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ARL Strategic Thinking & Design

The October 2012 ARL Fall Forum opened with a rousing ovation for this talk by John Seely Brown: “Changing How We Think about and Lead Change” (PDF). What did he say that provoked the leaders of the research library community who filled the ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel to react so enthusiastically?

Competency trap exemplified by Thomas W. Lawson clipper shipJohn Seely Brown warned us about the competency trap—because we are experts in what we know, when we confront problems, we do more of what we know how to do, rather than look to the larger context for completely new solutions. This is well illustrated by the history of clipper ships in the 1880s—clipper ships were threatened by steamships so clipper-ship builders kept adding more sails and lengthening the keel to make the ships faster. They continued to be attacked by steamships. Finally the largest sailing vessel ever built, the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson, reached the pinnacle of this trend of building bigger and bigger clipper ships, only to crash in a storm in 1907. The moral of this story: “incremental change lands you on the rocks.”

John challenged us to design evocative experiences beyond the cognitive: narratives, not logic, reign supreme.

He exhorted us to encourage emergent practices around authorized ones.

And he suggested that we do this in a certain rhythm that balances the dramatic with the systematic, by conceiving of a vision that is compelling, strategically ambiguous, positive, and aspirational.

John Seely Brown suggested we ask his colleague, collaborator, and co-author Ann Pendleton-Jullian to lead us in this effort and she has enthusiastically taken up this challenge. Ann is an architect, writer, and educator, whose work explores the interchange between culture, environment, and technology. She is a tenured faculty member at Ohio State University currently on loan to Georgetown University. At Georgetown she is working on leading the university through a strategic process similar to this one to remake Georgetown as a model for US higher education.

Working with the Executive Committee of the ARL Board, and through discussions with the Board, Ann and the leadership at ARL have crafted a comprehensive program through which the Association can imagine beyond incremental movement forward towards:

Conceiving a vision that is compelling, strategically ambiguous, positive, and aspirational, and designing “systems of action” that shape the future of research libraries.

System of action exemplified by El SistemaA system of action affects the way people do things in order to close the gap between the current state and the imagined/goal state. A good example of a system of action is El Sistema, a music education program started in Venezuela in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu. El Sistema started as one school that gave children a productive place to be every day, rather than on the streets. The program does not simply teach music, it forms orchestras, teaching children how to work together as a community. The system is credited with giving its members ambition and positively changing the communities in which it operates. El Sistema’s success has fueled its expansion across Venezuela and to a few other countries, including the United States.

How does this all work?

ARL has embarked upon a strategic process that frames the critical work of the Association and defines the role it plays in higher education to maximize its ability to be agile and responsive to rapidly changing priorities and member institution needs. To accomplish this goal, the ARL membership and members of the higher education community will engage in a three-part iterative process of strategic thinking:

While the regional design meetings are single "one-off" workshops of larger groups of individuals, the design studios are meant to build on each other so they are smaller and ARL has been asking for participation that can be sustained by the members over the majority of the studios. The design meetings are meant to be expansive—collecting ideas, experiences, insights, and concepts from all participants—and the design studios are meant to be synthetic—finding and designing convergences.

The three work streams will each inform the work of the other and will merge at a Board Retreat held at the February 2014 Board Meeting: conceiving the vision that is compelling, strategically ambiguous, positive, and aspirational, and designing systems of action that shape the future of research libraries. That vision will be tested in regional design meetings in the spring of 2014 and will be the focus for member review at the spring 2014 Membership Meeting.

The planning process engages the membership, and associated stakeholder communities, in an iterative process to arrive at a working framework for the next two to three years. A coordinating group chaired by Wendy Lougee (Minnesota) along with Susan Nutter (NCSU), Tom Hickerson (Calgary), and Elliott Shore (ARL), will advise on process and act as a sounding board throughout each stage. They will also participate in the design studio activities. Ann Pendleton-Jullian will serve as the lead consultant for the process and will facilitate some of the outlined activities.

How will ARL communicate and discuss this process with the ARL membership?

Communication mechanisms are being developed to ensure information is shared in a timely way. ARL’s website and the Members-Only site will host progress reports about each work stream, including reports on the regional design meetings and the design studios; reports from work streams as they are finalized; and ultimately the final strategic plan. A series of webcasts will be held prior to the May 2014 Membership Meeting and after its conclusion as a way to engage directors in discussions about ideas developed in the design studio process and the work of the Board of Directors from its February 2014 retreat.

How will this whole process be funded? 

ARL has been awarded grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the various work streams that would not normally be part of a standard strategic planning process. The ARL Board of Directors approved the use of additional funds from the agility fund that are not covered by grant support.



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