April 19, 2018

Organizations: See How They Run | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaSo I was at the information desk in Widener Library not long ago, and business was uncharacteristically slow (the thing I like best about working the desk is that it’s usually hoppingly busy and the kinds of questions that come in range from, “Where’s the bathroom?” to “Can you help me locate this 16th-century manuscript that’s essential for my thesis?”) when my friend and colleague Joshua Parker stopped by to say hello. Our discussions always cover a host of topics, but a favorite is about kinds of organizational structures (if you read the post linked from Joshua’s name you’ll see that he is that rare bird, a library manager mensch). He had some noteworthy things to say and some useful resources to recommend for reading, which I’ve found interesting and which I’m going to pass on to you folks. They’re not your usual library organization or management titles, however.

The first title Joshua told me about was Managing Without Managers (two links: Amazon and the Harvard Business Review), by Ricardo Semler, who, among other accomplishments, was “named Brazilian businessman of the year in 1990 and 1992, and the World Economic Forum named him as one of the Global Leaders of Tomorrow” [Wikipedia]. He radically reengineered the family business using “industrial democracy” principles and thereby had company “revenue [grow] from US$4 million in 1982 to US$212 million in 2003″ [Ibid.]. The Harvard Business Review link above describes his “unconventional way” to run the business: “[He was] president of a manufacturing company that treats its 800 employees like responsible adults. Most of them—including factory workers—set their own working hours. All have access to the company books. The vast majority vote on many important corporate decisions. Everyone gets paid by the month, regardless of job description, and more than 150 of our management people set their own salaries and bonuses.” It’s an intriguing story and idea—take a look. And you may also be interested in two of Semler’s other books: Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace and The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works. The ideas described in them aren’t astonishingly new; what’s surprising is how few American companies and institutions (other than Google) seem to have embraced them.

The other resource Joshua steered me to is Valve’s Handbook for New Employees, subtitled: A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do. It describes how, in 1996, Valve (a gaming and social entertainment platform company) set out to “create a place that was designed to foster…greatness. A place where incredibly talented individuals are empowered to put their best work into the hands of millions of people, with very little in their way.” The handbook also welcomes new employees to “Flatland,” thusly: “Welcome to Flatland. Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily. But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.”

It’s another interesting concept; I’m not sure the ideas are 100 percent transferable to libraries, because, frankly, much of what we do depends upon “maintaining predictability and repeatability.” But then there’s the other stuff we do that involves innovation and creativity…. BTW, you may find Ken Birdwell’s article at Gamasutra, “The Cabal: Valve’s Design Process for Creating Half-Life,” of interest, too, particularly the section on page three, “Pearls Before Swine,” about the user testing done for the game it was developing. It includes the line, “Nothing is quite so humbling as being forced to watch in silence as some poor play-tester stumbles around your level for 20 minutes, unable to figure out the ‘obvious’ answer that you now realize is completely arbitrary and impossible to figure out.” That should resonate for anyone involved in qualitative library assessment!

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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. Oh, yes – practically everything that Ricardo Semler proposes is transferrable to libraries or any other organization. There are enough of organizations around the world and around America that practice the same general approach of “managing without managers”, including the GE Aviation division (don’t tell it to HBS profs, though – or they’ll have no one to teach and consult).

    BTW, since 2004, the Semler’s group of companies has reached size of several thousand people without any of his desire to grow them in size. Along with his two books, a half-dozen of his interviews and presentations on YouTube are also very worthwhile. Check those out.