16 June 2014

Academic librarians as internal consultants

The January 2014 edition of the Journal of Academic Librarianship contains an interesting editorial about librarians acting as internal consultants. The authors argue that:
...there are some organizations which are more likely to have internal consultants: these would be organizations that face change and evolve, empower and grow their employees as opposed to keeping them in boxes (because by definition, an internal consultant is an out of the box actor), and are flexible and want to make the best use of their internal resources. [1]
They go on to provide a list of indicators of internal consultants:
  • Most of their work is project-based;
  • The situations and projects with which they are involved are critical and often unpleasant;
  • They are responsible for filling in when someone leaves or cleaning up a problem;
  • They are responsible for kicking off a new initiative;
  • Once the situation or problem is resolved or the new service or system implemented, it is handed off to someone else to maintain;
  • They act as a facilitator, providing the balance between management and the front lines or between other groups;
  • They are agents of change rather than reacting to change: this may mean being instrumental in the strategic planning process or pushing the envelope with new trends and technologies.
Two things in this list jumped out at me: the project-based nature of internal consulting work and the ability to deal with critical and sometimes unpleasant situations. These were among the key differences that my colleague Natasha Simons and I identified between working as a librarian in eResearch and working as a librarian in other kinds of research support. In our paper for VALA 2014, we noted:
  • eResearch at Griffith is almost exclusively organised around projects delivered within a very flat organisational structure. Staff are likely to be working within multiple interdisciplinary teams on a range of projects concurrently. This results in an emphasis on developing skills (and career pathways) in project management and change management rather than staff supervision and service provision.
  • eResearch service models generally require staff to act as internal consultants. The work involves challenging stakeholder assumptions and advocating changes required by the external environment but not necessarily sought by clients. A consulting model focuses on a future desirable state, and is quite different from delivering transactional ‘customer service’ based on current needs. It requires personal attributes like assertiveness and resilience that are not evenly spread through the different specialities in librarianship. [2]
The authors of the editorial in JAL refer to a book called Consulting on the Inside [3]. I am adding it to my professional reading list as one of the things that I will be working on in the near future is the development of an internal consulting model for research data management, which will probably involve both academic librarians as well as eResearch staff with technical expertise in areas such as data storage, application development and analysis/visualisation. While there are many models emerging for undertaking data consultations in a university environment, I'm not sure how well these align with internal consulting methodologies from other industries, and it could be interesting to compare and contrast. 

I did an internal consulting course as part of my professional development many years ago, and remember almost nothing about it. An Australian training company that appears to have been delivering courses to academic librarians in internal consulting skills argues that internal consultants can be very efficient because they know the organisational context, the culture, people, and politics and can 'hit the ground running' What organisation would not want to make the most of staff it had that could fulfil this role?

I'd love to hear about your experiences if you are a librarian who has been on one of these courses; it might be time for a refresher!


[1] Arant Kaspar, Wend, and Wyoma vanDuinkerken. 2014. “Other Duties as Assigned: Internal Consultants in Academic Libraries.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 40 (1) (January): 1–2. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2013.10.015.

[2] Simons, N. & Searle, S., 2014. Redefining “the librarian” in the context of emerging eResearch services. In VALA 2014 Proceedings.

[3] Scott, Beverly, and B. Kim Barnes. 2011. Consulting on the Inside: A Practical Guide for Internal Consultants. American Society for Training and Development.