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