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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – July 2024

This month I’ll recap a portion of the spring 2024 Think Space program from the Michigan Library Association (MLA), which focused on future-ready libraries and featured speakers on tech transformation, strategic succession planning, experimentation, future-proof space, and powerful partnerships. I’ll finish my recap in the August MCLS newsletter. 

1. Library administrator and technology author, consultant, and speaker Nick Tanzi returned to Think Space following his December AI presentation. He opened his presentation on tech transformation with the idea that every positive development can bring disruption and negative effects and involves new opportunities for library staff to learn and guide communities through change. Libraries should approach these opportunities intentionally.

Noting how libraries have helped users deal with new technologies for decades, Tanzi engaged participants on staff computer literacy and the difficulty in maintaining comfort with technology as it continues to advance more and more rapidly. He noted that libraries often adopt new technology earlier than their communities do and called out the current tension around widespread adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) at different paces in different industries from personal computing to Web search and various aspects of libraries’ work. Tanzi reminded the group that libraries will not have a choice whether to support patrons in using AI tools in the near future.

Turning to staff skills, Tanzi emphasized the importance of hiring staff with what we at MCLS refer to as essential workplace skills including critical thinking, teamwork, adaptability, and communication. He suggested that more library staff should engage with emerging technologies because they bring changes in information formats, and also efficiency in terms of time and money. If innovation is part of a library’s mission, emerging technology can align with that mission. The technology can also promote the library’s relevance, and foster equity. Tanzi believes that libraries should invest in technology when it is prohibitively expensive for patrons but not for the library – doing so can create good return on investment – and when people in the community are talking about it.

Citing the repeating “circle of tech in libraries” from when a new technology debuts and creates disruption, through a library providing access and training and then patrons adopting it more widely, Tanzi offered important questions about a technology’s fit for your library’s mission and values, planning for using the technology for programs and services, determining return on investment, and what policy the library may need to develop corresponding procedures and training and also provide clarity around how to respond to disruption the technology brings. As one example, understanding how AI works helps guide library policy toward AI.

Next, Tanzi covered staff training, suggesting that libraries consider patron-facing training tools such as Niche Academy, Masterclass, and LinkedIn Learning for staff, and use a train-the-trainer approach that supports different learning styles and offers specific proficiencies for various library staff based on how and how much they will use their new skills. He also recommended an incremental approach for training patrons while building staff and patrons’ skills from beginner toward expert. Tanzi prompted the group to consider affordable easy technology wins such as expanding WiFi and incorporating tools already on patrons’ cell phones (e.g., Apple Wallet or Google Wallet for digital library cards), using telepresence platforms like Zoom to offer services, and repurposing old equipment to try things like augmented reality cheaply.

He offered several keys to creating a tech-positive organization:

  • If you fail, learn from it and move on.
  • Consult fellow directors and agree to give one another “permission to not know everything.”
  • Reward staff enthusiasm and encourage staff to do whatever they can to try something new.
  • Market services to internal customers – do all of your staff, as potential ambassadors for the library, know about all of the tools, services, and more that your library offers?

Tanzi closed by encouraging participants to consider using the Syracuse iSchool’s True Value Calculator to guide how to invest library labor in new formats and services. He ended with the idea that quantitative data including how much library services are used can drive decision making, and qualitative stories about the impact those services can make on people can help drive support.

2. Wayne State University School of Information Sciences Professor Deborah Charbonneau focused on moving from a reactive replacement hiring mindset to a strategic succession planning process as a long-term investment in personnel. She surfaced questions Atwood poses to assess an organization’s strategies, including the following that resonated most with me:

  • Is succession planning being done in any form (and if so, how)? 
  • Is there a current strategic plan, and is any succession planning linked to the strategic plan? 
  • Is any reorganization planned or needed? 
  • Do you have trouble finding employees willing to take a promotion as vacancies occur? 
  • Does your library have a plan to retain high-performing employees? 
  • Does your library have a strategic plan to address leadership changes that will come in the next 5-10 years? 
  • Is there a process to respond to sudden losses of key talent? 
  • In what ways is the organizational culture changing? 

Charbonneau also raised workforce questions around an organization’s demographics, how employee expectations are changing, and which functions will remain the same and which new ones will be introduced. She then posed community questions about how expectations are changing and what other organizations are doing that may have an impact on your own organization. She urged the group to consider whether staff are ready and willing to move into new roles as the organization may need, and asked which participants have staff retention policies or practices (such as stay interviews, which we use at MCLS) that help avoid sudden losses and reactive replacement hiring.

Charbonneau cited five main reasons for succession planning:

  • Continuity of operations.
  • Talent retention.
  • Leadership development.
  • Risk management (it is costly to lose people suddenly).
  • Strategic alignment (how to align succession planning with a strategic plan).

She then walked Think Space participants through five succession scenarios:

  • Executive leadership transition for a long-term director.
  • Department head succession for a person retiring in six months.
  • Specialized skill succession for an IT manager who has accepted a new job outside the organization.
  • Emerging leader development in which a talented librarian has expressed interest in advancing and moving into a leadership role.
  • Succession planning in crisis in which a library director resigns unexpectedly, leaving the organization without clear leadership.

Charbonneau pointed out that succession planning is not limited to senior leadership positions, suggesting that it is also important for all leadership positions including trustees. She also reminded the group to be prepared in situations where current staff may be well suited to new positions a library creates. Other points participants raised included what a library might do when a staff member may not be willing to let go of the safety of their current position to move to a new role, how to handle a situation in which a person whose departure would benefit the library does not leave, how to navigate needing to add functions to an existing position and encountering resistance, and how to shift the library staff’s mindset as the library gains resources and can add staff.

Additional strategies Charbonneau recommended are to engage all staff in succession planning, have employees consider and update their own job descriptions as a potential retention strategy, and to create a culture of succession and cultivate skills for all employees, rather than focusing on one successor. Senior leaders should discuss succession as a management team and involve staff however possible (including checking in more frequently than just at an annual review to gauge job satisfaction, resources needed, and more). What are the organization’s approaches to transition management, and updating job descriptions regularly? How might an organization include a talent review in an annual review, create personalized professional development plans, and consider professional development goals for employees based on what they are interested in, and not just a person’s current job? 

Next, Think Space participants engaged actively in small groups in an organizational readiness assessment activity based on the following questions: 

  1. How effectively does your organization communicate succession planning goals, processes, and expectations to employees at all levels? 
  2. To what extent are employees involved in succession planning efforts, such as talent identification, leadership development programs, or transition management activities? 
  3. What barriers or challenges does your organization face in implementing effective succession planning initiatives, and how might these be addressed???
  4. What resources or support does your organization need to enhance its readiness for succession planning? 

Participants reported out about mentoring and onboarding strategies they use, including an “I won the lottery – here are the essential skills the next person in my job needs to know to do it” list, and a more basic list of “here’s what you need to do when I’m not here.”  

Charbonneau provided a useful list of things to consider in terms of leadership development and succession readiness including: leadership development programs, mentoring and coaching, job rotations and stretch assignments (which give employees a chance to try new things and test whether they want to grow in a given direction), regular succession planning discussions, recognition and reward systems (and knowing what your staff value, perhaps as part of a stay interview), encouraging continuous learning, leading by example (to demonstrate what you want to see more of as a leader), having solid feedback and performance review processes, and creating leadership opportunities where possible.  

She closed with succession planning best practices of assessing needs and developing talent for future positions (using more than just a direct supervisor’s perspective where possible), maintaining ongoing communication (i.e., checking in throughout the year and following up), updating job descriptions, and evaluating and revising processes as needed. She also stressed the importance of doing an exit interview, before an employee’s last day. 

As usual, I found MLA’s 2023-2024 Think Space program a helpful place to pause and reflect on and grapple with big ideas that can benefit libraries, their staff, and those they serve, along with a group of talented library leaders. I’ll be back with more takeaways next month. In the meantime, thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll contact me at with any questions or ideas you may have for us at MCLS.