21 September 2020

Notes from a CAUDIT webinar: Career Design in Uncertain Times


woman in a field looking at two different paths
Photo by Burst on Unsplash

Last week I attended a Council of Australasian University Directors of IT (CAUDIT) Leadership Series webinar focused on career planning. 

This topic would normally be covered in depth as part of the annual CAUDIT Leadership Institute. The CLI is on hold for 2020 and has been replaced with a series of free bite-size sessions like this one. This particular session had also changed in focus due to COVID-19 impacts on universities that mean that many university library and IT workers are now faced with unexpected career decision making.

The session was led by Jill Benn, the University Librarian, University of Western Australia and current Chair of the Council of Australian University Librarians, and Michael Cato, the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Bowdoin College in the US.

Jill and Michael introduced us to the work of the Stanford Life Design Lab, which “applies design thinking to tackling the wicked problems of life and vocational wayfinding”. Through various Designing Your Life courses and books (available via many public libraries), co-founders Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue that we can all apply the processes and principles of design thinking to career planning in the same way we might apply them to the development of products and services.

The first step of this process is acceptance of the current state; you can only start from where you are! The CAUDIT session started with a reflective exercise in which we were asked to think about three things that have drained us in the past six months and three things that have energised us.

Some of the things that attendees had found difficult included missing social contact with workmates, lack of meaningful holiday time, unhelpful blurring between work/life with WFH, online meeting fatigue, worries about interstate and overseas family (especially elderly parents), and the personal emotional strain involved in supporting their teams during such difficult times.

But people also noted finding better work/life balance, including having more time for exercise, family, pets, home and garden, and fulfilling interests outside of work. Some had forged more meaningful connections with workmates and enjoyed having more insights into others’ personal lives. Jill and Michael spoke about some of the silver linings that have emerged for them in their leadership roles; Jill spoke about how gratifying it was to be able to act more quickly and decisively than usual, and Michael talked about the way his team became “almost addicted” to rolling out quick fixes and having very grateful staff and students as a result.

One of the tools from Designing Your Life is the Odyssey Plan. This is a reframe of the usual five-year-plan that focuses on brainstorming three different options and seeing your career more as a journey or adventure than a single pathway. In the CAUDIT workshop this timeline was reduced; we were asked to spend some time reflecting on our current idea of what the next 6-12 months may hold (baseline), what we might do if our Plan A fell through (backup), and what we would do if money was not a concern (dreaming).

This last part of the session was quite a confronting exercise, particularly as many participants were facing upcoming job losses at their organisations. However, some people commented that being asked to visualise what their Plan B might look like had reduced their fear. Michael had earlier noted the positive power of negative thinking, including an exercise from the Stoic school of philosophy that encourages people to deliberately consider the worst case scenario; by facing our worries head-on we might be more able to brainstorm other alternatives. Another interesting thing that emerged from this exercise was that people’s dreams often have very little to do with work!

Overall this was a really useful and thought-provoking session. I have always struggled with the idea of a five-year-plan and this approach seemed a lot more intuitive to me. Especially at the moment with so much personal and sector-wide change on the horizon, it seems logical to continue to have some broad ideas and plans, but also to recognise that there will be bumps and swerves and new signposts always appearing along the way. I am planning to follow up with reading the Designing Your Life book and completing some of the other exercises in it.

25 July 2020

Notes from AI4LAM webinar: ethics, data, and artificial intelligence in libraries, archives and museums

Recently I was one of 100+ people who registered for the webinar “In Conversation with Thomas Padilla”. A video from the webinar is now available from University of Adelaide Library YouTube channel. 




Thomas Padilla is the Interim Head, Knowledge Production at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He is the author of the OCLC Research report Responsible Operations: Data Science, Machine Learning, and AI in Libraries and the lead for significant Mellon Foundation supported work in the US on “collections as data”.

Joining Thomas as organisers and facilitators of the session were:
  • Ingrid Mason, independent consultant on research infrastructure and heritage data collections
  • Alexis Tindall, Manager Digital Innovation, University of Adelaide Library, and
  • Adam Moriarty, Head of Collection Information and Access, Auckland War Memorial Museum
  • Gene Melzack, Data Curator, Student and Scholarly Services, University of Melbourne.
Some recent projects mentioned during the webinar included:
The webinar was full of interesting ideas and it’s very hard to summarise it down to a few key takeaways! But overall the two themes that emerged for me were the need to push for library values and ethics in AI initiatives, and the challenges associated with building the multidisciplinary teams needed for successful AI projects.

Theme 1: Library values and ethics

We need to be aware that data is not just data; data is about lives and can reflect histories of oppression. Increasingly there are concerns about responsible use, particularly of indigenous collections, and these issues are amplified when machine learning is applied. Common frameworks such as FAIR and organisations such as the Research Data Alliance are not adequately addressing these concerns. 
According to the Global Indigenous Data Alliance: 
The current movement toward open data and open science does not fully engage with Indigenous Peoples rights and interests. Existing principles within the open data movement (e.g. FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) primarily focus on characteristics of data that will facilitate increased data sharing among entities while ignoring power differentials and historical contexts. The emphasis on greater data sharing alone creates a tension for Indigenous Peoples who are also asserting greater control over the application and use of Indigenous data and Indigenous Knowledge for collective benefit.
Commercial AI tools also need to be approached with caution, and Thomas warned against being “lured by scale” in ways that compromise our values. An example of this could be re-purposing a tool for cultural heritage use that was originally developed by governments for facial recognition of protestors. Adam also highlighted issues around the hidden labour involved in services like Amazon's Mechanical Turk and noted that just because something seems a cheap and easy option does not meant that it is something that cultural heritage organisations should jump on board with.

Further reading:

Theme 2: Building multidisciplinary teams

Thomas referred to the work being done by Nancy McGovern on radical collaboration in research libraries. According to McGovern:
The concept of radical collaboration means coming together across disparate, but engaged, domains in ways that are often unfamiliar or possibly uncomfortable to member organizations and individuals in order to identify and solve problems together, to achieve more together than we could separately.
Thomas suggested that projects need to be intentional about providing opportunities to draw on the expertise of everyone on a project team. He observed that tech folk often "consult" non-tech contributors at the start of a project but then go off and do their own thing. Participants instead need to design the project to deliberately bring conversations between people to the fore, and to build trust and mutual respect.

Thomas also talked about being "separated by a common language". This occurs when different professional groups use the same words to mean different things (e.g. a humanist will have a different idea of scale from a machine learning specialist). How do we bridge those gaps in language and culture between different professional groups? We need to be explicit about assumptions and agree on terminology as part of setting projects up.

In terms of roles and competencies, Thomas noted that organisations need someone who can be a translator between different groups. But it can't just be that translational person's responsibility, as this is not sustainable. Organisations need to shift more broadly, and this requires leadership and managerial efforts to build a culture of collaboration and innovation. There are also questions around how to retain people who are confident and competent in this emerging area; what can we do to ensure people want to come and work with GLAM institutions rather than applying these skills elsewhere?

There was some discussion about building career paths and skills within institutions, and the pros/cons of outsourcing vs building internal capabilities vs a combination of these. In terms of building internal capabilities, Thomas mentioned at least three strategies:
  • The Carpentries. There is now a strong body of evidence that those pedagogies work and they are also reasonably affordable.
  • Collections as Data: 50 Things You Can Do. A list compiled by the Always Already Computational project, of 50 things staff in cultural organisations can do to “open eyes, stimulate conversation, encourage stepping back, generate ideas, and surface new possibilities” in relation to collections as data.
  • Workplace learning. Thomas gave the example of a staff professional development approach at Michigan State University Library. In consultation with supervisors, any staff member could devote 25% of their time could to shadowing or cross-team projects. This was re-evaluated as part of the annual performance review process but could be ongoing. This led to cross-fertilisation, up-skilling, and was a great way for people new to the profession to try different things.

Further reading:

Radical Collaboration and Research Data Management [special issue]. Research Library Issues, no. 296 (2018).

About AI4LAM

The webinar was the first public event held to gauge the level of interest in establishing an ANZ chapter of AI for Libraries, Archives, and Museums (AI4LAM), “an international, participatory community focused on advancing the use of artificial intelligence in, for and by libraries, archives and museums.” Further information about AI4LAM is available via their website.

The organisers of the local webinar are a small group of professionals interested in the role of computational and curatorial techniques that advance artificial intelligence in cultural heritage practice and allied areas in research (e.g. digital humanities). 

You can register interest in participating in future events and efforts to establish the local chapter via an online form.

09 August 2019

Boundary Spanning Leadership – reflections from a training course

​Along with a number of staff members at my library, I attended a half-day workshop last week on the topic of boundary spanning.

This was the first time the course had been offered at my workplace. It was run by our university HR Staff Development team, who delivered training ​materials licensed from the Center for Creative Leadership at no cost for staff.

CCL have been exploring boundary spanning as a management topic for a few years now, arguing that these skills are urgently required because most complex organisations and issues now require working across teams or organisations or disciplines to get to successful outcomes.​ This is the definitely the case in an Australian university!

The course covered three ways in which leaders, groups and organisation can span boundaries: managing boundaries, forging common ground, and discovering new frontiers. Six practical tactics were associated with these:

Managing boundaries

  • Buffering - defining boundaries to create a space of safety
​Examples: Defining shared values, clarifying roles and responsibilities, establishing explicit ‘rules of engagement’ with other teams, developing team charters, away-days / retreats, rewards and recognition, internal communications, team social events
  • Reflecting – looking across boundaries to foster respect and build an understanding of the similarities and differences between groups
Examples: Extend invitations to other groups to attend meetings and socialise, secondments, sabbaticals, job rotation, ‘decoding’ group jargon for others

Forging common ground

  • Connecting – stepping outside boundaries into a ‘third space’ to link and connect as individuals, forming new networks and deeper relationships 
Examples: Identify ’establish ‘third spaces’, cross-group mentoring and buddy schemes, create diary space for cross-team relationship building, ‘town-hall meetings’ in support of larger scale initiatives   
  • Mobilising - developing a shared space, common purpose, and shared identity across group boundaries (moving from “us” and “them” to “we)
Examples: Cross-functional project teams, working on building a sense of community after mergers/restructures, diversity initiatives, establishing a brand or identity for a cross-group service 

​​Discovering new frontiers​

  • Weaving – establishing a creative space (e.g. to develop innovative ideas or new solutions) in which group identifies remain distinct but are interwoven to add up to a larger whole 
Examples: secondments in different sectors, participating in cross-university consortia (e.g. CAUL, CAUDIT) or external engagement activities (e.g. with a focus on local/regional development), using fresh combinations of staff 
  • Transforming – bringing multiple groups together to reimagine and reinvent, moving beyond the known context and cutting across established norms, practices and identities
Examples: use cross-functional teams to establish ‘alternative futures’, cross-functional work as the norm, continually question legacy boundaries, explore collaboration with those usually thought of of as competitors, knowledge-exchange and partnerships outside your own sector / profession / industry

I found a lot of the course highly relevant to my job and my library's context. My key takeaway was that the tactics above should be addressed in a sequential order. In my own library's context, I understood this to mean that building a strong team identity and understanding of our shared purpose is essential if we are to then go on to successfully work across boundaries with other teams in the universities, other libraries, and other kinds of partners in the community.

Overall, I would highly recommend this training course and the associated material from the CCL website (see below). It provides a lot of practical guidance and options to consider in complex environments where collaboration is essential, but not always easy.

Further reading:  ​​

White Paper: B​oundary Spanning in Action: Tactics for Transforming Today's Borders into Tomorrow's Frontiers. ​