November 30th, 2013

Libraries and Service Management

While recovering from a serious turkey and mashed potato overdose, I started thinking about my experience in computer software and libraries.

I’ve spent a good part of the last thirty years building service management applications for large enterprises, so I can’t help but think of any organization as a service management challenge. In my book, Cloud Standards, I begin by providing my definition of a service. Many of my technical friends think it is too lawyerlike and bureaucratic to be of any use to them, but I disagree. Here it is

A service is a consumer-provider relationship in which the provider delivers value to the consumer and the consumer avoids designated costs and risks that they would have incurred if they had delivered the value themselves.

That’s a mouthful but it applies to an organization like a library as well as to computer architecture. Consumers and providers can be software and hardware modules as well as people. Here’s a human service: when I wore a suit and tie to work, I had the oil changed in my truck by an oil changing service to avoid the cost and risk of ruining my suit. I was willing to pay for the service because the costs and risks out-weighed the fee the service charged for changing oil. (Especially with a coupon!) I won’t bore you with a technical example, but there are many.

Library patrons check out books to avoid the cost of buying the book themselves and the risk of being stuck with a book they don’t care for.

That’s not the only service a library provides, but I will venture it is the one most people think of first. I used to consult for large IT organizations, helping them improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their services. My first question always was “What services do you provide?” The answers, to say the least, were varied. Some groups flat out had no idea—they resorted to telling me about all the maintenance they did and how many servers and switches they were responsible for. That was the equivalent of an oil-changing guy telling me what size wrenches were in his toolbox when I asked him what else he could do for my truck.

Other organizations I consulted for had a clear idea of what they provided, but most lengthened their list after we discussed it. Many were surprised at the value they provided. Sometimes they decided to drop services that had less value than they had assumed.

It is important to differentiate between owning a wrench and changing the air filter. Your wrenches are only remotely connected to consumers, but the value you deliver affects them directly. The point is that unless you understand the value of the work you do, you can’t understand how to increase the value of your services.

I suspect that librarians understand their services to the community better than IT departments understand their role. It’s a good exercise for IT departments; I am curious how it might work for libraries.

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