A Technology Knowledgeable Staff Leads to a Tech Savvy Community

Overland Park, KS
Scott Sime

In this case study, we discuss Edge Benchmark 8: Libraries have sufficient staff with technology expertise to help patrons achieve their goals.

Within the Organizational Management category of the Edge Initiative benchmarks, Benchmark 8 addresses equipping library staff with sufficient technology expertise to help patrons achieve their goals. This is a two-part benchmark: 1) provide staff work time to engage in technology-related training and 2) make patron assistance an integral part of staff duties. Scott Sime, Technology Training Specialist with the Johnson County Library in Kansas has put together a technology training program to do just that.

In this thirteen location library system that serves roughly half a million people in the Kansas City metro area, Sime has put technology knowledge and skills into the hands of all levels of library personnel to provide better service for patrons. Furthermore, Scott has created a "Tech Squad" which handles more advanced technology and digital based patron questions at each library location.

Rather than a centralized technology department, each location has a staff member who can handle more advanced questions that library staff typically encounter these days. By establishing local support, the library works to increase the digital literacy of the community in each one of the thirteen locations in the Johnson County Library System.

What made your library successful?

"I think it starts with our administration knowing or valuing that this is something we need [to commit] resources [to]. It really helps that our administration has supported it both with giving those people [training] time and making a person at each location available," says Scott.

In addition to securing management support for this service, Scott works to ensure that the staff is trained and familiar with the technology and online resources. For example, the library acquired a new downloadable audio service and Scott allowed staff time to work with the online interface and the library bought devices so they could try downloading audio tracks to them. By permitting and encouraging time for the staff to test out the new interface or try out a service before it goes live, the librarians have an opportunity to ask any questions before they work with the public. This creates opportunities for staff to help patrons with their devices, a hallmark of the Organizational Management benchmark.

One thing I have noticed about librarians is they don't like to be caught off guard or look dumb in front of our patrons. So as much as I can give them a chance to have a look at it, or have an early test before going live, that is one thing I think is really important," Scott states.

What did you learn during this process?

"I really need to consider how people are feeling about changes instead of just blazing ahead. So that was one [thing I learned]: take your time, bounce ideas off people before you decide to do implementation," Scott intones.

Creating competencies to ostensibly test the staff may make people nervous. And when staff have to admit they don't know something, additional anxiety can surface. It is important to communicate with the staff to assure them that competencies are meant to identify ways to help, often through additional training, not act as a mark against them.

"Some of our managers (Web, IT, and Reference) ask technology gauging questions during the interviewing process. One of my goals is to make this more standardized through our system. Our Reference Librarian interviews ask a series of 'have you heard of this' questions, to gauge candidate tech proficiency. For our Web and IT candidates, the process is more in-depth."

Scott also learned that when a project is handed to him, he take takes time to evaluate it on his own terms. "Just because this is the way somebody gave it to you doesn't mean it's the right way to do it," advises Scott. What may seem like a good idea in a committee or administrator’s office may not work well in the hands of the front line staff.

Where did you run into trouble?

Getting people on your side is no easy matter. Ambiguities and a lack of transparency can create a lot of confusion and mistrust. Add in a skill assessment and it can needlessly ratchet up the staff stress levels.

Oh my gosh if I 'fail' the tech competencies, does that mean I am fired? That was something I hadn't even considered," admits Scott.

Also, people cope with change in different ways. Johnson County Library uses a tool called the Four Quadrants, by Dr. Tony Alessandra that assesses the behavioral style of staff members and places them into one of four groups: thinkers, relators, directors, and socializers. Each group has its own approach to the world and may not be as easily swayed with the same approach to staff buy-in. There is no 'one size fits all' approach to bring people over to your side.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Scott learned that staff communication is crucial to the success of the program. At first, he took staff communication for granted "and now I see that that is something that you absolutely have to do. It is just as important as making sure the web interface works." Scott took the time to work on lines of communication between staff and himself in order to ensure that any problems or anxieties could be dealt with openly. In laying out his expectations, the staff understood how they fit into the big picture.

Using the Four Quadrants, Scott found different approaches for introducing changes and training to the staff. By matching each behavioral type to an apt approach, Scott could convince people on the merit of an idea, a service, or a technology for the library. He learned that by working towards people's strengths, he could turn their approach to the world as an advantage for the system.

What was the key to your success?

For Scott, there are two developments that are noticeable now. The first starts with the hiring process. He gauges the technical skills of applicants so he can ensure that people being hired for the system have an interest in technology. This allows him to assess the staff training needs as well as secure a technology friendly atmosphere within the library. He explains, "some of our managers (Web, IT, and Reference) ask technology gauging questions during the interviewing process. One of my goals is to make this more standardized through our system. Our Reference Librarian interviews ask a series of 'have you heard of this' questions, to gauge candidate tech proficiency. For our Web and IT candidates, the process is more in-depth."

The second development is a group within the library system that Scott chairs: the Tech Squad.

It started as a way to get both an advocate for technology and an extension of our IT Department at each of our locations so that partly our IT department didn't have to travel to each location if it was something that somebody could fix there," describes Scott. "It is a pretty cool asset in each of our locations that we are able to turn to for troubleshooting or to help our patrons, or handle those sort of middle-of-the-road not quite IT Tech questions but more advanced than maybe a regular layman would have of a technology question."

What advice would you give a colleague?

First and foremost, Scott states, "Don't be afraid to experiment. It's not likely you are going to break something by trying." There is time to figure out if it will work or not while you are trying; even then, you can figure out how to make it work better as you go. In trying, it gives you the experience to try again with another experiment under similar conditions.

Second, make a schedule that reflects real work. "The project management principle is, don't overestimate or pad your schedule. I don't want to say in the real world, but when I am putting a schedule or putting in initiative together, I try to do the best I can to get a real timeframe for when something is going to happen or how all the steps are going to play out. So the idea to be flexible as far as initiatives go or your timelines go, things take longer in real life than they do on paper a lot of times," advises Scott.

Third, do your homework. "I make sure I can speak knowledgeably about what I am talking about in front of a group." Learn as much as you can about a topic, a service, or subject so you can respond to questions and concerns as they arise, especially when you are reccomending a new product or service. No one likes to look foolish in front of a group of people – especially librarians.

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

First, don't take it personally. Suggesting change is not taking each other down a notch, but making a better end product for everyone. It's important to remember this fact especially when things are going badly and and you're trying to figure out a change to turn things around.

Know your audience. Think about your stakeholders now, and frame your communications around what they need to know and how they operate. "My job is to give the best sales pitch I can that will relate with that person as good as I can as far as starting a new initiative. So take that into consideration when you are planning your communications, what kinds of people you are going to be talking to. Don't kill them with details if they are not a detail person. Make sure you consider your audience when you are writing your presentation or whatever. That has been a big one for me," Scott admits.

Start failing. "Don't be afraid to do something big I guess would be another one. I just finished reading a book about this called Little Bets, and it was if you are going to fail, fail quickly. So put a pilot up. Don't design a whole system-wide campaign. If you can do it quickly and see if it works or see if you need to make any changes, do it as a pilot program and make sure it works before you spend a ton of time on it. The idea of failing quickly and learning from your mistakes is a good one that I definitely try to use.”

Scott knows Benchmark 8

For Scott Sime, providing digital literacy for the library staff and the community is the sum of many different moving parts, all highlighted in Benchmark 8. From hiring technology-minded people to getting management behind projects and programs, from finding the right way to train and communicate with staff members as well as taking chances on pilot programs, Scott has created a library system where the community can visit any branch to get help with their technology. In meeting the needs of the community, Scott also provides learning opportunities so staff can be better equipped to help patrons with their devices as outlined within Benchmark 8 under the Organizational Management category. He has shown us that a technology savvy community starts with a technology smart front line staff. In an ever increasing digitally literate world, the people of Johnson County will not be left behind. 

by Andy Woodworth

Librarian in New Jersey and blogger at Agnostic, Maybe

"Talk (alpha)" photo from hippydream Flickr user