homepage CRICS V



Tony McSeán
, Lina Coelho & Jane Smith, BMA Library
Paper delivered at CRICS V, Havana, April 2001

Time To Upgrade The People


In the past few days we have heard many interesting ideas, theories and predictions about the changes that are racing through our professional life. As a manager of a library this faces me with two big problems: firstly I have to identify which changes are significant and of relevance to the BMA and its members; and secondly I have to make sure that my colleagues and I are able to implement and exploit these changes effectively. It is the second of these that forms the basis of this paper.

My title "Time to upgrade the people" is a traditional programmers' joke, which is brought out when a new system proves horribly complex in operation - so complex in fact that normal people can't make it work properly in its intended everyday environment. And it is true, of course, that with our staff we cannot just install a faster processor (much though some of us need one), run some new software or make other screwdriver enhancements to help cope with new circumstances. This is not to say, though, that making significant "upgrades" to staff is out of the question. To quote another programmers' joke: it's not difficult, it just takes a long time.

So my thesis for today is that in the face of overwhelming change, it is time to:

-upgrade our colleagues

-upgrade our staff structures and management dynamic

-upgrade ourselves

Upgrading Colleagues

Like gardening, staff development is likely to be much more fruitful if you do some careful and vigorous preparation before you plant and water the seeds. Most importantly, when you have the opportunity to recruit new staff you should go to all the trouble you can to recruit lively, creative people who will take the work they are given as a basis from which to start rather than as a definition of their limits. This is not easy to do, because such people can be hard to find. Nor is it always easy to live with because creative people will often demand more of their managers than their placid colleagues. Because of this, we as managers need to lively up ourselves in the words of Bob Marley, to give a good example to our colleagues and to cope with fireworks lit by the friction of change. As preparation for the brave new library world we also need to raise our users' expectations and to focus them on what our library can realistically offer to support their work. To extend my gardening metaphor, in Cuba you see plants growing abundantly by the side of the road that in London will only grow (if at all) in warm homes and with endless care and attention. Staff development work always takes place in a cold climate - in Patagonia rather than Barbados.

So, having recruited our staff of eager, creative people how do we keep them eager and allow them to be creative?

A Challenging Working Environment - In the UK, if the word challenging appears in an advertisement for a job it is a message to the sensible that they should turn the page and look elsewhere; it means that on your first day at work the users will stab you and then burn down the building. That is not what I mean here: it is that you should make it clear that you expect people to come up with ideas both for their own work and for the library as a whole. This should be an important part of the staff appraisal process, and more important it means that you must take time to listen and respond positively when the ideas are expressed.

Continuing Professional Development for All - The nature and level of this development will vary according to levels of experience and seniority, and perhaps between professional and para-professional staff, but a formal personal education and development programme should be as integral a part of every staff member's working life as their network password or security pass. Over the library as a whole CPD will embrace formal education, from vocational courses to postgraduate work; conferences and courses, on-the-job training and courses within the library; participating in professional associations - in health librarianship and beyond.

The Wider Organisation - Training and development should also be done in the context of the library's parent organisation, taking advantage of wider opportunities both to learn new skills but to apply our existing, traditional professional skills in new contexts.


Introducing such a regime at the BMA library proved to be extremely difficult. As in all busy libraries, the hectic everyday business of providing the best possible service to our users tended to chase out less urgent but ultimately more important activities such as training. The decision point came when a senior member of library staff undertook to take responsibility for training and drafted a training needs analysis and a draft training schedule. It was clear that this would simply not happen unless some steps were taken to free time, and this gave birth in 1999 to what we term our Training Hour.

Briefly, every Thursday, the reading room opens to members as usual at 9am, but no library staff are on duty until 10am and the first hour of the day is set aside for training. The training takes a variety of forms, from teaching sessions involving the whole library to individuals working on PC software training packages or preparing material for future sessions which they will be leading. The idea was taken from large retailers, who typically open at 10am once a week to permit staff training (though they do not usually allow customers to wander in and out of the stores unsupervised). The training is mostly by library staff, at all levels of experience, it mostly costs nothing except time, and we feel that the cost of 3% of available staff time is more than repaid in terms of added productivity and higher levels of skills.

In practice, Training Hour has brought several concrete advantages. It emphasises the commitment of the organisation to training and developing all staff - nothing could be more concrete than an hour "off work" each week. The regular scheduled hour means that training actually happens and does not get brushed aside by distractions. It encourages a culture of learning and development. There is also the added benefit of providing a forum for developing a sense of togetherness and teamwork. After several false starts over a long number of years, the institution of the Training Hour has finally ensures that training and development has become a permanent part of BMA library life.

A Training Strategy

The end result of all this activity has been the development of a proper training strategy within the library. Apart from the general principle that within a library things that are planned tend to be better than things that just unfold of themselves, having a formal training strategy helps keep everyone focused and is also effective internal politics - providing a ready answer to the inevitable and regular questions about why the library should be closed when people want to use it.

Phase 1 of the strategy was developed once the library training officer had conducted structured interviews with library staff and their managers. From this emerged a comfortable consensus on what was both wanted and required of a training strategy:

Survival skills - It started with an emphasis on the development of the necessary everyday survival skills - for example learning how to change the toner, load the paper, reboot the server, delete the pornographic wallpaper installed by a rogue library user, access the voice mail and do the thousand and one machine-serving tasks necessary to keep a modern library functioning. We also used the Hour to broaden the mastery of the various operational procedures necessary to deliver services, to improve basic computer skills and generally make library operations properly resilient even in emergencies.

Obvious gaps - Initially, training was also concentrated on those areas where it was clear we needed to improve. To give two examples: a lot of emphasis was placed on developing reference and enquiry skills, with the more senior reference librarians conducting workshops and seminars to pass their skills on to their junior colleagues; we also ran workshops on dealing with difficult customers, which can sometimes be more of a problem in a membership association than in other types of scholarly organisation.

What people wanted to learn - Whatever senior managers may like to think, people are often the best judge of what they need to learn. Participating in developing the training programme also gave everyone a stake in the process, and in these fast-changing times it is a brave person who will predict what skills will be necessary within a year or two.

Training Strategy 2

However, after 18 months the training programme began to seem a little stale. All the obvious, pressing everyday training had been done, and since none of the library staff was a specialist in staff training the programme was beginning to run short of new ideas and inspiration. Development of phase 2 of the training strategy was done in two threads.

Firstly, we systematically consulted with library staff about what they felt they needed to do to improve their skills and library services - and what they felt able to teach their colleagues. We also consulted widely within the BMA for training ideas and assistance, taking advantage of being part of a large organisation that takes training very seriously and is prepared to invest in continuing staff development.

At the same time, we looked outside the medical library sector of inspiration. Public libraries in the UK can be very large organisations indeed with staff numbered in the hundreds, and many of them take a systematic and methodical approach to staff development and employ full-time training officers. We employed one such person on a consultancy basis, with instructions to look at our training efforts and to come up with ideas for how we could revitalise the process. Because we were lucky in our choice of consultant he filled this brief but also did a lot more that perhaps we might have thought up for ourselves but did not - which in essence was to tie our training programme much more closely with the library's and the BMA's rolling strategic plan. This has become a mutually reinforcing process, where the imperatives of the library's annual planning cycle makes the training focused and relevant, and in terms the issues arising from training feed back into sharpening and improving the strategic planning process.

Bad Effects

There are drawbacks to the staff upgrade process described above. If you recruit good people, provide an environment which supports them and brings out their best, give them learning opportunities - then they get better jobs in other libraries and leave. This can cause management a little grief from time to time, but then most managers become better people by experience occasional grief . . .

Upgrading the Staff Structure

In a time of rapid and fundamental change, it is clear that the old style of father/mother knows best management structures are no longer adequate for the job. All the time spent building intellectual and creative muscle will be wasted: unless the way the staff structure operates provides facilities and above all opportunities to use that muscle it will just run to fat and leave the person weighed down and disgruntled. It may be that father/mother never knew best but in the networked age it is often patently obvious that he or she knows practically nothing. Young people might sing in a challenging way "Get out of the way If you can't lend a hand", but for the rest of us it is more a matter of listening to them and heeding them.

Most management gurus preach a variation on the idea that the only way that an organisation can adapt and adopt change is to simplify management structures, try to use improved communication strategies and a more flexible approach to make rigid hierarchies dissolve into something more egalitarian. Essentially - to inject democracy into the structure. Democracy, of course, is by no means always a comfortable option. It can be uncomfortable, it is often sub-optimal in terms of quick reactions to immediate exigencies, it can certainly be time-consuming; but on the other hand it can be flexible, fun and a good source of self-discipline for staff at all stages in their career: senior people have to listen whether they want to or not, junior staff have fewer opportunities to take the easy option of stepping back from participation and then complaining about management ignorance.

In the case of the BMA, this loosening of the management reins has involved a general loosening of supervision and an encouragement of people to take more individual responsibility for their work. The various (and overlapping) teams responsible for particular services now enjoy a good deal more autonomy about how they meet deadlines and targets, as well as more participation in deciding what those deadlines and targets should be. It has also led to the development of project groups drawn broadly from library staff to consider matters of operational policy - such as the minimum levels of cover we need to maintain during holiday periods - and decisions such as the possible replacement of the library's management system. This is not an Athenian democracy of course, the library's senior management carry formal responsibility to the BMA for the work of the library and ultimately must approve policy decisions and proposals. But within this context the library works in a much more open and participative way than formally and we hope to enjoy the benefits of our collective intelligence in the future.

Upgrading Yourself

This is, of course, the hard bit: to admit that one is not omniscient and of perfect temperament. It is largely a matter of applying to oneself the philosophy inherent in both the training strategy and the flattening of the hierarchy - which can itself be a consciousness-expanding experience at times. Rather than repeat what has already been said, it might perhaps be useful to look at an example of where the profession as a whole and its senior members in particular need to lively up ourselves in a big way.

It is clear from very many of the papers delivered at this conference that we are seeing the survival of pre-internet industrial structures in areas where the capabilities of the web should be driving through fundamental and for some industries catastrophic change. In software, in recorded music and in scholarly publishing we are seeing old-style intermediaries - mega software corporations, record companies and publishers - taking a massive share of the industry's income while occupying a point in the origination and distribution chain that the web has rendered largely obsolete. Much of our software we still by using a pricing and distribution model developed in the era of the single-floppy PC; the record industry is using its financial muscle to delay technological change, as ruthlessly in its way as the tobacco industry.

In our own field, we are seeing access to scholarly communications restricted by what Steve Harnad has called the financial firewalls. erected and maintained by some publishing vested interests. This is true throughout the world but nowhere is it more acute and more indefensible than in non-OECD countries. There are technical and even legal wormholes through these firewalls and it is up to our profession to locate and expand these vital channels of information. The library and information profession should be in a unique position to make this change. Shareware, freeware, open source and downright piracy are pecking in an uncoordinated way at the foundations of Big Software. Napster and its decentralised successors are similarly conducting guerrilla warfare on the music conglomerates. But we have the benefit of a century of international collaboration: we are a coherent and largely united professional community with an ethical user-centred outlook and access to large amounts of financial muscle.


The moral of this paper is that you do not need to have a "professional trainer" to establish and run a coherent, effective training programme. It is mostly a mixture of common sense and viewing suggestions in the context of the overall library aims and objectives. An open communication climate and sound management help, and for the BMA it was extremely useful to bring in an outside expert to validate and legitimise our experience and provide some additional useful input.

So let us all upgrade ourselves, and thereby our services and our users' ability to use good quality evidence for the benefit of their patients and the whole global community.