What IT Professionals Can Learn from Librarians

Ann All

I never would have considered IT professionals and librarians kindred spirits if I hadn't interviewed Steven Zink, Ph.D., then the VP of Information Technology and dean of University Libraries at the University of Nevada, Reno. Zink told me the university's IT help desk is combined with the reference desk in the main university library so librarians and IT staffers work side-by-side. Sure, both IT pros and librarians place a high value on knowledge. But beyond that, I couldn't see how the roles complemented each other. I assumed the shared quarters were due to space and/or budget limitations.

 

But that wasn't it at all. Zink said:

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If you think about a library, librarians are very techie but also very service oriented. Our librarians are exposed very intentionally, and have been for 15 years, to this intermingling of cultures. I've often said our help desk at the university would never be able to work for an uncaring IT help desk in the private sector. ... Librarians listen very well and will do anything to get an answer. The last thing they would say is, "I'm sorry. I'm going to send you a manual." In libraries, the reference desk is very high on the status. It's just the opposite in IT organizations. We have movement out of both, both laterally and vertically. It was a grand experiment that's worked out very well.

The library and IT teams work together well because both place a high value on delivering superior service. As Zink hinted, they can also learn from each other when it comes to delivering a better customer experience. Librarians generally enjoy an edge over IT pros because they focus their work around the library's users, rather than around the information materials they provide (emphasis mine), writes Dr. Dawn Thistle, executive director of Information Technology & Media Services at Assumption College, in a CIO Insight piece.

 

(A former library director at Assumption and head of Reader Services at College of the Holy Cross, Thistle is the only technology executive I've found with a background similar to Zink's. Zink, a one-time librarian at the College of Wooster in Ohio, is now vice chancellor for the Nevada System of Higher Education.)

 


In my experience, IT help desks often focus on underlying technologies rather than how those technologies are used by business folks. Many IT pros could learn from how librarians communicate with their customers, writes Thistle. Librarians conduct "reference interviews" to ensure they have a thorough understanding of their clients' needs. Doing so not only cuts down on unnecessary and time-wasting actions but also helps strengthen the relationship between the professional and the client.

 

Thistle offers a seven-step plan for improving customer service. A central suggestion is to partner with a peer department that already enjoys a reputation for delivering great customer service. She mentions a library, which is obviously not an option for many IT organizations.

 

More and more companies are appointing C-level executives to lead customer service efforts. If the org chart includes such an exec, he/she would be an obvious partner. When I interviewed customer service expert Bruce Temkin, he told me these kinds of appointments demonstrate a growing realization that good customer service must cross all organizational functions. Thistle touches upon this too, writing, "We find that we serve our external clients better when we know -- and serve -- our internal clients well."

 

In addition to her action plan, Thistle dispenses lots of other good advice throughout her article. Here are some ideas I especially liked:

  • Many folks are unaware of proactive actions taken by IT to ensure good service. (Replacing an aging piece of hardware before absolutely necessary is one example Thistle offers.) IT should communicate them to their colleagues through newsletters, portal announcements, email messages or other communications channels. This echoes advice I've offered in numerous posts, including one on lessons for CIOs on how to be a great communicator. Our own VP of technology often does this. His emails tend to generate a lot of "way to go" follow-up messages, which I hope make our IT folks feel good about their jobs.
  • Encourage IT staff to serve on committees or participate in non-IT projects, as a way of getting to know their non-IT colleagues better. I've written about several companies, including Wells Fargo, that have encouraged camaraderie by co-locating IT and business areas.

 

Thistle also helpfully notes that efforts to improve customer service will take some time, as they involve a broad cultural shift. The same point was made by Glenn Remoreras, IT manager at CEMEX USA, on his Mysimpleprocesses blog. I shared several of Remoreras' suggestions for building a customer-centric IT culture in a post from January.



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Sep 7, 2011 3:29 AM May May  says:

To be objective in the comparison, there should be some consideration in the circumstances and objectives of the interactions. 

The librarian's "clients" usually have a much clearer idea of the actual solution needed.  They may already know what they want and just need to locate it or other items similar in nature or topic so there is generally a shorter effort and higher probability of satisfaction.  At times, IT is only given a problem to solve or needs to research to identify the problem.  And, IT solutions are generally more complex with higher potential for errors and impacts.

And on a customer service note, IT help personnel are directed to spend the minimum amount of time and effort and then move onto the next client.  Libarians' services are not measured on the number of clients serviced or questions answered.  A client can follow up with that same librarian but often gets a different IT help desk person and will need to start all over again which is often frustrating to the client.  Librarians are expected to have the full range of skills for their field and are allowed to be flexible in their approach to resolutions so they do not need to follow a script nor are limited to only providing level 1 support.

While both are required to resolve an issue, the librarian does seem to be better apt finding and directing solutions that are more aligned to the skill and interests of the client.  IT personnel are more likely to claim out-of-scope or provide a "patch" fix with little emphasis on transferring knowledge.  IT often seems to assume every client has no technical ability so they may waste a lot time requiring every client to go through elementary steps, some unnecessarily - go to the start button on the bottom left of the screen, click on button.  Would a librarian say, walk 12 steps to your right, raise your right hand three inches above your chin, etc.? 

There is definite room for improving the customer experience of IT clients.  But effective improvement needs to place consideration on the setup, skill sets, rules, processes, standards and expectations. 

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Sep 8, 2011 8:37 AM Heather Heather  says: in response to May

As an academic librarian, I found this post very interesting and given that libraries often work very closely with IT professionals, I think the article topic is right on. A few comments. Related to, "The librarian's "clients" usually have a much clearer idea of the actual solution needed.", I say "if only". I guess it depends on your "clients" and in what kind of institution you serve; however, as someone who works with undergraduates, I find often what they come in asking for, turns out to be something completely or significantly different by the end of the reference interview. That's why the interview process is so critical to getting it right. Students not only learn research skills in the library but they also learn more about understanding instructions and problems and articulating them effectively to others. I also worked as a research librarian in a law firm and found similar issues with how a question is articulated versus the actual problem or question in the end.

Also, in reference to "Librarians' services are not measured on the number of clients serviced or questions answered."  You should see all of the stats we have to keep and report! I wish it were true that numbers didn't matter but in fact they do - maybe not on their own but we do track the number and types of questions answered.

In reference to, "A client can follow up with that same librarian but often gets a different IT help desk person and will need to start all over again which is often frustrating to the client." I guess this depends on the library but in ours I would say, if the student is lucky they'll get the same librarian but we don't do librarian by request (complex scheduling, many obligations, etc). In order to help with this, we communicate common questions and answers with each other, or particularly complex interactions and we also stay in close contact with faculty to find about assignments in advance. This doesn't cover everything but it does help reduce the amount of repetition for our users. 

Lastly, "Would a librarian say, walk 12 steps to your right, raise your right hand three inches above your chin, etc.?". Maybe 40 years ago. We have a complex interweaving of many types of resources with more, and more online. In fact, in most circumstances, our work with students is at the computer; secondary to directing them to the stacks (and only after searching the online catalog). 

In the end, there are many types of libraries and librarians but I think it's safe to say that service to their community is a high priority. Many of us view a positive relationship with IT professionals as critical and potential learning experience for both.

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Sep 9, 2011 9:17 AM Steve Covert Steve Covert  says:

I'm not really surprised at all. I knew a couple of guys that worked in a library and found they had similar interests etc, to my geek friends. Like you pointed out both types of people are hungry for knowledge/learning.

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Nov 21, 2011 3:30 AM Patty Barnard Patty Barnard  says:

I have a comment about these statements:  "A central suggestion is to partner with a peer department that already enjoys a reputation for delivering great customer service. She mentions a library, which is obviously not an option for many IT organizations."

A LOT of IT organizations have libraries. They may not be called libraries (perhaps "research centers") but the employees there mostly have library-type experience and even a Master of Library and/or Information Science. Apple, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Hewlett Packard, are just some of the IT organizations that have libraries.

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