By Lisa Gayhart
From basic daily functions to bleeding edge developments, technology departments are important partners in the success of libraries, big and small. Ongoing communications is an opportunity for technology departments to become more engaged with the larger organization. Gone are the days where technology professionals could rely solely on technical expertise: today we must engage regularly with our communities or risk the perception of being out of touch and ineffective (Trubitt, 2008). Through better communications, library technology departments can move from the traditional image of the gatekeeper of services, to a more inclusive image of a partner in success, while improving both staff and client satisfaction.
Getting the Conversation Started
Communications is a conversation: a lively and inspired two-way discussion between multiple parties, in which we both have an intended purpose and desired outcome. Instead of a one-way persuasion to buy a product or use a service, as seen in marketing, communications is an ongoing dialogue between the service provider and the user. Both parties benefit from the reciprocal process: by moving together towards a common goal, the relationship is strengthened through information sharing and discussion.
Effective communication is central to the success of entire library technology departments as well as individual projects. In Educause’s Top Ten IT Issues for 2012, the number one issue is “Updating IT Professionals’ Skills and Roles to Accommodate Emerging Technologies and Changing IT Management and Service Delivery Models.” This issue includes “strategic planning, relationship management, and communications skills” (Grajek, 2012). Non-technical skills are essential for technology teams as IT departments rapidly grow and change within the innovative culture of libraries.
Although communications efforts are often led by a dedicated communications professional in large organizations, many libraries do not have the necessary resources to make this situation a reality. However, integrating communications practices into departmental planning processes and product development cycles can be led by anyone with an interest in better departmental communications.
Why Take the Time to Communicate?
Libraries exist to help people find and make sense of information. We are known for our continued dedication to our users and hold excellent customer service in high regard. Clear and targeted communications are an extension of this long-standing philosophy: good communication practices provide users with the information needed to efficiently solve problems and find information. In library IT, we are in the business of providing support to users of library technology, developing new and improved services or products, and imagining innovative solutions. Combining these offerings with user-focused communication ensures that technology departments are providing the most useful services for our target audience, at the appropriate time.
In the face of a widespread lack of resources, both in terms of budget and qualified staff, raising the profile and communicating the value of library technology is more important than ever. IT operations consume a large amount of budgetary resources and the onus is on the department to justify as well as maximize this expenditure, in a manner that resonates with the larger organization (McShea, 2007). Increasing departmental communications efforts can help library technology departments deliver meaningful information to the larger institution. Research has shown that effective communication has an impact on perceived service level satisfaction (Park et all., 2012). A measurable increase in satisfied users, clients, and staff is a benefit to technology departments, one that can easily be communicated to the larger library.
Reaping the rewards of communications efforts often takes time, since connections with other departments or libraries, communications staff, media, users, and other stakeholders must be forged and tended. The longer and more consistent the communications efforts are, the more the department will receive in return.
The Communications Planning Process
Although all communications efforts should be user-led and user-focused, it helps to have a plan to guide you along the path to partnership. This model focuses on an iterative cycle of open communications that allows discussion and refinement at any and every step, as opposed to a successive process comprised of many highly structured steps.
Have a Vision
The first step in any great plan is to decide on a goal. Why are we attempting to improve communications? Once articulated, distill your vision down to a single statement and use this statement to inform all of your communications planning and actions. For example, “Move from image of IT as a ‘gatekeeper’ and towards image of a partner, with a continued focus on user-first service” is a defined goal that can frame a communications planning process.
When brainstorming around goals and plans, take the time to talk with other communications resources within your library or organization. Aligning departmental communications with the brand and messages of the central institution is critical to success. Collaboration strengthens your communications process, integrates technology departments into a larger communications network, and provides consistency for your intended audience.
Know Your Environment
The key to crafting effective communications is understanding your audience. Who are your users? Talk to them and discover what they need from library technology products, services, and staff. Your audience may be comprised of a variety of groups – students, faculty, community members, staff, fellow team members, partner libraries – with different expectations and needs.
Understanding your users doesn’t have to be a large and complicated process, bogged down by demographic analysis and research. People associated with libraries are often very interested in library technology and welcome the opportunity to engage on this topic. Getting to know your audience begins with reaching out to your users, both physically and virtually. Hold open houses and information sessions for an opportunity for education and discussion. Improve two-way dialogue between users and IT by sending a departmental representative to staff and public meetings, events, conferences, and in the professional literature. Offer multiple opportunities for feedback, such as online forms, published email addresses and phone numbers, forums, and social media conversations. Whenever possible, be an active part of your community.
When creating a culture of feedback, ensure there is a process in place for responding to all users. All feedback requires a response, even if the response is a simple acknowledgement of receipt. People require acknowledgement of their ideas and suggestions, especially when they have taken extra time to participate in your conversation. The feedback and response loop is an essential component to improving communications. If resources are unavailable to respond to feedback in a timely manner, minimize opportunities for feedback until resources are increased.
Make a Plan
At this stage, you have a goal and you know your audience. Now is the time to create a fully integrated and actionable communications plan, tailored to the needs of a specific product or service. Whether communicating on behalf of an entire library, department, project, service, or event, a plan is useful in targeting specific audiences and staying on track with pre-established goals.
The most effective IT communications are integrated directly into the project or development lifecycle, starting at initiation. Too often, we think about communicating the message after product development is complete, when the product or service is ready for release to users. In the development example, communications staff work together to create the plan by consulting all team members on the goals of the project, intended audience, timelines, content, testing, and roll out plans. It is very important to ask for feedback from the development team and revise the communications plan; speak directly with clients and potential users; and speak with other communications resources within the larger library.
Assessment is an essential step in any plan: casting a critical eye on the planning and implementation process reveals areas of improvement for the next project. When establishing the communications plan, set specific indicators of performance within the assessment phase. These are useful in gauging the success of the communications plan. For example, a performance indicator for our partnership goal could be “Respond to 97% of feedback within 48 hours of receipt. Responses may be full answers to questions or suggestions, acknowledgement of receipt, and/or connecting the user with the appropriate team resource.” In the assessment period, the communications team member would then tally all incoming feedback and determine the percentage of timely responses. Outcomes of communications are often difficult to quantify, therefore ascribing a tangible measure of performance greatly assists in communicating the value of communications efforts to your department and the larger organization.
Work the Plan
In larger libraries, a communications person may drive the communications process, but the entire department and/or specific project team must be aware the course of action and all outgoing messages.
Essential to any communications plan are the key messages. Key messages relay the most important information about your project or service and include reasons why the user should find this information important and what they can do to act on the information. Take time to build these messages, as you will use them continually and all communications will be based on these messages.
Over the course of the communications, continually reinforce these messages through the collateral, general conversation, conversations with team, and other appropriate avenues. Repetition is necessary: people are inundated with an enormous amount of information all day, every day. Ensure that your message is clear, informative, and actionable. Once solidified, the team and the department should be very familiar with the key messages. Everyone on staff is a brand ambassador: users see one united front and not the different levels of staff or responsibilities.
Tips for crafting your communications conversation:
- Use language and positioning that enables the user – ‘Help shape the future of your campus at this open info session.’
- Frame the conversation around your key messages
- Tech translation – discover how much your target audience knows about your product, team, or service and tailor your communications as needed. Speaking to clients who are developers requires different language than speaking with students who are end users of your product.
- Avoid jargon, acronyms, and very technical language (unless appropriate for your audience)
- Draft communications in plain language: direct, simple, and short
- Solicit feedback at every opportunity
- Use feedback to action evidenced-based, iterative design and content modifications
- Focus on benefits of your product or service
- Think about benefits from the user’s perspective – when crafting messages, ask “What’s in it for me?” or “Why would I care?” to get a sense of the impact on the user
- Include actionable statements to ensure the user knows how to respond to your messages and why the messages are important
The review and assessment stage is too often seen as an additional step to take, and only if time permits. When building a foundation for effective communications within a library IT department, reviewing the effect of outgoing communications on your audience, internal team, and overall institution is critical. The conversation evolves and strengthens over time, as communication becomes part of the ongoing process of developing projects or promoting your department. In a foundational stage, we should strive towards continual improvement with every iteration of a plan, product, or conversation.
Helpful questions to ask during the review phase:
- How was the planning and implementing process in terms of workload on IT staff?
- Did we achieve the desired results? Compare your results to the performance indicators set in earlier stages.
- If desired results were not achieved, why and how can we do it differently next time?
- What do we need to make a stronger presence/team/product?
Assessment may reveal a need for capacity building, such as staff training. Communications training is very useful, especially for IT professionals who often struggle with translating technical language for users and creating plain language messaging.
Other areas of development may include various soft skills essential for today’s IT professionals:
- Displaying empathy and demonstrating listening skills
- Accurately explaining technical details in clients’ language setting realistic expectations about system performance and its technological limitations
- Educating clients so they can make more informed technological decisions
- Explaining how various technical options may work
- Regularly sensing clients’ unmet expectations (Park et all., 2012)
Additionally, review and assessment often reveals a need for strengthening the communications presence within the library. Historically, libraries have not been strong at communicating with user groups, so these networks may not be established. Finding and cultivating leads and contacts, working with the media, establishing basic communications tools such as media release templates will take time to create and refine.
Case Study: Realigning Library Technology Communications for Web Development Projects at UTL
At the University of Toronto Libraries, the Information Technology Services (ITS) department faces many of the opportunities and challenges described above regarding improving departmental communications. Currently, we are realigning our internal and external communications to support the partnership model of communicating library technology services.
ITS partners with the University of Toronto, University of Toronto Libraries, and affiliates in a variety of ways, including the provision of traditional IT services, library-specific technology, and web development. The Digital Library and Web Services team within ITS focuses on the development of scholarly digital collections (http://onesearch.library.utoronto.ca/digital-collections) for the Digital Humanities community, specializing in the areas of digital preservation, data curation, visualization, accessibility, and responsive web design. The newly integrated communications practices of this area are the focus of this case study example. In addition to a variety of talented technical staff, team resources also include one full time digital communications team member from ITS.
Digital project development occurs on a continuous improvement model: a cyclical project management framework is used, as opposed to a traditional waterfall model of pre-defined, successive stages. An iterative process of development allows for staff to concurrently contribute to different areas of the project, bringing their expertise to a wide range of processes. This open ideology promotes continuous innovation and new growth in unexpected areas.
Excellent communications is essential to this development process. Research shows that effective communications around IT projects is essential to service quality, client satisfaction, and producing a quality product (Park et al., 2012). Integrating communications into the end-to-end development process requires dedicated staff to ensure consistent and professional strategy, messaging, execution, and assessment. The communications resource is brought in at project initiation, to ensure they have the same level of project knowledge as other team members for the duration of the project, but also to contribute to planning and strategy.
Each project deals with different content and all team members must be familiar with the context of the project. Collaboratively, a communications plan including two to three key messages are established during the project initiation. Throughout the development process, all team members are project ambassadors: willing and able to talk intelligently about the project, why it is important, and the impact the final product will have on the digital humanities community.
Partnership with clients is an important aspect of every development project. Regular and effective communication fosters a culture of trust, resulting in heightened client satisfaction with both service level and the end product (Park et al., 2012). Two-way communication with clients from project initiation is encouraged: clients are supplied with the project team’s contact information; information on how to submit issues, bugs, and recommended improvements; and a future meeting schedule is solidified and distributed.
The team has integrated better tracking and interaction tools over the past year. Tools used to increase intra-team and intra-departmental communications include:
- Issue tracking and project management software: Atlassian suite of Jira, Confluence, Greenhopper
- Staff wiki (currently in MediaWiki, with migration plans for early summer 2013 to Confluence)
- Wireframing and mock-ups tools
- In-house chat server
- Open office atmosphere: team members meet spontaneously to share ideas and keep the development process moving forward
- Ongoing support of open source communities and tools
- Weekly open forum meetings, where staff are encouraged to drop in and share current projects, seek collaborators, ask questions, give updates, discuss upcoming changes, etc.
These tools allow our team to communicate more effectively with each other and to provide better support to our clients. All tools are web-based, allowing for instant communication from any location. Collaboration spaces, such as a project-specific Confluence space, are established during the project initiation: team members immediately begin working together to share ideas and resources related to the project. Online project spaces also create a living transcription of the project life cycle, which is valuable during the assessment stage after the product is launched.
During the development process, all team members are encouraged to use these online spaces but in-person brainstorming and team updates are preferred. Weekly updates are given to the larger ITS group, to encourage collaboration across the various groups within the department. Larger development milestones are demonstrated at these meetings, where feedback can be gathered to refine the product before presenting to the client for review.
As the project is in the latter half of the development cycle, external communications are produced in conjunction with the project team and the client. Following the communications plan set at project initiation, collateral such as web copy, web banner images, email copy, printed material, and media releases are created and distributed. ITS is increasing opportunities for feedback in all outgoing communications. Any collateral created for development projects includes many opportunities for users to get involved in the process, such as opportunities to test new products, email comments, report bugs or suggestions for improvements, speak directly with the development team, or attend focus groups or information sessions.
As externally focussed communications efforts are increasing, we are raising the departmental profile within the larger library system. The emphasis remains on understanding our users and designing targeted communications materials based on this data. Various outreach tactics have been employed in an effort to better understand our users. An event showcasing technology services was held to explain our role among the larger library system and offer a venue for discussion and feedback. ITS also joined other outreach and feedback events as a partner, using these events as opportunities to talk to library staff and users, get feedback, and promote upcoming projects. An increased attendance a departmental meetings, strategic planning sessions, and town halls are additional opportunities to speak with users and simultaneously increase awareness about ITS projects and services.
Our own review of the newly actioned communications efforts revealed areas in which improvement is needed. Accessibility guidelines and standards are lacking for written web content and outgoing communications messaging. Communications must be developed with accessibility in mind, such as writing accessible copy for communications collateral, both printed and digital. The Web Style Guide is scheduled for update and will include sections addressing accessible content creation and distribution. Accessible content creation training will be offered to all website content managers in the summer of 2013. In the future, accessibility measures will be a standard aspect of the departmental communications package.
An additional area of improvement is a heightened focus on better integration with the larger library and academic community, including increasing collaboration with other departments in the library, sharing best practices and applicable resources, and establishing deeper communications networks.
Finally, ITS does not offer an online service catalogue or knowledge base for users. This is an area we aim to develop in the future. Offering an online service catalogue allows users to help themselves, when convenient, which leads to an increase in service level (Alberts, 2012). Offering a space for users to submit questions and answers will foster a process of self-directed teaching and learning. We also hope users will share examples of good service experiences from ITS with others, which improves the image of ITS within the library.
Library technology departments and teams can undertake improving communications practices at any time. Begin with lower demand tasks, such as talking to users or attending library events as a technology representative. As a foundation for communications builds, include larger demand tasks such as media involvement and longer term user outreach. Over time, technology departments can move towards a true partnership with the larger library and library users.
Alberts, Randall, and Michael Cato. 2012. Is your IT organization a marketing one?
Grajek S and Pirani J. June 2012. Top ten IT issues 2012. Available from: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/top-ten-it-issues-2012
McShea, Michael. 2007. Communicating IT’s value in a modern business climate. IT Professional 9 (1) (2007 JAN.-FEB.): 42-5.
Park, Jungi, Jungwoo Lee, Hyejung Lee, and Duane Truex. 2012. Exploring the impact of communication effectiveness on service quality, trust and relationship commitment in IT services. International Journal of Information Management 32 (5) (201210): 459-68.
Trubitt, Lisa, Mur Muchane 2008. In plain English, please: Effective IT communications. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 31 (2) (2008): 62-65. Available from: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/plain-english-please-effective-it-communications
About the Author
Lisa Gayhart is the Digital Communications Services Librarian in Information Technology Services at the University of Toronto Libraries. As the dedicated communications team member in ITS, her number one priority is to move library IT from the sidelines to the spotlight through structured and actionable communications.
Besides leading communications efforts for the library IT group, Lisa works with digital usage analytics, accessibility measures and guidelines, and project and process management. To discuss this article or current talks, provide feedback, or obtain more information on DIY communications for library technology, contact Lisa at email@example.com.