While many public libraries could benefit from business counsel from a team of experts, professional consulting services are not always in the budget, even for larger systems. But recently San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) had the opportunity to do just that, after it was selected to receive pro bono consultation from a team of Harvard Business School alumni.
For several months beginning in November 2016, SFPL representatives met with a team of professionals from Harvard Business School (HBS) Community Partners, a volunteer group of alumni, to help the 27-branch system define its needs and plan for a digitally inclusive future. Working with the Future of the Libraries Forum, the team assembled by SFPL city librarian Luis Herrera (LJ’s 2012 Librarian of the Year), HBS Community Partners assembled a benchmark survey of peer urban libraries and brought in private industry models such as HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory principles, that the library could study to identify best practices for serving the needs of its rapidly changing community.
HBS GIVES BACK
Members of the Harvard Business School Association of Northern California established HBS Community Partners in 1986 to give back to the community. Similar HBS programs exist across the country, but the Bay Area group is the longest-running; more than 800 alumni have provided pro bono consulting for some 400 diverse nonprofit organizations, including the San Francisco Exploratorium, #YesWeCode, the San Francisco Department of Environment, Boys and Girls Clubs, and City Lights Theater. Last year alone, over 200 HBS alumni in the Community Partners program delivered some $3 million in value via pro bono services.
To participate, interested 501(c)3 organizations apply via the Community Partners website. Selected organizations meet with volunteer teams of three to five consultants over several months to address strategic planning, organizational development, or finance and marketing issues. Ultimately the nonprofits come away with actionable plans scaled for their organizations and missions; Community Partners also offers two-hour brainstorming sessions with a group of four to six alumni, focused on solving a particular problem or generating targeted ideas. Consulting periods run from September to January and February to June.
The Community Partners program first came to Herrera’s attention after it wrapped up a strategic consulting project with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. Various stakeholders were interviewed as part of the project’s post-assessment, including Herrera, which sparked his curiosity. He applied for the opportunity to work with the group, and SFPL was chosen in fall 2016—in part, because Herrera said he hoped to share the results nationally, Community Partners project lead Melissa Lau told LJ.
Herrera had convened the Future of Libraries Forum, comprised of 30-plus key influencers from all levels of the library, the previous July. The forum combined four subgroups focusing on community and community engagement, service, facilities, and technology. With a new capital improvement project to renovate three libraries in the works, as well as a demonstrated need for more community engagement and the desire to tweak the library’s service model, there were many different factors in play.
“We didn’t have a total road map of where we were trying to go,” explained SFPL chief of communications, programs, and partnerships Michelle Jeffers. “We just wanted to start talking about it and thinking about it.” Bringing in HBS Community Partners, Herrera told LJ, “was a perfect opportunity because we were struggling a little bit about the process [of] how [to] get the work done that we want to with this forum. So it dovetailed very nicely.”
DEFINING THE MISSION
From November to January, groups of varying sizes from SFPL met with the Community Partners team. The Harvard MBAs all identified as library users, but did not have experience working in libraries. Still, “They came in with pretty good understanding of our services and our service model,” said Jeffers; there was little culture clash, in spite of the fact that the library’s value doesn’t easily map to return on investment (ROI) metrics (although in 2015 SFPL made the attempt, publishing a report on the economic benefits of its branch library improvement program).
“In the application that [Herrera] had originally submitted to be considered…the way that he had framed it was that in a world where information is ubiquitous and easily available now, thanks to technology and things like Google, what is the role of the library?” explained Lau, who works as a change management consultant. “The question was: how do we evolve? What do we need to be doing differently?”
Community Partners applied a nonprofit consulting model to its work with the library. This incorporated several components, including a survey sent to ten heads of other major urban library systems that SFPL had identified, interviewing members of the library’s management team and the Future of Libraries Forum, and applying diagnostics to help SFPL define how it would think about change.
The first meeting was held on November 9, the day after the presidential election, and “when people walked in, they were very palpably shaken, concerned, confused,” Lau told LJ. “We originally had a different agenda planned for that particular meeting, but given the way the election results came out the previous night we decided to have a very different conversation.”
Community Partners asked the SFPL team what it was that brought them to the library in the first place. “And really, what came back was quite powerful,” said Lau. People spoke of wanting to help the library stand up for democracy, supporting information literacy, and serving social justice and equity issues. While the question was posed to ground the group, the answers helped drive the program forward.
EVERY CITIZEN IN SF
At the second meeting, in December, the two teams mapped out important themes of the library’s mission—technology, literacy, serving children and youth—using a Theory of Change framework to define broader outcomes, such as a more informed society, and then work backward to look at ways that SFPL could achieve those outcomes.
One of the key concepts they arrived at was that, in order to thrive, residents from all walks of life needed to be able to come together, in person, in various ways—and the library could provide those opportunities. A critical step toward defining how the library could reach this goal—“How do we get every citizen in San Francisco involved with the library in some way?”—would involve changing the metrics it used to help measure progress, and go beyond library card numbers and program attendance. “It’s very easy to get caught up in measuring activity and input,” explained Lau. “And that’s not necessarily tied to where you want to be going.”
She added, “Getting people on the same page about what success really means and starting to have conversations about what metrics we can start to track to be able to help us assess whether we’re making progress…that is probably the number one challenge. That’s why [we are] bringing in this conversation about what is the library’s theory of change [and] what are the in-between steps that help us know that we’re getting there.”
One major set of metrics involves the library’s patrons: defining what audience it serves now, what is the audience it wants to reach, and what was the priority audience over the next five years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, said Jeffers, the 43 library stakeholders who responded to a survey sent out in the fall returned 43 different answers.
“Like many libraries,” said Jeffers, “you get into this [mindset of] ‘we serve everybody!’ Which we do, and it’s really hard to then say this audience is more important than this audience, or in any way to segment them.” Community Partners worked with SFPL to break down those identified audiences into groups by areas of overlap—families with young children who would be targets for early literacy, for instance, or teenagers, new immigrants, or individuals who don’t use the library.
TRANSFORMING FOR CHANGE
Before the January session, Community Partners analyzed its survey of ten peer libraries that SFPL had identified as doing innovative work and moving their organizations forward: Seattle Public Library; San Antonio Public Library; Houston Public Library; District of Columbia Public Library; Richland Library, Columbia, SC; Chicago Public Library; Cleveland Public Library; Columbus Metropolitan Library, OH; Los Angeles Public Library; and the Free Library of Philadelphia.
This gave Herrera and his team the opportunity to look at major themes that each of those libraries was working toward. These were eventually grouped into: customer focus, investing in the community of the future, partnerships, collecting and analyzing data, and aligning staff with the library’s goals. Being able to see the highlights of various organizations’ work all together, said Herrera, “is very valuable because it says we’re not alone, and it’s really compelling.”
Clarifying SFPL’s longer-term outcomes will help the library decide what internal patterns and behaviors it needs to change—and what it needs to give up. “With these broader sense of outcomes that we’re defining, we’re also trying to get clear about what does the library need to stop doing,” said Lau. “Momentum can also lead organizations to keep doing things because that’s how things have always been done.”
Herrera felt SFPL came away from the engagement with new tools to move the organization forward, as well as a new vocabulary to ask the right questions. “One of the tough conversations that has to happen in organizations is, how do we…focus on who we’re going to pay closer attention to?” he noted. “That internally takes energy, and takes a lot of commitment to be serious about that dialog.”
To that end Herrera intends to scale up SFPL’s user experience initiatives, both within existing branches and looking toward the three upcoming renovations. He plans to create a data analytics unit, hiring staff to put better assessment systems in place. And he will also be renewing an emphasis on continuous learning within the library. “The next step is to scale training and employee engagement, to be more effective in communicating internally.”
But what’s in it for the HBS alumni? “To do good,” proposed Jeffers. “They have a mission…give nonprofits access to the kind of brains and skills that they can bring to the table, bringing these higher level management consulting best practices to an organization like us who could never afford to hire somebody like McKinsey [& Company].”
In addition, Community Partners team members get to learn something about the organizations they help, and the engagement with SFPL was no exception. “It worked as kind of an awakening, if you will, for some of these folks that have not been fully engaged with libraries,” Lau said. “It was a real learning opportunity on both sides, I think.” While analyzing the survey of peer libraries, she said, her partners told Herrera: “Your peers, your fellow directors, especially women, are amazing. They really rock…. It’s kind of the best kept secret, the talent pool out there.”