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An interview with Ralph Kiel

Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Ralph KielRalph Kiel is associate librarian, information systems at the University of Western Australia Library, Perth. He worked for 22 years in secondary schools and technical and further education colleges in Victoria, Australia before moving to the university sector.

From 1999 he worked at RMIT University in Melbourne, first as manager of the business library and then as associate director corporate services. He took up his current role in 2002.

Can you describe your current responsibilities at the University of Western Australia?

I am associate librarian, information systems, which involves three main roles. There’s oversight of the corporate services area of the library, which is general administration, for example, health and safety and personnel. Then there’s the information resources area, which includes the usual monographs, serials, budget planning, etc., and also new tools and systems, such as Metalib, SfX, and our learning objects and research repositories. And finally there’s information technology (IT), and at the University of Western Australia we haven’t devolved any of that responsibility to central IT, it’s all held within the library.

We are lucky in having a large IT section: it means that we can often lead whole university projects, such as the university portal, and we can recruit to positions that meet our needs. We want people who are highly intelligent and who can learn quickly, they don't necessarily need to have been trained in IT. In fact our second most senior person has no IT qualifications at all.

Can you tell us about your "re-placing the library" scheme, launched as part of your strategic plan 2005-2007?

Like all academic libraries, we are at the forefront of the digital revolution, which is empowering our users and seeing a dramatic growth in digital content. At the same time we are still having to store print collections and create spaces for students to study in. So, our strategic plan needed to ensure that we brought on board the right services. "Re-placing the library" set a direction for our annual operational plans which included many significant projects that transformed our services – our Open URL linking service, federated searching, the university portal, document delivery end-user requesting, a learning objects repository, a research repository, and a project to implement Web 2.0 technologies.

But the biggest of these projects by far is the university portal. In many ways this will be a standard portal, but because the project is being led by the library (this is unusual, but it was already one of our strategic objectives and we were quite far ahead in our planning, so the university let us take the lead) there will be a bigger focus on information. It will be live from after Easter 2008 – part way into the school year in Australia.

Currently, it’s only for students, but it will move to a portal for the staff. The idea is to enable a student to log in, be authenticated, and then be steered to a part of the portal that meets their needs. It will pick out certain data according to whether they are an undergraduate or a graduate and which faculty they are in, for example course materials and their course lists. They can also personalize it rather in the manner of iGoogle – for example they can choose to put the weather in there. If they are a postgraduate student it will bring up some more research type information or assistance and so on. There will also be a portlet which will allow them just to search the catalogue for example, and they can also do a whole lot of other things online, such as change their course.

In order to deliver all these services, we had to make sure that our internal systems were in good order and that the organization itself had the required flexibility. Hence we established a theme in the strategic plan called "transforming the organization". Within this theme we developed a number of activities, for example, a programme to give staff an understanding of the library overall and how each part fits together, a skills training programme, early professional development for recruited professional staff, staff recognition mechanisms – all with the aim of making our structures and our staff more flexible, and breaking down silos so we can all work together.

Not only did we achieve all our outcomes by the end of 2007, but we also found it much easier to bring on board the new products and services mentioned above. We could easily slot in a coordinator to assume responsibility for the running of the product – it was so much easier to train people up in the technical aspect because we had already trained them to be flexible and responsive.

I understand that you helped change your organization by an enlightened human resources policy, but how did you bring so many projects at once to fruition?

The reason why we were able to do so many projects so quickly was that we established a project management method. We used Prince2, which is a standard approach, but we modified it significantly as most of our projects are not huge: Prince is scalable so it can handle even tiny projects (which can still be complex in their own way). And that really did transform the way we worked together, it completely changed the relationships between people from the different sections, and opened up channels of communication because we were all talking the same language. Each project had its own folder on the intranet with all the reports and the project management documentation. If a project didn’t finish or went wrong, we reported on it, no blame was attached, we stopped all the blame game. In short, there was predictability about how we managed our projects, and we could do things much more quickly – weeks and months rather than months and years. This was because we had a system, we could quickly work out who had responsibility for what, who was the senior user, who had responsibility for allocating resources, where was the money coming from, what were appropriate reporting mechanisms, etc.

When we make a decision to do a project, we say how important it is, we give a timeline for it to be done, and we allocate the resources accordingly. We estimate the amount of time required, and tell people to report to us if it’s not enough. If someone needs to be full time we make them full time. We have a person who’s the project owner, who can allocate those resources. If we see a project as priority, it takes priority over operations and other projects. The portal project, for example, has stopped just about every other project in its tracks, but we explain the reasons why that is the case.

I should also say that the University of Western Australia, and its library, is well resourced, we’re lucky, we’re a big place. There are other universities and university libraries in Australia which could not work in the way we do.

Can you describe the leadership programme you implemented to help with your strategic and operational changes?

One of the projects within "transforming the organization" was a leadership programme, "taking the lead", launched in August 2006 and finished in August 2007. Its main aim was to enable library managers to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to drive the requisite changes and achieve a positive and high performing workplace. It involved 24 participants from all sections of the library – administrators and IT people as well as professional librarians.

An important feature of the programme was the 360o feedback process, which helped provide a skills gap analysis. Managers were appraised by their subordinates, their managers, their peers and their customers. Taking the form of an online survey with 35 items grouped into 9 categories, its value was that it aided self perception by giving participants an idea of how others saw them. An external facilitator helped participants to identify behavioural changes.

We are now rerunning the 360o feedback so we can compare with the first lot of results, and we are also doing it with new recruits, so we can have that same discussion about their management styles.

We will also be repeating some aspects of the foundation workshops, where participants do a self questionnaire. This is then analysed into a profile using the DiSC model – dominance (directive, dominant, take action and get results), influence (outgoing, like working in teams, energize others), conscientiousness (concerned with accuracy, systematic), steadiness (sympathetic, consistent, cooperative, good listener, enjoys working behind the scenes). I was very sceptical about it beforehand, but it’s proven to be really useful.

The benefit of the DiSC process is that, like the 360o feedback, it facilitates self knowledge. There’s a lot of discussion about weaknesses and strengths, and the programme helps people become more effective at dealing with others. We’ll also be offering some new workshops, building on our experience – for example it might be better to run some of the workshops off site to discourage people from running back to answer their e-mails. We’ll also continue with the "leading into the weekend" programme, which combined activities on a Friday afternoon with social activities at the university club, and try and get that more to do with leadership and less to do with management.

On the DiSC process, having gone through your style as it were, do you have to try and change it?

People can’t change their style, but they need to objectify the fact that they’ve got it, discuss it with other people, especially their superiors and people who report to them. They need to be aware of the fact that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that their style has weaknesses for which they have to compensate. So, when you’re having a discussion or maybe a little argument arises about a particular issue and there’s a difference of opinion, someone might say, is this because of my profile and your profile that we are having this difference of opinion, or is it a matter of fact that we disagree on? That sort of discussion happens a lot now.

For example, if someone says that a particular report is not that detailed, it may be that person has an ascendancy of being conscientious. Someone else’s work may appear slipshod, but perhaps that’s because they are more intuitive, they want to go and talk to people rather than write down something, it drives them crazy having to write papers. There are others who expect things to happen now. So people can understand why they behave and feel the way they do, but they also learn to appreciate the reaction of others. In fact, one of our staff members said they didn’t learn so much about leadership skills as about themselves.

What sort of leadership skills do you try and promote?

It is so difficult to pin down leadership, I think what we need to do is talk a little bit more among ourselves about what leadership is. Leadership in the digital age isn’t just a matter of understanding people and motivating them, it’s far more complex and involves a deeper understanding of the organizational context. I think a good leader is ethical and we could have some sort of discussion about that. There’s other leadership skills that perhaps relate to the way you communicate. And of course management is always intertwined with leadership. Good management, good leadership, they’re often the same thing. But we need to think a bit more about what it means in terms of leadership. So for example we did a workshop on coaching, and that could be specifically a management topic, but we tried to talk about it in terms of leadership as well.

How successful do you think you have been at breaking down organizational silos?

Our library executive believed that the programme had helped increase the sense of the library being "one unit", "one management team", so that’s encouraging. We have also changed our recruitment policy so that when we recruit professional librarians below a management role, we have rewritten the position so that it’s generic across the whole library. There are a range of possible duties, including supervision, which is new, and the idea is that when they are recruited they have a year’s programme across the library so that they don’t get allocated, say, to the law library, or to a particular task such as cataloguing books in information resources. In their first year they have a programme, at the end of which we discuss their experience with them, look at the reports that have come through, and decide where it’s most appropriate to put them in the library. It’s a much more developmental process. We’ve had lots of applicants for these posts and we are particularly looking for recent graduates. We’ve had some excellent people.

Editor's note

You can read Ralph Kiel’s papers on project management and staff development at the UWA library at See also the managing your library viewpoint, "Project management for librarians".

More on the Quality Leadership Profile 360o survey can be found at