October 29, 2008

Knowledge Management in Real Time

Flying solo? No documentation from your predecessor? Wondering if this job is for you? I know how you feel and I know what you can do about it. As a very structured thinker in a very unstructured job, I have a choice to make: do I love this place enough to continue when it is such an agitating challenge to my intolerance for ambiguity? (If I'm honest with myself, how much ambiguity do I really want to tolerate?) Do I want to commit to this place and these people long enough to make a semblance of order out of seeming chaos? Wouldn't my organizational skills be put to better user if I were a cog in a wheel somewhere managing metadata or creating MARC records all day? These were the questions I started asking myself after six months flying solo, as my MLS neared completion, and as job after structured job flew by on every list-serve I belong to. I took this job to get "experience" in information management while I work toward my MLS. And if experience is really what you get when you don't get what you want, then I'm getting it.

I have worked for five organizations since graduating from college and there never seems to be enough structure for me. This is what drew me to library and information science: STRUCTURE! ORGANIZATION! STANDARDS! The thought of taking a course called Organization of Information made my mouth water. Shortly after I began my MLS, I left a job working on No Child Left Behind. To my surprise, I had several offers (evidently there was a dearth of library students with other master's degrees in the marketplace). I turned down a highly structured and predictable copyright job to come here because I had such a strong instinct that I would love the people here--and not love the other guys--and I was absolutely right. (In fact the "other guys" were even going to pay my tuition, but somehow weren't going to allow me to have a schedule flexible enough to take classes.) I *knew* this job would be unstructured and that I would not have a master librarian to learn from.

Six months later nothing had changed -- still very unstructured, still loved the people. My uncertainties about how to do my job could no longer be attributed to my newness. My feeling that I didn't know what I was doing was not subsiding, even as my library skills developed and I completed more of my core classes. The bottom line is that I knew I wouldn't be magically more qualified for this job once I graduate. So.....I re-interviewed for my job to make my decision all over again. That's right. I asked my boss for a 2-3 hour block of time one Friday afternoon and said he didn't have to prepare anything but I was just going to ask him some questions about my job. I felt like I really needed some non-evaluative feedback in advance of my annual performance review in December. The meeting got delayed a couple of times for more urgent matters but I was okay with that, as it gave me a few opportunities to fine-tune what I was going to say.

We went to a coffee shop and I launched into a series of hypotheticals that my boss willingly entertained. First hypothetical: I leave after completing a year in this job - would they replace me? (Start small and don't assume anything.) The answer, of course, was yes, so I then asked a series of questions about how they would publicize the position, whom they would recruit, and what skills/talents/personality they would be looking for in the ideal candidate. That line of thinking confirmed that I was probably the right person for this job, but I had to ask tougher questions to really get the most out of this exercise.

Next hypothetical: I agree to stay beyond the first give-it-a-year year but I say to my boss, "I don't feel this job is structured enough for me; what would you recommend that I do or think about to change this? What additional support or perspective should I seek from my coworkers? From the special library community? From the blogosphere?" This one got pretty interesting...leading down a road that I had sort of predicted but was glad to have confirmed: "This is the nature of the beast. This work is chaotic at best and no apt candidate would view it any differently."

Third hypothetical: I am the person interviewing for this job in the first scenario. So I asked a bunch of questions that I probably did ask in my interview last year, but which I could not possibly understand or act on in my first nine months here because I had no context. I asked things I would probably hesitate to ask in the office, not so much because I don't have AN answer, but to see what THE answer is -- do we have a print library? is it cataloged? what portion of the job is taken up managing the print collection? is there downtime in this job? what would I do during downtime? what is our work exactly? how do I answer specific phone inquiries? which staff members do I go to for specific reference inquiries? The third scenario led my boss and me from a set of hypotheticals to a useful knowledge management exercise. The "candidate" in the scenarios slowly became "I" when I was talking and "you" when my boss was talking. Over the next hour we generated a list of twelve subtopics to transportation that our firm works on, and then a list of the top three staff members to go to for each topic, which will come in handy when I am doing triage with reference requests. We also had a "safe place" conversation in which I could ask all my dumb (or perhaps just overdue) questions about how our non-profit interacts with our federal funders and how that relationship works. As we were approaching Hour 3 of this voluntary re-interview, I was beginning to see a clearer picture of my role within the organization, albeit a still very unstructured set of tasks. I was also starting to accept that even those who have been here twenty years have to make order out of chaos, but that it does get easier if you commit to this being your work and your workplace.

Near the end of our time together I asked some tough questions about how this job would develop my skills as a library and information professional and why I should stay here as opposed to finding another more "library-like" position. I was aware while saying this that if there were any DC/SLA members in Corner Bakery that day they would have shouted, "This is what it IS to be a special librarian! You're doing it!" My boss concurred with the voices in my head and I started to feel rather optimistic about moving forward, finishing out my first year, and then having some substantive things to say in my upcoming performance review about how I am doing and what I need in order to continue to be successful. [I have a not-so-secret plan to ask for two-thirds of whatever salary increase I am offered to be dedicated to professional development funding for me (pre-tax), rather than being allocated to me in my paycheck.] It was almost five o'clock, and it was Friday. I wanted closure, and I wanted to capitalize on this good conversation without pushing too far and taking more of my boss' time than I truly needed. So in the last five minutes I proposed an exercise: I asked my boss to list off, without thinking too hard, all the things I do in this job (concrete tasks) and I wrote this down to get a sense of how he sees my priorities and what I should be doing with my time. We were pretty much in line on that one, which was a good sign. Then I asked my boss, "And what tasks, if I commit to this organization, can I look forward to doing in a twenty-year career here, given the scope of our mission and organization, and taking into account staff turnover, legislative changes, etc.?" We generated a list that ranged from magazine writing to data analysis to public speaking and training to marketing and layout/design of publications, and more in-depth content work with transportation issues should I so choose.

I can't imagine advancing here, or even in (or I guess out of) my own head, without this valuable conversation, so I encourage everyone to try it.

1 comment:

John Lang said...

Being a solo, special librarian with no more direction than a nebulous job description when I took my position, I can well relate to your situation and feelings. I applaud your boldness and initiative in approaching your management. I posted your whole post on my blog with a few comments and plan on addressing other issues you bring up in the future when I have more time... Hang in there!