that change is resisted and frequently undermined. The redesign process revealed that while individuals may resist the changes imposed on them, the agents who create change are its champions. These projects, which used broad-based team approaches, developed change agents throughout their organizations. Many reports emphasized the importance of engaging the entire library staff. Broad buy-in by staff and constituents and full staff participation were seen as antidotes to rejection and lack of cooperation. The elements of redesign-understanding a process in its entirety, identifying and reassembling its component parts, and, most important, seeing one’s role in accomplishing new tasks-created process ownership and, by extension, created the change agent. Through replication of the redesign processes described in these projects across and between libraries, staff members elsewhere can become change agents. Ultimately, their own organizations may undergo a change in culture.

Projects encouraged risk taking. Risk carries the possibility of failure-personal or organizational. It means giving up the known for the unknown. Understanding the process and visualizing personal success in the process can reduce this fear. A close reading of all the reports reveals this confidence-building behavior.

Implementing work redesign requires having champions in leadership positions as well as in work redevelopment. Leaders build vision and provide resources to realize that vision. Leaders also build confidence. Leaders at different levels in the participating colleges prepared the reports on which this document is based; as a result, it represents different perspectives. Deans and directors, for example, stressed the importance of staff ownership and direction. Team leaders stressed the importance of management support. Champions in leadership positions in each of the libraries got the projects under way with campus administrators as well as with library staff. Design and implementation teams in the individual libraries provided the energy, expertise, and interest to effect creative change.

Outside Assistance
All the projects employed outside help to facilitate discussions and to train staff in work redesign. Consultants came from corporate consulting firms, library consulting organizations, libraries, and teaching faculties. The roles of the external facilitators varied. At Woodruff, they guided the entire project, from conceptualization through evaluation. At Kenyon, Denison, and Claremont, they trained participants in the process of workflow redesign; at ACA, they trained local trainers. At Smith, they helped focus on project goals. In many cases, they facilitated the meetings of planning and work teams throughout the project, assisting members in solving problems and in communicating ideas. Some were physically present; others kept in contact by phone, e-mail, and off-site meetings. Irrespective of their particular roles or styles, these facilitators were critical to project success.

Most authors referred to formal institutional planning processes that provided an umbrella for their work-redesign efforts. Woodruff and Smith were guided by their colleges’ strategic plans. The Claremont team’s planning was part of the annual campus budget-review process as well as campuswide strategic planning processes.

A goal of strategic planning is to have planning in place before a crisis arises. An environmental scan anticipates the crisis, and workflow redesign can provide solutions. Such was the case, for example, at Smith and Woodruff, where information gathering was an important component of each program. Kenyon/Denison and Claremont performed extensive literature searches and included the results of these searches in their final reports.

Communication was a vital component of each project. Workflow redesign necessitates culture change, as well as changes in jobs or organization. The project institutions understood that effecting change requires that all staff be informed and that as many people as possible participate in the process. Faculty and students were often involved as well. Libraries used questionnaires and focus groups to survey staff and patrons before or after the onset of their projects. They recognized the need to keep the campus community informed.

In spite of the universal dedication to maintain effective communication, however, almost all participants felt the need to do a better job. Nearly all noted that getting the message out, having it heard correctly, and acting on it in a positive and sustained manner were challenges.

Group Decision Making
All the projects reported that group decision making works. When several individuals contribute their unique experiences and expertise to solve a problem, solutions are superior to those of any single member. Each of these projects involved teams or committees whose memberships were drawn from different libraries or different departments in a single institution. All reports commented on the value of different perspectives and skills.

Original Thinking
The reports alluded to another common feature of redesign: the need to think outside the box. Some boxes are imposed by hierarchical structures, limiting job descriptions, or dogmatic procedures; others come about because of the comfort they provide. Mixing team members from different boxes relaxed the walls. Library visits and other professional interactions all provided the same message: There are many ways to accomplish a given goal. Indeed, some of these ways have not yet been designed. Adhering to data is important, but creative thinking is also essential. The effect is synergistic: one idea leads to another, and the resulting construct is bigger than its parts.

The Team
Planning and implementation teams need to include all stakeholders. The assessment movement has recognized the value of user input, and the application of LibQual+, institutional surveys, and focus groups bring more voices to the redesign dialog. In many projects, users expressed wants and needs and communicated misunderstandings and a lack of awareness. Facilitators and consultants enhanced the dialog by articulating problems and processes, providing new perspectives, and promoting and focusing discussion.

Time and Timing
Institutions have to be ready to participate, and timing is a part of the readiness equation. Not all libraries in the consortium partnerships were able to participate; this limited the scope of their proposals. Many of the libraries reported difficulty in completing their projects in the time allocated. Keeping communication open and productive was time intensive. The more participants involved in the project-within the library, between libraries, and most particularly outside the library with vendors-the more difficult it was to meet deadlines.

The Model

Maintaining the momentum of change and accepting that change is the basis of continuous improvement are the goals of the redesign process. A single project or a group of unrelated projects can provide models for emulation. Just as the many ACA projects showed members what they could accomplish, all the projects described in this report can stimulate libraries of different sizes and resources to investigate the tools described in the case studies and to look for opportunities to use them. Success in these projects required (1) commitment from management; (2) energy, fortitude, enthusiasm, and will; (3) collegial support; (4) time; and (5) funds.

Meeting the first three of these requirements is possible in many libraries that have strong, organizationwide leadership, a vision, and a spirit of cooperation. Time and money are more difficult to come by. The very small staffs at ACA libraries allowed almost no flexibility for reallocating work, because basic services take up all time available. However, even larger organizations often see no more alternatives. With a finite amount of time and an increasing number of goals, priorities must be set, agreed to, and supported by staff throughout the organization. A similar consensus is required with respect to financial resources. Workflow redesign may or may not be a high priority, depending upon organizational values and leadership. The Mellon grants made these projects possible. But scalability is an important advantage in redesign. Its principles can be applied to workflows simple and complex. With this process model and the multiple project models, it is hoped that others will create opportunities, identify the resources on which they can call, and choose the resources most appropriate for their own redesign efforts.

A few of the specific lessons found in these reports exhort those who would undertake such a process to

  • communicate, communicate, communicate
  • take risks
  • give up on good ideas that will not work
  • realize the importance of focusing on broad workflows rather than on discrete tasks
  • let go of the “perfect” on behalf of the “good”
  • acknowledge that the journey is just as important as the goal
  • expect the unexpected

The success of the redesign tool is exemplified many times over in the following chapters. This work is an introduction to organizational culture change.