February 17, 2018

On Not Settling for Innovation | Peer to Peer Review

OK, I’ve had it. Too many meetings, too many presentations, too many blog posts, too many think-pieces along the lines of  “here’s how to fix ______” (insert your choice of system in crisis: the economy, domestic security, higher education, scholarly communication, the Euro zone, the designated-hitter rule, etc.), all of them breezily touting the same sure-fire solution: innovation.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against innovation—far from it. Nor, more subtly, am I disagreeing with those who, when faced with a big and intractable problem, assert that innovation is essential to its solution. In many cases, innovation will indeed be an essential component to any real and lasting solution to our biggest problems. My problem is with those who invoke innovation as if it were a solution in itself.

Hear me now: innovation doesn’t solve anything. Solutions solve things (pardon the tautology) and they solve them not by being innovative, but by being effective. Radically new ways of doing things can certainly be highly effective, and may in many cases be necessary. But they can also be ineffective, or misbegotten, or knuckleheaded, while nevertheless being genuinely innovative.

This means that innovation is not synonymous with “improvement.” Nor is innovation like wisdom or integrity or diligence, all of which are intrinsically good and tend always to improve those projects on which they are brought to bear. Innovation does not equal utility, or quality, or relevance. Innovation, in other words, may in many cases be essential, but it is never sufficient.

Hence the title of my posting. I worry that when we aim for innovation, we are actually undershooting the mark. If our goal is to be innovative, then we may well achieve that goal, declare victory, and move on without having actually done anything useful. At best, this kind of strategic myopia may arise from an authentically sincere (but misapplied) focus on our patrons’ needs; at worst, it reflects a library-centered rather than patron-centered focus (“Look what an innovative library we are!”) and perpetuates the kind of inward orientation that, if unchecked, will eventually kill us as a profession.

Some readers will think the point I’m making is trivially obvious, and may wonder why I’m going to the trouble of making it in this forum. I do so for two reasons:

First, we in libraries are sometimes guilty of using innovation as a go-to buzzword to justify our fascination with New Shiny Things. Don’t get me wrong: I like a New Shiny Thing as much as anyone. My library is one of the few that owns an Espresso Book Machine, and I pushed strongly for us to acquire it. We’ve also been very aggressive in moving in the New Shiny direction of patron-driven acquisition, and we offer “innovation grants” to staff who want to experiment with creating new service offerings or products. Are these initiatives innovative? Arguably, yes. Is that why we’re pursuing them? No. We’re pursuing them because, in our judgment, they represent either good things we need to start doing or genuine improvements over fundamentally flawed ways of doing things that we’ve always done. We’re not doing them because they’re new; we’re doing them because we think they’re better.

Second, publishers and vendors are sometimes guilty of using innovation as a figleaf with which to disguise ill-advised changes to platforms or content and thereby to justify otherwise unjustifiable price increases. In this sense, “innovation” is usually linked fallaciously to “value”—as if value were defined and determined by the seller. In reality, of course, the seller can make a value proposition, but only the buyer knows the actual value of the product or service or of the proposed enhancement to it. (This applies equally to library services and products, of course.) What this means is that, for vendors and publishers as well as libraries, the link between innovation and value is tenuous: a genuinely innovative new library program or product feature may represent little or no increase in actual value despite the fact that it represents new or increased supply-side investment. This suggests a need for all of us to know our customers very, very well before making those investments—and, in libraries especially, perhaps to focus more of our energy on knowing our customers and less on trying to fix them.

Maybe you’re one of the many who feel that calling library patrons “customers” is somehow demeaning, either to them or to us. I tend to think that it helps to focus our minds on this important reality: that we are competing for our patrons in a marketplace of time, energy, and attention, and that we will only win their time, energy, and attention if we’re tuned in to them and their needs, rather than focusing on whether or not we, the library, are on the cutting edge. Trust me: our patrons don’t much care whether we’re innovative. They care whether we make it easier for them to do their work.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Paula Brown says:

    Nice one! If you can’t get to the substance, bells and whistles offer little!

  2. Ian Hall says:

    Thank you for shining light on a modern pestilence.

  3. Matthew Thomas says:

    Oh yeah… thanks for taking on such a pernicious problem in the library world: change. God knows we need to do more of the opposite of innovation, which is I guess ‘doing what we’ve always done the way we’ve always done it.’ It’s a little insulting to suggest that librarians in general blindly work towards change without the goal of improvement. Do you really work in an environment full of people wanting change only for changes sake? Wow. What a problem to have.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Matthew, I can’t help but chuckle at your reply — I think you’re the first person to ever accuse me of suggesting that libraries should “(do) what we’ve always done the way we’ve always done it.”

      In any case, you might want to re-read my piece. Nowhere do I suggest that “librarians in general blindly work towards change without the goal of improvement.” What I do suggest is that there is too much punditry out there promoting innovation for its own sake, as if innovation were a worthy goal in and of itself, and I warn against making the mistake of assuming that innovation necessarily results in improvement.

      Let me try to put my point more simply. The relevant and useful question isn’t “How can we be more innovative?”. That question confuses the means (innovation) with the end (improvement). A better question is “What needs to change, and in what ways?” This is a better question because it focuses on the goal of improvement (as implied in the word “need”), and leaves the question of tactics and strategies open — as it should be until the goal has been identified.

      Does that make sense?