Library Leadership

88. Utilizing Organizational Performance Information with Dr. Larry Nash White

How do we ensure our libraries perform well and make informed decisions about strategic direction? On this show, Dr. Larry Nash White, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Library in Oklahoma City, discusses how organizational performance information successfully guides the accomplishment of our mission, vision, and goals.

Transcript

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Adriane:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

How do we ensure our libraries perform well and make informed decisions about strategic direction? On this show, Dr. Larry Nash White, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Library in Oklahoma City, discusses how organizational performance information successfully guides the accomplishment of our mission, vision, and goals.

Larry, welcome to the show.

Larry Nash White:

Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Adriane:

Question #1: Well, thank you for talking with me today about utilizing organizational performance information in our libraries. As we start, can you discuss the need, use and value of organizational performance information? 01:19 

Larry Nash White:

Coming from the retail world where we tracked, you know, how many tubes of toothpaste went to left-handed people on Mondays—coming into libraries was kind of interesting in that libraries provided information as a resource. It was their primary trade, profession, brand—but I found out libraries themselves were not always, necessarily, good at using performance information to make decisions.

And, that struck me as kind of discordant because we have to be so integrated and aligned with our customers and their needs, not only for today, but for years to come. And, the only way we can really do that is to assess how well we do things, and how well we connect to our customers.

The value and the importance comes from enabling the organization to best understand how well it works, what it needs to do, and the best direction forward in order for it to meet its current and future customer needs. So, it’s really integral to that whole process. It lays the foundation for planning. It helps provide a framework for budgeting. It helps in the allocation of resource. Understanding how well your organization works and where its strengths and weaknesses are, are really critical to helping your organization move forward. Especially in an environment where we have to be very adaptive, and very flexible in how we respond to our community needs.

Adriane:

Question #2: How to we learn what our organization’s performance information needs are, and what others are doing to address their needs? 03:11 

Larry Nash White:

In the Metropolitan Library’s case, where I’m currently the executive director—we are in the process of implementing the use of organizational performance information. Part of us learning about what we needed to know was that we kept running into things we didn’t know. We have a lot of information internally, within our organization, about how many what-it’s that we’ve done and when we do them, and etc., but we didn’t have a lot of information about the surrounding community, the service environment that we work in.  So, we started learning that we didn’t understand as much about the community that we should know in order to be providing the best service and meet need. 

We started sitting down and trying to understand what is it that we needed to know about ourselves, about the community around us, and started lining up the information that we had internally against those questions. We discovered that we had a lot of questions that we needed answers to. 

We have traditionally used a lot of inputs, and outputs in terms of making decisions, but they really haven’t been integrated into the decision-making process and the budgeting process in the past. Looking at our planning needs, looking at our budgeting needs, looking at trying to understand where our customers are coming from, and where they are going, in terms of their needs, and the types of access they’re going to need to information moving forward, raises a lot of questions for us in terms of how we meet and match those needs.

So, we started trying to answer those questions. How well do we do what we do? And, that led us to understand that we have a lot to learn about our organization, and the service environment around us.

Andriane:

Question #3: It is so good to ask ourselves those questions, isn’t it? 05:20 

Larry Nash White:

It is. I recently did an exercise with my leadership team, and we looked at data from peer institutions across the country. They really had never done that before. They’ve always looked at assessment internally. And, by providing that context of how other libraries are functioning and how we fit into it, gave them a much broader understanding of where we are with what we do, and how we do it.

As part of this learning to know what we don’t know, and what we need to learn, we started the process of learning to ask questions to fill in the gaps. And, by doing that we’re reaching out to other library systems to understand what they do, how they do things. We participate in a lot of data sharing projects where people share off reporting and different things for different activities that they’re doing so that we can use their data to align with our data so that we can do comparative work. 

We stay attuned in professional organizations, and we network with our fellow libraries so that we can keep attune to what people are doing, how they’re doing it, and what types of performance information they’re using, and how they best make use of it.

Adriane:

Question #4: So how do we, in this process, understand what we need to know, and what we don’t need to know? 06:46 

Larry Nash White:

Part of that is really digging down to looking at the core of your organization. What is it about your mission? What is it about your goals and objectives that you need to understand in order to effectively meet them? In our organization’s case our mission is kind of simple—it is to educate and enrich the diverse community that we serve. And so, we started there, trying to understand how we do things in relationship to that, educate and enrich people in a diverse community. And so, we had to understand the community. We had to understand the information needs of those people, and we had to start matching up what we do know against what we didn’t. 

We did, basically, an information, or performance data audit. We kind of went through the organization. This department will keep this information here, but it’s not necessarily shared somewhere else. So, we went through all the departments. And, we’re bringing all of that information together into one spot so that we actually have an understanding of what data we have. And then, we start matching the data we have against the questions that we have to enable us to address our mission and our goals and objectives.

The information that we run across that doesn’t help us in understanding how to effectively respond to the mission, and goals, and objectives is information that we don’t necessarily need to know. If it’s not addressing a pertinent factor essential to what our organization does then we have started reducing the amount of information we collect in those areas that we’ve identified that are not related to our core purpose. And so, we’re trying to keep our organization performance information in alignment with the needs we have generated from the mission goals, and objectives.

Adriane:

Question #5: So, once we do that, how can we organize what we know and make it widely accessible and supported? 09:03 

Larry Nash White:

The important part—it comes in several ways. It’s not just important to collate the data, and put it in a file, or a folder, or something on a network. It has to be something that leadership supports. It has to be something that leadership is seen using and doing, which is also very key to it. And, the structure of the information has to be put together in a way that it meets the needs of the organization. 

In one of my previous incarnations as a library director, I actually had a staff position that was the organizational performance information manager. And, it was their job to collate all of the data from throughout the organization and then provide that information in the format that the stakeholder, whether internal, or external requested—so that we could take an Excel sheet, turn it into a Word doc—Word doc into Excel. 

We took the information we had and made it available in multiple formats so that it was easy for people to access and use. And then, making it more accessible is not something you do once. It takes an on-going process of making sure that new information coming in goes into your organization of that data and you continue to invest in that process so that the technology that you’re using to store that data also stays current. And so, between the technology support, the ease of use support, and the demonstration of the value of it, and the use of it by leadership in an organization can help you make that information more accessible and demonstrate the support for the use of it. 

Adriane:

Question #6: Why does it become important to use what we know, strategically, and consistently? 11:14 

Larry Nash White:

It becomes more important because our service environment around us is ever-changing. And so, we can’t kind of lock onto a target in the future and just sail at it without making course corrections because factors change in our environment—economic factors, social factors, just different demographic changes that come over a community as it grows and changes. And so, understanding what we do over the long-term is really important to us understanding the direction we need to go today to get there. 

Most of our performance assessment information that we look at now is very short-term. It looks at, maybe, the last year, or the last quarter, or the last month. And it’s very backward-looking. How we move forward, and why it’s important to look at this strategically is that it helps us try to understand how to look forward with the information and how to think long-term.

Libraries are constantly under this state of change in terms of the demands being placed on it, the resources that are available to it, and in the way that we have to respond. And so, understanding more big-picture of how the library is moving forward, and using that information very consistently demonstrates that you’re using factual knowledge to make objective decisions in your planning, in your assessment, in your implementation of strategies and achieving goals. And, it provides a sense of stability and a sense of security in the fact that you’re using information instead of a gut feeling to look at things for the long-term picture. And if we don’t think about where we’re going three, five, ten years down the road then we’re constantly making this annual, or less, sort of strategic hop— which may, or may not, really be good for us in the long-term.

So, understanding more strategically and using that information consistently in all of your processes to make decisions and budget, and allocation, and etc, is really key to being able to meet our needs for our customers in the future.

Adriane:

Question #7: Can you talk about demonstrating the value of what we have learned and its impact and benefits to customers, staff, and our organizations? 13:54 

Larry Nash White:

In many places where I have worked or served as director, we’ve put into place information—performance information support so that we can provide evidence to staff of the value of the use of the information. In one library where I worked in the past, when I first arrived I started asking questions about how things worked and what parts of the collection were moving. I talked to the staff and the staff said that one particular part of the collection was moving. We went and looked at the data from the catalogue and it came back and said something completely different. And so, we found that the librarians who liked ‘x’ subjects noticed those ‘x’ subject books and materials more often than not, because they also had an interest in them. And so, they were kind of skewing their observation and skewing their understanding of what people were looking for. 

So, they were using their own understanding of interest and imposing that on the customer. And so by going back and looking objectively about what was actually happening I was able to show the staff what the actual use and need of the materials were in a more objective way so that it wasn’t someone’s opinion. It was something that was factual.

We’ve also used this kind of information for return on investment delivery for stakeholders where we have been able to go and demonstrate a return on investment for the community in the capital resources and support that our libraries have received. And be able to answer customer questions, be able to hold—answer questions from agents of accountability, county administrators, city managers. Be able to demonstrate to them that we are good stewards of resource. That we are efficient as we can be in our operation, and use that return on investment to show them that they are getting something more for the investment than they put into the library.

Adriane:

Question #8: How do we value what we know and have learned, and invest in it, as you say? 16:24 

Larry Nash White:

How we value and invest in it, kind of come along together. How we value it is that we demonstrate the use of it. We demonstrate the impact that results from the use of that performance information. So, we illustrate what we learn from things. If we follow the data that points a direction, and we attempt it and it doesn’t work, then it helps us understand what went wrong, and gives us ideas about the next direction to try.

And so, we have valuable knowledge and education that comes from the use that gives us an internal value, and understanding of how we do things, and how we need to respond. And how we invest in it—is we invest in it in both terms of how we support the technology to gather and use, and analyze the information. We support the staff and their development, and understanding of how to collect the information, how to analyze it, and how to put it to work.

We invest in the value of the process of organizational performance measurement by providing evidence of its difference and its impact on library operations and in the value of the service and the collections that we make available to our customers.

So, there are many ways that you can show the value of it to different segments of your internal and external stakeholders. And if you show that value that in itself is an investment because you’re demonstrating the value. You’re demonstrating the benefit, and you get stakeholders’ buy-in into the process that you’re using to make those decisions, and the information that you’re collecting to use. 

Adriane:

Question #9: So helpful. Is there anything else you would like to share? 18:32 

Larry Nash White:

My dissertation coming out from my doctorate was an analysis of how public libraries use organizational performance information. One of the things that resulted from it was that when people—there was a correlation between the types of performance measurement that people used in their organizational performance efforts, and when they went through library school. So, it turns out that whatever type of methodology that was current at the time someone got their MLS, is more than likely the same types of performance measurement that they’re using today in spite of the fact that so many things have changed in terms of how we report, the amount of accountability that libraries face in doing things. And that the types of information that we are reporting are getting more complex, and have to be very dynamic in nature in order to demonstrate the value to the stakeholders that we need to impart it to. And so, the thing I would say is it’s not just simply learning how to count, it is about understanding the new methods. Understanding the new types of data. Getting an understanding of the different uses of data and staying current with it.  

It’s not enough now to be able to just do inputs and outputs. You have to be able to do outcomes. You have to be able to do—return on investment over time. You have to look at things in a much more complex way. And to do that, we have to continue learning how to do it. And invest in ourselves so that we are capable of using the information to its maximum benefit.

Adriane:

Question #10: Staying current is so important, which is part of the reason why we do this show, and why we’re talking with you today, so thank you.  Do you have a favorite management, or leadership book, and why? 20:33 

Larry Nash White:

It’s Michael Porter’s book, On Competition. It’s an older book. But, it really looks at the nature of competition. And, libraries are not generally seen as a competitive place. But, in research that I have done I’ve been able to show that actually, libraries can be a very competitive place, both internally, within competing strategies, competing management frameworks, different strategic goals and objectives. But also, libraries are very competitive in the communities that they serve. We have a lot of competitors in the areas where we provide service and resource.

We have different agencies and organizations that compete for our customers and their time and their investment. And so, really understanding the broad context of competition and how to frame it strategically and respond strategically on a big-picture scale with objective information is something that this book really stresses. And I think it’s really important for someone who really wants to make organizational performance measurement work, is to understand how it can be used. And, Michael Porter’s book really does that.

Adriane:

Question #11: It sounds like a great resource. Thank you. Larry, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 22:03 

Larry Nash White:

Libraries, to me personally, are—they’re multi-fold in what they are. They’re an asset to the community in that we provide people with the ability to grow and adapt and to benefit themselves and those around them. We make information and services available without bias and opinion to help inform the community around us. We support the literacy of the community, and many different types of literacy. We support the well-being of the community, both in terms of economics, and social status, and health, and other aspects. We are the starting place for this growth and development.

Libraries have historically played this role being the public university—being the local place that people can go to when they need help. We’re a safe place. We are a place that benefits those whom we interact with. And it’s very hard to say that about many other organizations in communities across this county. 

So the library is, you know, kind of a launch point for how we make a positive difference in people’s lives. And, being able to address a library’s needs and being able to use the library’s abilities, knowledge and resources, to meet our customer’s needs both today and tomorrow makes us an integral part of the community. And, makes us a starting point for making a difference. So, that’s what a public library means to me.

Adriane:

Well said. Dr. Larry Nash White it has been wonderful to have you on the show today. Thank you so much for sharing this knowledge with us about organizational performance information and how we can utilize it to best serve our communities through library service. It’s been great having you on the show.

Larry Nash White:

Thank you very much for the opportunity, I really appreciate it.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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