News from Nowhere: The Needs Based Library

In too many workplaces people are unhappy and alienated from what they do. This has a negative impact on their efficiency, effectiveness and productivity, and they respond by seeking more and more compensation for work which they do not like or want to do. But we know that money is in fact quite low down the list of why people work – sure, we have to pay the bills, but we also want work to give us a sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment on our lifelong journey to self-actualization.

Set over a century after a revolutionary upheaval in 1952, News from Nowhere the best known prose work of William Morris, recounts the journey of Hammond, a visitor from the 19th century, as he explores a decentralised and humane socialist future. Analyzing this fictional utopia in the context of the Needs Based Library will enable us to explore how Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery would operate in the public library workforce. These are key elements to any staff structure and strong drivers of cultural change.

Purpose

‘How do you get people to work when there is no reward of labour, and especially how you get them to work strenuously?’

‘No reward of labour? The reward of labour is life. Is that not enough?’

People work much more effectively and efficiently if they understand what the organisation is trying to achieve and their role in it.  A sense of Purpose can be achieved by creating a ‘golden thread’ which links high level strategic directions, to team or branch objectives and individual work plans. This prevents alienation as workers do not feel like cogs in a machine, but can see the big picture and their part in it. For example, the library may have lofty ambitions around lifelong learning and economic development, which must then be connected to everyone’s individual Purpose, from the Cleaners and Custodians, right up to the CEO and Chief Librarian. If people can see how important their work is, and what difference it makes, they are more likely to be motivated and committed to achieving the objectives of the organisation.

Autonomy

‘But no reward for especially good work?’

Plenty of reward – the reward of creation’

People want as much control over their lives as possible and do not like being told what to do. This is as true in our personal lives as our working lives. And so from our teenage years we are pushing the boundaries of personal freedom. If these boundaries are too closely defined then we become little more than robots, mindlessly following commands. Micro-management robs staff of those human qualities of discretion, initiative and intuition. Research shows that the more autonomy we give staff, the more happy and productive they are. If we give them more freedom they will go the extra mile for us. Organisations which build autonomy into their culture have found that staff use their ‘free time’ to come up with all kinds of benefits – from new ideas to new products. The very idea of more freedom is liberating in itself – and then you actually have the time to reflect on what is good for you and the organisation, and produce that added value.

Mastery

 ‘All work is now pleasurable, because there is conscious pleasure in the work itself’  

It seems self-evident that if people like what they do and are good at it, they are going to work hard and well. So the challenge is to match people’s strengths (talents, skills and experience) with the positions in the organisation. The first step is to create a staffing structure which can deliver the library’s strategic plan. The next stage is to identify the strengths of each member of staff and then slot them into positions which make best use of their abilities. Strengths based leadership ensures a steady focus on what people are good at, rather than a demoralising emphasis on weaknesses and areas for improvement. This should make for positive performance evaluations in which staff can toot their horn and talk about the things they love to do, which are also moving the organisation forward.  It is particularly important to identify those moments of ‘flow’ when people are completely absorbed in what they do so that its intrinsic value outweighs any extrinsic reward.

There are many parallels between a utopia, where people want to work rather than have to, and the staffing structure of a Needs Based Library. The Needs Based Library is an asymptote – something that is continually reached for, but never achieved. It is a work that is permanently in progress. It is a journey and not a destination. For someone to say ‘I have a Needs Based Library’ means that, by definition, they do not. The fact that it is never fully attainable is not intended to foster defeatism but to avoid complacency.

The path towards a Needs Based Library is not easy or comfortable, and deliberately so. There are more questions than answers and more unknowns than knowns. It is designed to eliminate comfort zones and to create a dynamic environment of exploration, curiosity and discovery. The driving force of a Needs Based Library is disruptive innovation: if it is not broken, then let us break it and see if we can build something better. It is a form of utopia.

John Pateman is the CEO / Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. The Open for All? column explores the nature of libraries and their commitment to openness.