‘Bringing a business mind to non-profit services’
As soon as I saw this course advertised in the CILIP course list, I knew I had to go. Not only do I work for a not-for-profit (Mimas), but through my involvement with Voices for the Library I know how ‘business language’ can be used as a stick to beat the public sector. What’s your ROI? Have you done a cost-benefit analysis? Who are you benchmarking against?
Library and info services are expected to be able to answer all of these questions - and not in a ‘give me a couple of hours, I’ll go away and find out’ way. We’re being trusted with public funds, and a blank look in reply to a financial/business management enquiry is as good as an admission of incompetence.
Information professionals pride ourselves on being able to talk the language of our users – to adapt to them, so they don’t have to adapt to us. The SLA Alignment Project is an excellent recent example of how important it is to find the value terms of our stakeholders, and use them in our communication with them. The only way we can effectively advocate for our services is to speak in terms that resonate with our users and stakeholders; if they have to struggle to understand what we are saying, they simply won’t bother listening.
We may say that ‘the value of what we do can’t be measured’; and yes, it is difficult to put an arbitrary financial value on what we provide to society. But all of our services ultimately depend on business systems, and we simply cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand and ignore them. None of us became librarians to handle budgets, but without a library budget, there can be no library. And if we have to do it, by gum, we’d better do it well!
Knowing something about how the business mind works is also vital when we’re being asked for targets and measurements. Why is the idea that footfall determines your service’s worth a fallacy? If you tell me that it’s because we provide a lot of intangible benefits, that there are other things that are important, I am not going to approve your request for funding. If, however, you mention that in the Pareto model, footfall and book loans are the 20% of services that generate the 80% of use, I might start listening…
This isn’t something that is only important once you’ve moved into management. Just like interoperability, business-awareness is a state of mind, and all new professionals would do well to cultivate it from the start of their career. Just like learning any new language, it takes time, practice, and effort to fit it all into context: do this early in your career, and you are less likely to find yourself blubbing over balance sheets in your first managerial role.
But it’s not just personal development at stake. If we don’t start thinking with business minds, opportunities for advocacy will pass us by; we either won’t recognise them or won’t be able to take advantage of them.
So dust off the notes from your library school management module. If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend the next running of this course in September, do it! One of the most valuable parts of the day for me was sharing stories with other attendees: this is what we need to do, this is what we need to show, this is why we’re doing it. And if you’re even luckier, and are already comfortable with thinking this way, share it with the rest of us! We’re learning a new language, and need a few natives to help us along the way.