An interview with Sue McKnight
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus
Sue McKnight has been director of libraries and knowledge resources at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) since August 2004. She has responsibility for the libraries and learning resources (LLR) division. LLR's mission is to support the University with a whole range of services and new initiatives, including curriculum design, e-learning consultancy, information literacy training, information resources development, discovery and access strategies, reference and information services for on-campus and remote customers, and "maintaining physical and virtual environments that inspire learning".
Originally from Australia, Sue was educated at the Queensland Institute of Technology and the University of Queensland, and holds professional library qualifications from the Australian Library and Information Association. Before arriving in the UK, she was executive director and university librarian at Deakin University, and was named manager of the year by the Australian Library and Information Association in 1999.
Describing herself as "an unashamed managerialist", she prides herself on being a good leader and able to talk the language of her stakeholders, whether it is asset utilization and return on investment to the chief finance officer, or pedagogy and learning outcomes to an academic.
Two key themes emerge during this interview: customer service and empowerment. She has pioneered the use in libraries of customer value discovery, a methodology that involves looking at both irritants and values (see McKnight, 2007). She believes in empowering her staff to look constantly at ways of pleasing the customer, and sees her role as being both cost-effective and efficient, and making sure that academics know her organization is there to help them research and teach.
Sue is also active on many committees: she chairs the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) eBooks Working Party and the Academic and Research Libraries Section of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).
You clearly have a state-of-the-art academic library. Can you say a bit about why you are organized into four units (customer services, information resources, business support, and educational development), and what your operational priorities are?
This is the organization that makes sense to us from a delivery point of view. We've got customer services, which supports anybody who walks into the library. It comprises the librarians who help academics in their day-to-day life, as well as students when they are passed on from the information assistants and the customer services desk.
The educational development unit offers academic staff curriculum design consultancy and training for e-learning. The information resources group is responsible for the delivery of the Library's content – books, journals, electronic resources – so they're the cataloguing and technical services, systems people. And the business services group provides us with administrative support, looking after the budget, the secretarial work, organizing meetings and travel, and petty cash.
We actually had a big reorganization just over 18 months ago when our customers told us that our multiple service points were confusing, so we crashed them all together after consultations and discussions with the staff and made one information desk. Hence we now have one place where they basically provide a triage service, answering questions relating to the Library, to e-learning, and to IT support, and those they can't answer are escalated to the librarians, to the educational development unit or to the IT department.
Previously, if users had a library subject type question they had to climb two flights of stairs – that wasn't very customer focused, was it? What we are trying to do is take away the need to define the problem. And if we can't help you at this desk we will refer you to someone else. We also have roving staff from that same team who wander around all the libraries on each campus, looking out for people who might need help.
You argue that there is a commonality in values between academic libraries across continents (McKnight, 2008), but in practice will those values not differ slightly according to the priorities of the university? For example, is there not a difference between somewhere which aims to give students a good education, quality of life, and employability, and a top research university?
There are some fundamental things that you expect to get from a library which are going to be the same regardless of culture. The biggest difference lies in what irritates the customer. For example, not having enough research journals will irritate a research-intensive university. If a university is big on work placements, it's about the support you might get while you're on placement away from the university for a term or more. Every library can focus on reducing irritation and adding value and know what is going to be appropriate for that particular library service.
What are the advantages of customer value discovery (CVD) as a service assessment tool, and would you recommend its wide scale adoption by libraries?
There are a number of advantages. The first is that you start with a clean sheet of paper. The facilitator will ask a number of questions or prompts relating to people's experience of the Library, for example the furniture, the quality of the computers, the range of information, the opening hours. We deal with irritants first and ask the customer to prioritize the top five.
This way we get people to say in their own words what irritates them, but the truly different part of the methodology is that we have staff observing the workshop in silence, and voting on what they think the customers are going to say. So, you can compare the two views. If you want to change a culture and really establish one that is customer focused you need firstly to listen to your customers and secondly to forget that you're the expert.
I'm not saying that experienced staff don't have something to bring to the organization, merely that they need to challenge their assumptions. For example if they think that opening hours are more important than shelving the books, and the customer thinks it's the other way around, they need to realize that they don't understand the customer.
We also ask customers to describe an excellent library service, which is where you get the values. They might do this by mentioning other places, such as Waterstone's bookshop for example. After the research, staff have listened to the customer, and understand why things have to be different. Then management needs to empower the teams which are closest to either the delivery of the value or the removal of the irritation, to try and come up with change solutions. And so the change is being driven by the customer, but from the staff's perspective, it's not Sue McKnight telling them that they must change because they are annoying the customer.
What were the main changes you made as a result of your use of CVD in 2005, and what was the process of making these changes?
We all come together to develop objectives, using the balanced scorecard as a framework, based on the values that our customers have identified.
The first objective is to facilitate easy access to a comprehensive, relevant range of information resources. Over the last year, we bought more e-resources, e-books and e-journals, we enhanced the federated search capability (eSearch), we catalogued e-books and e-journals so that records were discoverable in the Library catalogue, we put help into the eSearch button, we licensed digital image collections, we implemented a postal service for students who were away from campus for a term or more, and we started incorporating library resources into the virtual learning space.
The second one is to create an inspiring physical and virtual environment that meets the diverse needs of learners, teachers and researchers. That's about the e-learning environment, the web pages, as well as the physical environment, making sure that we're doing things for people who are disabled, for example.
On an ongoing basis, how do you ensure customer expectations are met?
The values come not just from the CVD which we did in 2005 and which we are hoping to do again this year; we get feedback from a variety of sources. At the moment the students are complaining about noise in the quiet study spaces and that can be sorted out by the roving staff.
It's not that long since e-journals were seen to be the best thing since sliced bread. Now a library that didn't deliver e-journals would look like a dinosaur. So customers' expectations keep rising and libraries have to keep innovating.
You make a lot of adjustments for people with disabilities. Are you a benchmark organization in this respect?
We appear to be, which I find sad. TechDis thought that we were best practice in embedding guidance on web accessibility into orientation for new staff using the virtual learning environment (VLE), but I thought that was fairly straightforward.
We've appointed an academic liaison team manager who is responsible for widening participation, and she runs focus groups with disabled customers, and works with the student support staff.
Our idea is to get things right first time, rather than the remedial or deficit model of helping people with their problems. We would love it if people with special needs never had to ask us for help because our services were accessible to them in the way they needed them. Now that can never be the case because there will always be issues, for example, wheelchair bound people can't reach the top shelf, so someone will accompany them and get the books down.
If that's a benchmark, good, but I really hope that everybody just catches up because it seems to make good sense.
What are the advantages of combining e-learning and libraries under the same organizational grouping? It seems to me to make a very definite statement about libraries being about learning, and not just systems.
It's an unusual arrangement in that we're converged with e-learning and not with information systems, in the way that a lot of other libraries are.
I argue that we're about content, and the e-learning environment is a delivery platform for content. Libraries are full of content and we help the academics deliver a good experience for their students. The liaison librarians and the educational developers work together in cross-disciplinary teams, so that when we start to work on an e-learning project, the needs of the students for information skills, the enriching of the space by putting links to the right sort of content, all that is thought about first rather than as an afterthought.
I set up the educational development unit (EDU) when I took up the post. It's very small, with a lot of demand and little resource. But the librarians carry the message of the EDU in their interactions with the academics about good curriculum design practices and how to use the VLE.
In a way, academics are also learners: they need our support to become good teachers. That means helping them keep their reading lists up to date, having a reading list in the first place, and making sure that the Library gets a copy of the reading list so that we can make sure resources are available.
It's also about embedding information skills into the curriculum so that students are acquiring them in relation to an assignment. That way they know that these skills are important because it will affect their mark. If you embed these skills in the first year, then by the time they reach the third year, they should be able to cope with a complex information environment.
You went through quite a complex process of determining your requirements for your VLE. How did you reach agreement about the functional specification?
Through using the CVD methodology. We ran the workshops, we got the values, we got them ranked, we identified functionality and asked academics and students to comment in case there was something we'd missed. The process seems to be very complicated and long-winded, but it's actually about buying academic engagement.
In fact my boss at the time asked me, given my experience with learning platforms in Australia, couldn't I just tell him which one to buy? And I said, well, I could but I won't, because then it would be imposed on the academics and they wouldn't use it. And because there was an existing in-house system it was even more important to have people believe that it was their decision to change.
As a result, a long time down the track, I've got 1,500 academics who are ready for true engagement with e-learning, who understand that it's more than just putting text in file storage online, it's really about engaging learners in different ways. And now our Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education contains modules on teaching online.
NTU doesn't have a strategy for e-learning because it wants to see it embedded. Is this your influence?
Well, the institutional learning and teaching enhancement strategy came after I arrived, and I've strenuously resisted any attempts to get a different e-learning one. We've worked hard to get a holistic approach.
If it wasn't for JISC and the Higher Education Academy giving out money for e-learning, most universities wouldn't have an e-learning strategy, because e-learning is just a form of delivery of a whole pile of educational experiences. It needs to be seen as much a part of an academic's tool kit as face-to-face lectures, as bringing in guest lectures, as laboratory experiments, as field work. It's just another way of helping people learn.
So do you think that things like the pots of money from JISC and the Higher Education Funding Council for England pushing for a certain proportion of learning to be blended are a bad thing?
I think that there must be targets, but you need to be careful about what these targets are and you need to start from a low base so that you get people on board. The trade unions would get their knickers in a knot if you tried to change traditional teaching practices wholesale. You've got to be aware of the political environment that you're working in, both from the Government perspective and that of the unions.
Our educational developers are there to provide consultancy services and help people understand what e-learning can do. For example, they talk to people about the multiple ways in which a possible learning outcome can be achieved. We try and make academics self-sufficient so that they can do things themselves, but if something is complex, then we can do it for them. We don't expect academics to be programmers and produce simulations.
You put a lot of emphasis on information literacy, using both taught sessions and online. What do you think are the best ways of teaching information literacy?
The EDU works with librarians around their information literacy classes, just as they do with other academics. Up to about four years ago they were teaching information literacy in the same way that they had been doing for 20 years. Whereas now they're aware that you have to identify assessable outcomes, so they are talking to consultants about the best methods of delivery.
They also take a Postgraduate Certificate for Higher Education, same as their academic colleagues. So if my librarians are doing the same course, they can hold their heads up and be as confident as academics that they understand about pedagogy and about adult learning preferences, things like that. I think that the way we approach information skills now is probably much more professional and pedagogically sound.
How do you decide what sort of media to use and whether to do it by a taught session or some form of online teaching?
We tend to do both, or a mixture of things. We can co-teach with an academic who will let us. If we've embedded information literacy skills into the curriculum it'll be associated with doing an assignment. So when that assignment is set, we could have a librarian in the classroom on a skills development exercise, or students could be mandated or strongly encouraged to attend a particular session in the Library. Those skills will then be either assessed directly or tangentially, depending on the assignment.
We also have drop-in classes, and we work with postgraduate students, particularly research students, on developing the key information searching skills they need for their literature review. There's no one size fits all.
We are hoping ultimately to have an online equivalent to everything, so that even if it's not the full monty that you'd get in a face-to-face session, you can use the online as a refresher or if you don't have time to go to the classes. Our approach is to be flexible: we give options of face-to-face, blended or online.
Knowledge and information management
You have been instrumental in helping develop the University's information management strategy. What are the key recommendations of the strategy?
The most important thing we did was to develop a set of 16 principles. For example, information is a valued resource; it's strategic, it needs to be managed and we need to use it properly. Then there are principles based on statutory compliance, around issues of data protection, freedom of information, things like that.
Information sources have to be reliably identified, and there has to be someone responsible. For example, student enrolment data are owned by the registrar. There's another principle around sharing information, which is going to necessitate us revising our entire website, because we are going to make everything publicly available unless there's a reason not to. You used to have to get onto the intranet to access University policies. Potential staff members, students and parents would love to look at these policies, so our philosophy is about sharing rather than hiding.
I share responsibility for knowledge management with the director of information systems, because we need to have infrastructure and applications, hardware storage, networks, etc., to facilitate it. But I'm bringing in the knowledge management and information skills about well, you know, garbage in garbage out. That's what librarians bring to knowledge management: they understand the value of information. In a sense, putting the infrastructure in place is the easy bit, it's more difficult to change the business processes. You have to help people understand that sometimes change is necessary, you identified the problem, you might have to do things differently.
You encourage people to place their publications in an institutional digital repository. Do you see such repositories as offering a viable alternative open access publishing model?
I think that they've got to go side by side. The repository serves a number of purposes: it gives us a chance to showcase what we have achieved as a University. That is important, but it's a separate matter from open access publishing. Journals are viable, whether open access or subscription, because of the added value. Researchers have been putting things into repositories for ever, previously they would post things using snail mail across the world and now it's just a different medium.
In writing about being an "expatriate manager", you suggest that the real challenge for a senior manager lies in the difference of cultural values. What were the main challenges you faced as a very experienced manager from another country moving to a very particular situation, where you had to make changes?
Politeness, conservatism and slow motion. Politeness in that people didn't want to tell you that something was wrong: they didn't want to say no so they said yes. There was a culture of "telling Sue what we think she wants to know", but of course that never brings about change. I therefore had to establish an environment of trust, encourage them to realize that it was in their best interests to use me as a roadblock remover, and that I couldn't fix something if I didn't know it was broken.
On conservatism, well they really don't like to blow their trumpets. My vice chancellor was forever saying that this University does so many wonderful things, but we don't tell anybody about it. If you're trying to be distinctive in your branding you've got to start talking about what you do well, why you're different. And if that means sounding a bit pompous or bragging, well so be it, just make sure you can back it up with facts.
One of my favourite little sayings is "let's just call it a pilot" because that sounds less threatening. Let's just explore and experiment and if it works well then we can mainstream it.
On slow motion, I'm used to a very competitive higher education environment where if you get a good idea you want to get it to market pretty quickly. Whereas here, the gestation period of a good idea feels like the gestation period of an elephant. I discovered a pilot programme that had been running for eight years; why hasn't somebody killed or changed it?
And there are those interminable meetings – I don't want to talk about it, I just want to do it, and if I get it wrong then try something else. That comes back to the business of it being OK to make a mistake. If it doesn't work, try an alternative. People are paralysed by fear of failure. If you have to do it right the first time you'll do nothing and the world will run you over.
What do you most miss about Australia?
Sunshine and my family and friends. My mum, my son and my stepsons are in Australia and the boys have all visited us here. I have a little rule that if somebody's name pops into my head I get in contact with them, you know, whether it's an e-mail or a postcard or a phone call. But sometimes the distance seems great and it's been a long dreary winter!
McKnight, S. (2007), "The expatriate library director", Library Management, Vol. 28 Nos 4/5, pp. 231-241.
McKnight, S. (2008), "Are there common academic library customer values?", Library Management, Vol. 29 Nos 6/7, pp. 600-619