Jumping S-Curves in Mid-Stream

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“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”
— Samuel Johnson

“We heard from librarians that the best time to prepare for and launch a new offering would be at the start of a new semester (rather than introducing a mid-semester change) and that advance prep time would be helpful in getting the library prepared to support a new offering.” So states a promotional flyer about an impending update to the LexisNexis Academic database. The vendor’s plans include a period of parallel availability, followed by deactivation of the legacy site on December 31, 2017.

Believe it or not, in the library world, this is an aggressive schedule. The FirstSearch flavor of WorldCat was originally supposed to disappear at the end of 2015. It is still around. A revamped LibGuides platform was made available in 2014. The older one will be retired in early 2018. The latest iteration of RefWorks has been around since January 2016, although we’re still waiting on a way to force users to migrate from the earlier version (ProQuest told me, “Our Development Team is working on this and it should be available soon.” last June). Lastly, at this rate, I expect the new Primo interface, which was released last August, to exist alongside its predecessor until at least the next congressional election.

Running old and new sites in tandem is often a “worst of both worlds” situation. It practically doubles your support and development workload, while the distribution of users trying out your public beta is in many ways the opposite of what it should be. Certain people will only transition when they absolutely have to, so the only way to get everyone acclimated with current technology is by removing the choice to use outdated products.

Maintaining multiple systems, especially in the days of the perpetual beta and agile release cycles, is not something I suspect a service provider would normally choose to do. The examples above, however, show how much catering is done to a client base that is resilient and averse to change. Within an established profession that values tradition and prizes order, a fear of failure unduly paralyzes us from efforts to improve ourselves. This can lead to the biggest catastrophe of all: becoming obsolete.

The university library I work at, like many others, has developed a tradition of eschewing mid-semester upgrades. The perceived need to keep everything the same when classes are in session has grown to almost mythical proportions. In an environment of shared governance, there is a partial chilling effect from certain cranky faculty (not to be ageist, but let’s face it, when was the last time you heard a Freshman complain about something new?) that makes us a little too gun-shy about ever making any modifications whatsoever.

The original date for our previous catalog to go offline was pushed back because a tenured individual pointed out to library administration that even though the planned time was after the semester was over, grades had not yet been handed in. It was therefore dangerous to expect instructors to learn how the new discovery layer (which had been live for 23 months, mind you) functioned while they were conducting searches for the purpose of grading papers. And these are the same people we expect to defer to our expertise when it comes to which journal subscriptions to cancel?

Another common position is basically that, “We’ve just held classroom sessions on how to use the current interface, so you can’t change it, much less decommission it, until next semester.” — even if doing so would improve the experience for the other 99% of our patrons. Or put another way, “But we need time to revise all of our handouts!” Such approaches could effectively delay upgrades forever. We need to do a better job at keeping up with the times, offering the overall best available service, and following a sustainable instruction model. Progress is impossible without change.

Furthermore, as any academic employee can attest, when we put off so many projects to only be done during the summer months, some of that work invariably never gets done. Protracted implementations are our own self-imposed version of development hell.

Entire bookshelves have been written about the business of handling change. Many management fads, which may or may not be rigorously scientific, also attempt to explain our stunted capacity to think differently. Some deal with human needs (as in Maslow’s hierarchy), a common pathology of the propensity to overestimate the dangers of change, or even the evolutionary biology of why we often view change as a threat.

Of course these are all abstractions of how beings with billions of brain cells choose to behave. Yet considering a standard change management model and charting the typical human responses to change (a la the Kübler-Ross stages of grief), as well as some related psychological concepts, can provide insight on what to expect during times of organizational upheaval.

Similar to the representations of technology adoption and the hype cycle is one visual I find particularly meaningful in my work. It pinpoints why fear of change is often a shortsighted fallacy.

The Sigmoid Curve by Charles Handy

If we view the first curve as a technology beginning to die out, and the second curve as a newer and more promising alternative, their first point of intersection shows continued improvements to the old system alongside the short-term upstart costs of investing in new methodologies. The best time to change is therefore when there is no immediate benefit to doing so, whereas sticking with successful practices eventually ensures their failure.

If you’ve read almost any of my previous posts, it should be no surprise to hear me say Point B is where many library service models and mentalities currently reside. Several of us have apparently created a variation of the can-do adage, “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission,” and instead act upon the seemingly safer yet downright delusional and cowardly course of, “it’s better to change nothing than potentially upset someone.”

Playing in the future is risky, but it sure as hell beats watching a profession shrink into irrelevance. As much as we don’t need to overstate the certainty of expected benefits to modern systems (e.g., “I promise this is going to be the best upgrade ever!”), it’s equally as important to realize that indecision and intransigence can be quite costly, even if it’s not Summer Break.

There are times when making no choice is the worst choice of all. When the only constant is change, we shouldn’t be too enamored of present conditions. In the words of Ieuan Maddock, “To cherish traditions, old buildings, ancient cultures and graceful lifestyles is a worthy aspiration. In the world of technology it is a prescription for suicide.”

Check out my other posts for related commentary.

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