02 July 2017

IT Skills for Librarians: Q&A with Susan Tegg (Griffith University) about business process improvement

This post is Number 8 of 8 in a series arising from a presentation that I will be giving at the New Librarians Symposium 8 on 25 June 2017 in Canberra. You may want to start reading with the first post in the series

For this post I asked my colleague Susan Tegg about how she got started building her skills in business process improvement, and how this fits within her current role as the Team Leader, Library Technology Services in Griffith University's Library and Learning Services.

Thank you, Susan!

Can you briefly describe your your current role and your career pathway to where you are now?

My current role is Team Leader, Library Technology Services. This involves
  • working with the team to achieve the key performance indicators in the team's operational plan 
  • service management planning to ensure our systems meet the changing requirements of stakeholders and are operating at optimum levels
  • watching the library environment and system roadmaps for changes and likely impacts
  • working with stakeholders to improve workflows and student experience
  • working with staff to prioritise work and dealing with crises
  • encouraging and listening to staff concerns while also keeping perspective
  • representing the team and service at meetings and in discussions
  • creating a team environment of mutual support.
Lately my work has been more project-focused as Griffith has changed its approach and needs.

I started working in libraries over twenty years ago. Positions I have held include serials librarian, cataloguer, system librarian, head of circulation, faculty librarian, and library operations manager. I have supervised staff for most of that time. My career has been uneven due to lifestyle changes which meant career interruptions and a focus on things outside work.

What were the circumstances that led you to identify business process improvement as something that you wanted or needed to develop further?

The main reason I am attracted to business improvement is that I see the need for libraries to revolutionise their work to take advantage of IT changes.

I often see teams believing they are adapting to change when what I see is their trying to adapt the change to to their current processes.

I want to challenge current processes, to identify outdated processes and redundant tasks, and processes that can be streamlined or removed/automated. Many are legacy processes designed to manage print.

Libraries need to change and stop or reduce doing many of the labour intensive tasks so librarians are adding value in areas that need professional judgement.
What formal or informal development options were available to you to develop your business process improvement skills and knowledge? How did you initially get going, and do you have plans to continue to develop in this area?

When I was operations manager at a previous library, I was able to design workflows and ensure tasks were streamlined.

During two library system conversions, business processes were challenged by vendors and I enjoyed being involved in conversations with business areas.

Coming to Griffith encouraged me to refine my skills after attending a one day course on Business Processes and working with Scholarly Resources [the team that manages acquisitions, cataloguing etc] to map their processes.

At the moment improving my skills is done by talking to a colleague and examining other business analysts at Griffith to understand their way of working.

Can you briefly describe what business process improvement involves? What kinds of tasks or activities have you undertaken as a practitioner of this skill? Are there specific methodologies or tools that are commonly used?

Business process improvement has a few stages.  

Initially current work processes are mapped with the business area. The desired outcome is a document which reflects the current business processes, presented in a way which encourages the manager/team leader and staff read and review, and hopefully see areas for improvement. It is challenging because as the person mapping the work, I need to understand why an activity is done without antagonising them.      

Once the process is mapped on Microsoft Visio (although I have also used Google Drawings), a step by step table is created. In this table, there are various fields which explain ownership, systems used, dependencies and issues. The table is quite detailed and to ensure it's manageable the business process is often broken down into parts.

The diagram and table need to be reviewed several times to ensure it is correct.  

Parts that are hard for me include:
  • not making assumptions
  • not getting enough detail
  • trying to move too fast so failing to let the team reflect as the mapping happens.
Hand in hand with process mapping is user stories, which explain why activities happen. For example: Why is that copyright statement stored? This ensures each activity has a purpose.

Once completed the manager or team leader can reflect on the process. They can then decide that a business process should be stopped (because it is no longer required), improved (e.g. by using a different system or combination of systems) or automated.

How do you feel business process improvement ‘fits’ with the other skills and knowledge that you bring to your professional practice as a librarian?

Business process improvement is an essential skill for librarians.  Having an approach that looks for constant improvements and challenges legacy practices is needed because the world and work is changing around us.

How do you and your organisation benefit from your having business process improvement skills in your toolkit?

In the current environment, I don't have much opportunity to work through process improvements outside projects or in my own team. I can see that managers and team leaders would get benefits from doing business process improvement work especially for transactional work.

What advice would you give to a new professional starting out who had an interest in business process improvement? Can you suggest any no- or low-cost professional development options that are available?

As a new professional, I would ask for procedures for whatever team I worked in and create a diagram. Ask your supervisor if they have an area that could benefit from business process mapping, for example where no procedures are written. Express your interest developing and practicing but with real life situations.

Diagrams are powerful for explaining a business process visually and are quickly understood. Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) is a standard for business process diagrams - to be useful it's important to understand and use the standard shapes in BPMN (e.g. a circle for an event, a rectangle for a task or activity, a diamond for a gateway or decision point). The step by step explanation reveals things not in the diagram, like dependencies, staff/time involved and issues. Both parts are needed.
  1. Start with internet resources or books.
  2. See if you can get advice from a business analyst and examples/documents from your organisation.
  3. Talk to your supervisor about what you are doing because it will involve your time and meetings with others. Time is valuable!
  4. Getting information without challenging too assertively gets good results so practice listening skills but identify gaps and question things that don't make sense.  
  5. If you have a business process mapping tool like Microsoft Visio available use it or otherwise start with Google Drawings or another free tool.
  6. Be ready to present and talk through anything you do. Documentation needs to be professional and in line with your organisation's templates.

That brings us to the endn of this series of blog posts to a conclusion. The purpose of this series, and the associated NLS8 presentation, was to inspire new librarians (and maybe some more established professionals) to think beyond coding to the many other IT skills applicable in library and GLAM workplaces. 

You don’t necessarily have to study user experience, change management or business process improvement at university or attend a formal training course. There are lots of opportunities to learn on the job and in your own time, and it doesn’t have to take years or cost a lot of money. 

Hopefully what’s also become evident through this series of posts is that many IT jobs don’t actually require in-depth technical knowledge. The best IT projects aren’t just about the technology. 'Soft' skills like communication are essential for success and librarians can often transfer these from their more traditional roles. 

At the conference, I closed by encouraging new librarians to find someone to have a chat to about IT skills they are interested in. It’s my experience that most people love talking about what they do, especially if you buy them a coffee or a drink while you fire your questions at them!

01 July 2017

IT skills for librarians: business process improvement

This post is Number 7 of 8 in a series arising from a presentation at the New Librarians Symposium 8 on 25 June 2017 in Canberra. You may want to start reading with the first post in the series

A couple of months ago I wrote a post where I identified this as the number 1 thing I wish I had learned in library school. In that post I said that every librarian - regardless of position, level or sector - carries out work that could be documented and analysed systematically in order to improve the way it's done.

I think we all know that things in our workplaces could be improved; library processes are full of inefficiencies. Many of us make our best efforts to change things, but we often struggle to do this without any methodologies or tools. That is where business process improvement skills can come in.

I'm passionate about this because as a manager you come to realise that small changes in processes can have big impacts. If a process change saves 10 minutes a day for someone, that’s an extra week in the year. If you save 30 minutes a day then have nearly an extra month. If that change is made to work that a whole bunch of people do, then you start to see how that can all add up. This is really important in work environments where many of us are struggling to find the time for innovation and continuous improvement on top of our regular work just 'keeping the lights on'. Budget is part of that, but so is ensuring that professional staff are freed up as much as possible from tedious process-driven work to apply their judgment to higher-value activities.

A business process improvement specialist usually starts with mapping current work processes. You might run interviews and focus groups with staff and maybe observe them as they carry out the process.

Then you would create both a visual representation of this process (such as the 'swimlane' diagram below) as well as a document describing it in detail.

This will be presented to the manager/team leader and staff for review. They might identify areas for improvement themselves or you might also have recommendations.

Once a direction is known you might work through a similar process to document the workflow as you would like it be using the same combination of visual and textual communication. This can then be presented to systems support staff or external vendors who might work to make the changes that are needed to improve the process.

As with the other skills that we’ve looked at, communication is critical. You need to be a really good listener and to be able to put people at their ease – not everyone is happy about having their work put under the microscope in this way! (See Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey as the head librarian and business automation consultation in the wonderful move Desk Set for a fictionalised version of the strife that can ensue...)

Visual communication skills are also essential – making diagrams that tell the story clearly is a big part of getting your recommendations accepted. There are specialist tools (such as Microsoft Visio, used to create the swimlane diagrams above) and industry standards like Business Process Model and Notation for creating these diagrams, so if you are getting serious about business process improvement you will probably want to upskill in these.  

The next (and final) post in this series is a Q&A with my workmate Susan Tegg, about how she she applies business process improvement skills as part of her job as the Team Leader, Library Technology Services at Griffith University.

Getting started with business process improvement

Read: Marlon Dumas (2013), Fundamentals of Business Process Management (available to borrow)

Read: Lenore England and Stephen Miller (2015). Maximizing Electronic Resources Management in Libraries: Applying Business Process Management (not widely available, but you could try to get an interlibrary loan from UTS)

Experiment: Drawing tools such as Microsoft Visio (free trial available), LucidChart ( or Google Drawings or another free tool
Enrol: QUT online 3-week course: Business Process Management: An Introduction to Process Thinking (free, or pay $109 to upgrade with a certificate, freedom to complete in your own timeline and ongoing access to the course materials)
Source: Documents from your organisation that you can use as templates
Find: A business analyst to talk to about what they do