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Feminizing management priorities: can we refocus the principal concerns of senior management in libraries?

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Professor G.E. Gorman, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

"Many people are only basically and not critically literate. That goes partly with our divisive education system. More importantly, it is sustained by those vast engines of persuasion which, in their own interest, tell us that we need not lift our eyes higher or wider, or that their trash is good bread... For all of us the appetite grows by what it feeds on: it is easier to reinforce existing low taste than to suggest that the world is wider and deeper."

(Source: "Why treat us like dimwits?" Richard Hoggart, Independent on Sunday, 20 June 1995, p. 22)

Richard Hoggart does not paint a pretty picture, and in fact gives us a rather despondent view of literacy, and by implication human nature, in the twenty-first century. We are only basically literate, he maintains, we have little or no taste, and little or no desire to improve. One would hope that information professionals take a different view – we believe that people can become critical consumers of information, learning to distinguish the dross from the gold, and therefore can be challenged to improve their level of understanding. Indeed, isn't this one of the principles underlying our profession – the desire and ability of people to improve their skills and knowledge? It is the improvement of skills and knowledge, in my view, that lie at the base of effective management and, in this context, managers have responsibility to improve the professionalism and life skills of their staff.

To determine the extent that this might be so, we must recall what a manager is in an information organization.

What is a manager?

Given the nature of management responsibilities in the current climate, it seems likely that most of us must prioritize our responsibilities, and we do so according to the pressures that are exerted on us from many quarters.

Financial responsibilities

Perhaps the most pressing demands are imposed from above, and this means that financial responsibility and accountability loom large in our working lives. All institutions have become excessively concerned about financial responsibility, and they have tended to push this down to line managers, who now spend an inordinate amount of time creating budgets, monitoring expenditure, trying to do more with less – all of this can consume the better part of every manager's working week. This is blindingly evident in the professional literature – pick up almost any issue of a general LIS title, and there will be something on fiscal responsibility, financial management, fund-raising, etc. For example, a random pick of recent Emerald titles from my shelves throws up articles on fee-based services, cost efficiency, income generation – the list is almost endless (Johannsen, 2003; Saunders, 2003; Schmidt and Peachey, 2003).

Facilities responsibilities

Hand-in-hand with finances goes facilities, and facilities management can be a major headache for any manager. There is the need to plan for new or expanded facilities, oversee the maintenance of existing facilities, deal with crises such as equipment breakdown, increasing costs of repair and replacement. It is, in other words, money, mortar and machines that consume much of our energy. (Parenthetically, what training do we have for dealing with such matters – there needs to be a clear programme of lifelong education for managers.)

Client or services responsibilities

Further down the food chain, and incorrectly so in my view, are the people issues – our clients (and the services they need) and staff (and the services they provide). Of course clients are important, they are why we exist, but somehow client needs are less demanding than the requirements of the CEO or vice chancellor or director general. It is quality of service to our clients that keeps us afloat, and managing our customer relations, our services and our products should be at the forefront of what we do. This, too, is reflected in the volume of literature related to client services – recent papers on information literacy (now, there's a bandwagon if ever there was one!), virtual reference services, Internet resources, etc. indicate the consistent interest in service provision (Beard, 2003; Gregory and Nixon, 2003; Hundie, 2003).

Staff responsibilities

Of course, it is the staff who deliver services to clients, and in most institutions staff issues can be the most problematic and the most sensitive, so many managers try to sweep them under the carpet, hoping they will go away. They never do. Whatever the manager does, some will be satisfied with the decision or action, and others will not. To succeed a manager needs to be a boss, a mother and father, a best friend, a disciplinarian, a partner and a CEO – all at the same time. At least with the other responsibilities, one can focus on a single role, but not here. And this, I suspect, is why so many managers put HR issues in the "too-hard" basket.

Not surpisingly, then, there is little professional literature related to this aspect of the manager's work. One exception are the "management musings" from the relentless pen of Maurice Line, a recent example of which deals sensitively with managing problem staff (Line 2003). And occasionally another brave soul seeks to reorient our essentially masculine approach to staff management. Recently, for example, Nick Joint (2003) sought to inject a more flexible perception of staff development through "shared learning" and "constructivist skill sets" – a far more fluid, less rigid approach to this aspect of staff management.

Changing the manager's priorities

In my view we need to completely reorient the manager's priorities, placing people issues at the top, and other issues in the second tier, without making them any less important. After all, our organizations exist because of our clients, so client satisfaction must be our top priority. And what makes clients satisfied, whether we are talking about Singapore Airlines, Borders bookshop or the local public library is the quality of service rendered by our staff. If the staff are well trained, responsive and deriving job satisfaction from their work, there is a positive environment that flows on to the customers. It is a matter of, in Hoggart's words, lifting our eyes higher and wider, and seeing that there are new and different horizons.

But how do we achieve this? Quite simply, managers must develop more generic professional skills. In the library schools we are very good at educating them in various aspects of professional practice – collection management, knowledge organization and so on. But what about the generic skill sets that every manager should possess in abundance:

  • Communication skills
  • Time and task management
  • Ability to facilitate work in teams
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills.

These are what IFLA refers to as "transferable skills", which means they are skills that are important regardless of the professional task that one is performing, and regardless of one's level. Too few of our colleagues are effective communicators, either at an interpersonal level or in group situations. We have good ideas, but we must be able to convince others that they are worth pursuing. Likewise, as one moves up the pecking order, time becomes an ever more precious commodity, and without really rigorous training in time and task management, we will be overwhelmed by the demands of the job.

The same applies to an ability to motivate teams to work together and do their best, and to replace the spirit of competition that still holds sway in many places. All of this is a more detailed way of saying that we can learn, as managers, to recognize trash as trash and good bread as good bread – or to become reflective professionals who can critique the status quo, find a better way, and communicate this effectively.

The library schools, quite rightly in my view, cannot effectively teach these skills, which are best learned in a practical setting. So where is the "school for managers"? When someone is tapped on the shoulder to take responsibility for a unit or section, how much training do we give them? If my own experience is anything to go by, none at all – we are just given the authority because, until now, we have performed well and on this basis seem a good bet for more responsibility.

This is the "throw-them-in-at-the deep-end" approach to management up-skilling; sometimes it works, but more often it doesn't, and managers suffer from high levels of stress and burn-out as a result – many surveys have shown this.

Well, a 727 pilot who is good at his job isn't then given control of a 747 without some pretty rigorous training, nor is the 747 pilot put in charge of a mission to Mars. The same should apply to managers – let's start training them for their jobs, and let's do this at every rung on the ladder so that we can get the best out of them, and so that they can perform to the best of their ability. This is training on a need-to-know basis, or just-in-time basis.

The third approach is one that I would advocate, which is a formal and ongoing school for managers in which we devise a comprehensive, in-depth training programme linked to the various management levels within an organization. Here we would devise programmes that focus on those communication skills, time and task management skills, etc. needed for the specific role that manager is to perform, with increasingly sophisticated applications as necessary. This may be the most effective way to promote employee wellbeing, and to help ensure, in Hofstede's words, that a more "feminine" aspect is allowed to infiltrate our management priorities (Hofstede, 1980; 1991).

Further reading

Agee, J. and Antrim, P. (2003), "Stone buildings, cyberspace and the library user", New Library World, Vol. 104 No. 11/12, pp. 474-480.

Beard, J., Bottomley, N., Geeson, R. and Spencer, S. (2003), "ASK: a virtual enquiry desk – a case study", The Electronic Library, Vol. 21 No. 6, pp. 601-608.

Gregory, D. and Nixon, W.J. (2003), "The instruction commons: an information literacy initiative at Iowa State University", Library Review,
Vol. 52 No. 8/9, pp. 422-431.

Hofstede, G. (1980), Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-related Values, Sage, London.

Hofstede, G. (1991), Culture and Organisations: Software of the Mind, McGraw Hill, London.

Hoggart, R. (1995), "Why treat us like dimwits?", Independent on Sunday, 20 June 1995, p. 22.

Hundie, K. (2003), "Library operations and Internet resources", The Electronic Library, Vol. 21 No. 6, pp. 555-564.

Johannsen, C.G. (2004), "'Money makes the world go round' – fee-based services in Danish public libraries, 2002-2003", New Library World, Vol. 105 No. 1/2, pp. 21-32.

Joint, N. (2003), "Staff development and training in the digital library environment", Library Review, Vol. 52 No. 8/9, pp. 417-421..

Line, M.B. (2003), "Management musings 13: making do with what we have", Library Management, Vol. 24 No. 6/7, pp. 360-361.

Saunders, E.S. (2003), "Cost efficiency in ARL academic libraries", The Bottom Line, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 5-14.

Schmidt, J. and Peachey, L. (2003), "Funding Down Under: entrepreneurial approaches to generating income at the University of Queensland cybrary", New Library World, Vol. 104 No. 11/12, pp. 481-490.