Monday, August 04, 2014

The siren call of "damned faster horse" ... or, the temptation of living with the horse-drawn bookmobile

"If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse". - Attributed to Henry Ford
In trying to move things forward, managers and industries often find themselves hitting the wall of customers (and their own staff) who like things just as they are and have no interest in taking advantage of innovations and changes that would not just incrementally, but logarithmatically improve service/products/outcomes, etc.

When fighting these battles, the change agent often comes up against the classic problems outlined in The Innovator's Dilemma. Now, even though some of the examples and details Clayton Christensen outlined in his theory has come under some scrutiny recently (see "The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong" by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker), it's still quite clear that in broad strokes and from the 30,000 foot level, it remains valid. This is especially true when looking at industries where there truly paradigmatic shifts in technology -- as, for example in the transportation industry of Ford's time or publishing or libraries -- occurring.

So, take Big Five publishing to start. Author Hugh Howey has done a great job of summarizing the arguments that Big Publishing, as currently configured, is trying to "make the horse faster" (primarily for their own stockholder benefit and not for authors or readers - see, for example Hachette's investor slides). Likewise, The Passive Voice blog further highlights these issues. And, lastly, in a post that the Hachette True Believers will discount, Amazon has actually laid out the situation clearly (and done the math for those who can't or refuse to do it) showing that cheaper ebooks sell more and generate more income for authors and publishers (and Amazon).

In my own industry, libraries, the changes brought about by the interwebs and digital content creation are causing a similar "faster horse" conundrum for librarians and their customers (and, I'll add, their funders). In some ways, libraries have a bigger problem. The thing that the public most identifies (still) with libraries is books, but significant numbers of readers are moving away from print books, publishers maintain a deathgrip (broadly speaking) on ebooks. To whit, see the OCLC report:
"Library brand = books. Seventy-five percent (75%) of information consumers—across all ages—believe that libraries equal books. And that brand association is growing stronger." (Tipping Point, 2014, p.91). 
The Tipping Point report goes on in great detail on how to address some of these issues, but many of those steps are not "a faster horse" but radical rethinking of core values.

And speaking of core values, I'll also mention equally valuable OCLC report, Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviors, Shifting Priorities. Here, the authors, Connaway and Faniel, point out that the core value of librarianship as expressed by Ranganathan in 1931 still hold value, but are in need of not just reinterpretation, but also a reordering that puts "saving the time of the reader" at the top of the list.

So, while I'm at it, I should also add the third of the recent OCLC reports that summarized and recapitulated much of the recent thinking about why libraries need to avoid the siren call of the "faster horse" and look to new possibilities. That report is The Evolving Scholarly Record (Lavoie, et al., 2014)  which posits that the content of the scholarly record that libraries have done such a good job of capturing and stewarding is changing and that if libraries wish to remain essential agents in the cycle of scholarly communication, whole new areas of collecting, service, and organization will be needed.

So the question remains, do you sit back and give administrators and customers the faster horse, or vault forward to areas that will keep the profession thriving?

OCLC Reports Cited:

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