Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 4 • April 2000
Consider the Four-Legged Stool as You Plan for Information Technology
by Jan A. Baltzer

Are you struggling with the idea of a technology plan? Read on for a very useful and basic how to.
In the past 10 to 15 years, technology has come to permeate all aspects of our lives. There is virtually no occupation that has not been impacted by the use of technology, requiring all of us to gain or increase our technology skills. Technology has infiltrated the way we do business in the marketplace with the emergence of e-commerce. It has been integrated into the educational process through e-learning and connecting classrooms to the Internet. Technology has even made inroads into the social aspects of our lives as more and more people find themselves using e-mail for correspondence with family members rather than writing letters, sending electronic greeting cards rather than the old-fashioned paper versions, and meeting new people through online chat rooms rather than in person.

Without a doubt, technology has also invaded the library, beginning with automation systems designed to computerize the circulation system and moving on to systems that enable patrons to better access information in both the circulation system and in all forms of databases. Search engines have been developed and perfected to provide enhanced research capabilities and to tap the power of the Internet as a resource provider. Now, digital libraries are coming into being as libraries are joining together to digitize collections and broaden access even more. There are even predictions that the e-book may soon be as popular as other hand-held computing devices.

Whether we like it or not, libraries are spending an increasing amount of their annual budgets on the acquisition and support of technology, at a time when resources, themselves, may not be increasing. Unfortunately, many libraries have become so focused on what kind of technology they are going to buy, that they have lost sight of how the technology should be used to add value to the library and its patrons. My company specializes in helping organizations do strategic planning, particularly information technology strategic planning. After years of experience, we have learned that libraries need a new approach to information technology strategic planning that can refocus staff away from model numbers and processor speeds toward a vision of how technology can enable the library to provide newer, richer types of services to an increasingly diverse population.

Pinpointing Direction
Strategic planning is a process that seeks to clarify what an organization is, what it wants to be, and how, specifically, the organization can successfully make the transition. A strategic plan provides directions and a management strategy within the context of changing internal and external environments. An information technology strategic plan sets the direction and philosophy for using technology within the organization. In order to be effective, strategic planning should meet the following criteria:

Think of a Four-Legged Stool When You’re Planning
Imagine for a moment a four-legged stool. It’s a useful device, but only if all four legs are of equal length so that the stool is “stable” and meets the use for which it was intended. Now, think of the stool as your library, and think of its legs as the four components that make up how you deliver services and/or products. The four legs represent People, Processes, Organization, and Technology.

The leg representing People in your library includes everything that describes or defines the individuals who work there, including the jobs they do, the skill sets they bring to the job, their attitudes and aptitudes, their desires, and their commitments to the organization (or lack thereof). The leg representing the Processes encompasses the work that your library does and the manner in which it’s done. Think of this leg as a way to describe the methods you use to provide services to your patrons. The leg representing Organization includes both the formal organizational structure of the library and the informal organizational elements often referred to as “organizational culture.” The formal organization chart and the formal decision-making processes and policies make up the “formal” organization. The organizational culture is more informal and represents the unwritten rules or acceptable behaviors. The final leg represents the Technology used within the library. This includes the types and levels of technology, how strategically the library uses them, etc.

Now, think about how there may be times when your library could get “out of synch” because one or more of the stool’s legs are a different length than the others. For example, if you implement new technology (the technology leg grows longer) without training people within the organization, addressing the changes brought about by the technology, or changing job descriptions and organizational structure to accommodate the new technology, you can “destabilize” the organization. In other words, making an addition to the technology leg without the corresponding additions to the other legs or aspects of the library can throw the library out of balance. So the new technology really can’t benefit the library in as great a way as it could if all four legs of the library were lengthened at the same time.

Visions and Guiding Lights
The Future State Planning Model that my company uses is a new approach for developing information technology strategic plans. This model can be particularly effective in the library setting because it focuses on what the organization is trying to accomplish by using technology rather than on technology for technology’s sake. This planning model is a modification of the organizational transition methodology described in Organizational Transitions, second edition, by Beckhard and Harris. This methodology is based on the principle that

... a core dilemma for executives and leaders is how to maintain stability in their organizations and, at the same time, provide creative adaptation to outside forces; stimulate innovation; and change assumptions, technology, working methods, roles and relationships, and the culture of the organization itself (page 1).
In the library setting, this technology strategic-planning approach requires the following steps: The “future state” vision statement should vividly describe how the library and its services will be improved or changed as a result of using information technology effectively. The vision statement should be brief and compelling, such as the following example:
The Gibson Library will use information technology to provide a flexible pathway to services and resources for its community members wherever they may be and whenever they may need assistance.
You may accompany the vision statement with one or more scenarios that describe in more specific terms “what life will be like” in this future state. For example, you may describe how technology might better serve a school-aged child, a single working parent, a corporate executive, and a senior citizen in the future state.

The guiding principles should be simple, direct statements that describe the fundamental values and beliefs of the library. These principles should guide the staff in its day-to-day decision making, and they are important because they help to eliminate arguments regarding key planning decisions. The following are some guiding principles that a library might identify in the future state technology-planning process:

Assumptions and Goals
Planning assumptions are statements intended to reflect the current internal and external environmental factors that have a bearing on the development and implementation of the technology strategic plan. Planning assumptions are helpful because they provide a way for you to reflect on your current situation. Therefore, they become the starting points for developing methods to help your team achieve its strategic goals and move forward toward the future state vision. As you develop the planning assumptions, you should consider the four-legged stool, and be certain to state all assumptions about the people (both patrons and library staff), the processes (work activities within the library), the organization (formal and informal), and the technology.

The following are examples of the types of planning assumptions that a library technology planning team might identify:

With the future state vision clearly in mind, with the guiding principles established to direct your decision-making, and with a clear understanding of the library’s current environment based on the planning assumptions, you must establish goals and strategies for moving forward toward the desired future state. Goals are long-term targets or end results related to the survival, value, and growth of the library. Strategies are “how” statements that reflect the kinds of activities that you could undertake to achieve the long-term goals.

A good way to identify goals and strategies is to complete the following sentence: “If the planning assumptions are true, then we must _____________.” For example, if we assume that “there is increasing interest in remote access to information and services,” and one of your library’s guiding principles is that “our patrons deserve a rich array of information resources accessible at any time and from any location,” then your goals and strategies might look something like this:


Provide access to information and services from anywhere and at anytime.


Seeing the Plan Through
The implementation timeline provides an avenue for the library to begin to move from the strategic to the tactical, by listing all goals and strategies along with the names or titles of staff members who are responsible for budgeting for and implementing specific strategies. It also includes any funding required for specific strategies and anticipated dates for completion. The implementation timeline is still not at the fully tactical level, but it does serve as an easy monitoring and reference tool, and should be used as a foundation for yearly operational plan development.

It’s About Adding Value
Information technology strategic planning is a dynamic process that seeks to help the library transform from its current state toward its future vision. Throughout the planning process, it is important to envision the four-legged stool: People, Processes, Organization, and Technology. Technology planning should be about more than what kinds of hardware or software you will buy; it should be about how technology can add value to a library and the people it serves.

Jan A. Baltzer is a senior partner at Baltzer-Sutton Associates, a company committed to assisting higher-education institutions and organizations to identify, develop, and implement value-added technology management and learning solutions. In her current position, she regularly works with both public and college/university libraries to assist with their technology strategic planning. Previously, she was vice president for information services and chief information officer of the Apollo Group, Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona (parent company of the University of Phoenix and Western International University). She developed and presented the LAMA Institute of the Year for 1999: Libraries in the Digital Age. Baltzer holds a B.S. and an M.A. in communications from Arizona State University. Her e-mail address is

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