The Necessity of Collaboration

How to make large-scale library initiatives more successful with partnerships

November 1, 2021

Illustration: Hands add to collection of yellow gears on teal background (Illustration: Prostock Studio/Adobe Stock)
Illustration: Prostock Studio/Adobe Stock

Most people think of collaboration as a soft skill and dismiss it with a shrug. Here’s the thing: You don’t collaborate to make people feel okay, because it’s expected of you, or to earn brownie points. You collaborate because on large-scale projects, you have no choice.

Launching Large-Scale Library Initiatives
This is an excerpt from Launching Large-Scale Library Initiatives: Innovation and Collaboration by Valerie Horton (ALA Editions, 2021).

I conducted an informal survey and found that a typical large academic library has around 15–25 collaborative partners, while a large public library has about half that number. For example, Georgetown University Library in Washington, D.C., has roughly 20 partners, including large national organizations (HathiTrust), a regional consortium (NorthEast Research Libraries), campus partners (Georgetown Writing Center), and its local coffee shop. Denver Public Library (DPL) lists 12 local partners, including The Denver Post, Colorado Library Consortium, and Tattered Cover Book Store. George Machovec, director of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (another of DPL’s partners), lists more than a dozen areas where librarians actively collaborate, from print volume storage to shared catalogs to resource sharing.

  • Ideally, collaborations in libraries share some basic characteristics, including:
  • clearly defined vision and goals
  • high levels of engagement
  • intensive use of resources
  • willingness to adapt and change local processes
  • reciprocity coupled with negotiation and compromise
  • congeniality, information-sharing, and dialogue
  • shared power and decision making (perhaps most importantly)

To make a large-scale library project successful, you’ll need to consider how deep your collaborative efforts should go. You may spend as much time dealing with partners as you would your actual day-to-day work. It’s best to have a common language going into any joint effort and decide what type of buy-in you need from each participant.

Why bother?

Most decisions to cooperate come down to two core motivations: lower cost and better services. The fundamental questions a library director will ask are: “Can we save money?” and “Can we improve resources and services?”

Other possible reasons to collaborate include gaining a greater variety of perspectives, knowledge, and working environments, as well as improving efficiency and streamlining workflows.

Collaboration models

Business professors Gary P. Pisano and Roberto Verganti have identified four collaboration models. Their framework lets managers determine how to organize projects based on key metrics. To determine which collaboration model is best, you need to ask those in authority two questions: “How open or closed will our project be to potential partners?” and “Who will have final decision-making authority?”

Pisano and Verganti’s models use a matrix based on, first, whether a project is open or closed to new members and outside input; and second, whether the project is flat (meaning all partners have equal decision-making authority) or hierarchical (meaning decision making is bureaucratic and controlled). The four resulting models are:

  • Elite circle: a closed, hierarchical network. One entity selects the members, defines the problem, and implements the solution.
  • Innovation mall: an open, hierarchical network. One entity proposes a problem, but anyone can propose solutions, with the originating entity choosing the best solution.
  • Innovation community: an open, flat network. Anyone can post a problem, many can offer solutions, and the group decides which solution to implement.
  • Consortium: a closed, flat network. A tightly defined group sets up a complex organization to decide which problems to solve, choose who will do the work, and implement the solution.

You will need to ask yourself some questions to determine the appropriate model. For instance, do you need additional money, labor, or physical resources to make the project work? If so, you will probably need additional partners, and that may mean you will have to allow more sharing of authority and decision making.

The collaborative muscle

To make the collaborative part of your project work better, try adopting these tools and techniques.

Vision. Experts consider those who are guided by high-level aspirations to be more successful. Your vision helps you stay focused on what is important while keeping you aligned with your mission and goals.

Vision statements are inspirational and idealistic and often touch on emotions, which can make some people uncomfortable. But sharing a broad, inspiring vision that core participants hammer out and refine as new people and organizations join the project is the foundation for ongoing trust and resource commitments.

Developing a project’s vision is no small task. Clarifying your project’s aspirational vision is probably going to be one of the first decisions the preplanning group will make in conjunction with your governance structure. Starting with aspirational themes helps set the tone early. It says that in this project everyone has a voice, and that, through compromise, your vision will get as close to a win-win situation as possible.

Participation agreements. As the project progresses, good intentions will not be enough. Creating an agreement can reveal agendas that help you identify the politics of the situation. In this step you define mutual expectations, clarify roles and responsibilities, identify accountability measures, and choose conflict resolution processes. You need a mutually binding agreement to ensure each partner will fulfill its obligations to the team, or which at least makes it more likely that the partners will fulfill their obligations. This agreement should be open to modification.

Formalize support. Make sure your authorizing documents are widely distributed. You will need a clear statement of what constitutes success. Lines of communication must be wide open.

Delegate some tasks and responsibilities. Any large project will include tasks that you won’t like or that don’t fit closely with your skill set. Lean into your strengths. You’re going to have a million details to manage, so save your energy for where you can be most effective.

Delegating tasks that are your personal energy-drainers can help you through difficult times.

Look for an early success. By starting with a mini­project, you can create wins that will help foster trust while keeping costs low. An early, small project gives you a chance to ask for ideas, identify the participants’ previous experience, seek advice, and observe your potential partners. You’ll quickly discover whom you can trust, whom you need to treat with caution, and how well your working groups function together.

Consensus decision making. You’re going to be working with a core group of people, and that group may morph from a preplanning team into your steering committee (or leadership team). With that group, you want to start small and build consensus and agreement slowly. Plan how you introduce working norms to allow people to get to know one another and find a place where they can find consensus. Reaching consensus takes longer than top-down, bureaucratic decision making, but it comes with increased support and commitment to the project.

Give credit away. Be generous in giving others credit while downplaying your own work. A bit of modest behavior can pay dividends.

Build on existing relationships. Work to strengthen your existing personal relationships and create new ones. Collaboration works best when an element of interpersonal camaraderie exists within the project. Try to balance how much everyone is giving and getting during the long haul of the project.

Involve a broad base of participants. Go beyond the same contributors to achieve broader participation. Embracing a mindset of openness and inclusion will bring in the widest swath of contributors. Those unique participant viewpoints will ring with more energy than if you find yourself working with a group of like-minded libraries doing the same work for the same types of institutions. Don’t grow complacent with the old crowd, even if it is prestigious.

Communication. You will be personally evaluated not just by the success of your final product but also by the frequency, structure, and quality of the project’s communication.

A communication team can be your best friend during large-scale project implementation. This team can be as informal as one person or a group of four or five who coordinate sending a message across different media. You should form this working group before you think you need it and have it develop communication strategies even before you know what you want to say.

Project manager’s communication. You need to communicate, communicate, and then communicate again. As a project leader, I found it most effective to be the primary voice early in the project’s development and a leader during online meetings and conference presentations. But out-in-front visibility has a shelf life of its own. If you are constantly appearing in someone’s inbox, over time they lose interest in what you are saying. As the project progresses, have other people on the team become the messengers for noncritical information.

Communication tools. Many online tools are available to manage internal communication. Sometimes these tools are also helpful for external communication. Some are multimodal and quite effective, like Slack or Basecamp. Look into communication systems, but also pay attention to what systems are used by the majority of your participating libraries.

Live your values. Sometimes walking the walk is what catches people’s attention. Look for ways to demonstrate collaborative values.

Take one for the team. You’re going to have to model behaviors that may or may not come naturally to you. But you must master consensus-building, acknowledging failure, and giving credit. Partnerships are about sharing power and responsibility. You must demonstrate that you, and the most powerful stakeholders among your participants, will compromise. You may even go so far as to accept some painful compromises early on to show that you have the greater good in mind.

Large-scale projects are balancing acts, and the balance is often delicate. I have found that if I concentrate on our values and goals while listening and giving credit to others, I can survive a lot of other mistakes.

Hard times

Many factors contribute to collaborative failure, including lack of financial resources, inadequate staffing and training, an uninspiring vision and weak goals, and ineffectual leadership.

If the core goal of your project is not inspiring, you will spend a lot of time fighting the brushfires of discontent instead of moving your project forward. If people are excited about the outcome, they will cut you more slack on day-to-day problems.

By far the most prevalent reason I’ve heard for collaboration failures is the participants’ fear of losing autonomy. But the perceived loss of local autonomy can be compensated for by the additional resources gained. There are no perfect solutions to this dilemma.

As a project leader, you will spend a large amount of time explaining the benefits of your initiative. Given the complexity and problems inherent in cooperative efforts, you need to pay attention to participants’ skills and knowledge level. You may need to either bring in training programs or send key people to gain facilitation or other skills.

With the typical academic library’s involvement in 15−25 cooperative projects, burnout is not just possible but probable. Collaboration fatigue can threaten your project. Time spent in endless meetings is a particular source of concern from library staff. Make sure meetings are well run and productive.

The collaboration equation

One way to determine whether a collaboration is worthwhile is to use the collaboration equation:

Total the perceived gains in efficiency, services, and resources.
+ Add that to the perceived cost of not making the improvement.
− Subtract the loss of productivity that comes with any collaborative project.
= The remainder is the value of your collaborative project.

Librarians are rightly cautious about committing to a new cooperative endeavor. It will be worth your while to anticipate the answers to some questions you may get from participants before they are asked:

  • Can you clearly and succinctly state the initiative’s vision?
  • What goals will achieve the vision?
  • What staff expertise is available on your teams?
  • Or what expertise or skills do you need to gain?
  • How will shared decision making work?
  • Who has the final authority to make decisions and at what levels?
  • Are your planning and resource commitments fair and equitable?
  • Have you predetermined problem resolution strategies?
  • How will you measure your progress?
  • How will you evaluate the initiative’s outcomes?
  • How will you know you succeeded?

Values-based collaboration

Your project will move forward because a diverse set of people are willing to have a civil dialogue and find compromises. Remember that collaboration is also about something higher than just achieving your goals—it is a values-based system of action.

Values-based collaboration means:

  • Everyone has a voice that will be heard.
  • Different ideas will be tolerated and explored.
  • Actions will be as transparent as possible.
  • Experts’ knowledge is valued, but other voices are also heard.
  • Leaders work toward the full participation of all participants.

OCLC Vice President and Chief Strategist Lorcan Dempsey has said that as libraries are forced to meet new institutional requirements and patron needs and expectations, the pull toward collaboration is strong. It makes sense to do things together at the right scale to stretch resources, gain experience, and improve customer service.

In the end, always remember that you are working to improve library services for our libraries and their patrons.


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