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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > January/February 2012

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Vol. 32 No. 1 — Jan./Feb. 2012
FEATURE
Blog Impossible
by Meryl B. Cole, Christian L. Gray, and Cindy A. Romaine

This is the inside story of how a handful of volunteers with no budget generated 4 million hits, 400,000 unique visitors, and 365 posts.
Amid the sea change that libraries and information centers currently face, we are starting to see compelling solutions and bold initiatives from our colleagues. The challenge now becomes how to “spread the gospel”—how to inform widely dispersed information professionals about the successes we record.

In 2011, volunteers within the Special Libraries Association (SLA), including the authors, who spearheaded the project, set out to find how information professionals are adapting to the opportunities and challenges of the new knowledge economy. In 2011, every day—including weekends, holidays, and birthdays—we asked one question: How are you “future ready”?

In this article, we share insights that we crowdsourced from our colleagues on how information professionals are preparing for the future. We also document the lessons we learned from implementing a daily, distributed social networking project and discuss how you can apply them in your own environment.

FutureReady365 Blog

Future Ready was SLA’s guiding initiative for 2011. Over the course of the year, SLA’s president (and this article’s co-author) Cindy A. Romaine encouraged information professionals to share their stories about how they are future ready; that is to say, how they grew more adaptable, flexible, and resilient in the new knowledge economy.

The cornerstone of the campaign was to create, from scratch, the FutureReady365 blog (http://futureready365.sla.org). Over the course of 12 months, this living conversation garnered more than 4 million hits and more than 400,000 unique visitors. With SLA’s membership hovering between 9,000 and 10,000 members, the high number of unique visitors jumps out at us. We touched about 40 nonmembers for every member. Not only did we reach our target market, but we were also able to get readership from a diverse group of small businesses, large enterprises, and academic institutions.

Why Future Ready?

We focused on future ready as an initiative in order to move the conversation away from talk about the down economy and layoffs within our industry. Instead, we wanted to focus on solutions, strategies, attitudes, and tactics that are successful and promising. In other words, we chose to look at the “bright spots.”

In a recent Fast Company magazine article, brothers Chip and Dan Heath discuss bright spots and the value of shifting our frame of reference to the activities and concepts that are working. We have many smart people in our profession, and their stories—their bright spots—are illuminating because they are authentic, real-life successes.

We heard from library and information professionals, leading vendors, strategic partners, M.L.I.S. students, and industry recruiters. We were privileged to have a few luminaries weigh in from the sidelines. This enabled us to succeed in our goal, which was to provide the information and knowledge community with a multidimensional view of what future ready looks like throughout the profession. The blog also acted as a platform to react and spur further dialogue.

The Juxtaposition of Ideas

Looking back over the course of the year, one of the most fascinating take-aways was the juxtaposition of ideas. One philosopher, Stuart A. Kauffman, calls this the “adjacent possible.” In the article, “The Genius of the Tinkerer,” Steven Johnson asserts that ideas grow, develop, and lead to further new ideas as they are viewed together:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

This cloud tag shows the top concepts from the FutureReady365 blog.If you are not familiar with this concept, take a few minutes to read a few posts on the FutureReady365 blog. What appears at first glance to be a set of unrelated ideas crystallizes into new possibilities based on the stories they are adjacent to.

Hot Topics

Over the course of the year, it became evident that many library and information professionals are already engaged in some very interesting, completely future-ready activities. The call to blog about those successes was like shining a spotlight on all of our best practices in turn.

As you can see from the cloud tag (right), three main issues were repeatedly mentioned: value, collaboration, and technology.

Value. Information professionals add value through information analysis and by producing a higher-level deliverable to the client.

I contend that just as individuals can enter a grocery store and purchase the raw materials for lasagna, they can go online and gather information. The differentiator lies in adding value. Just as the chef creates the dishes that satisfy hunger, the info pro creates the deliverables on which to base enterprise actions.

~ Cindy Shamel, Jan. 19 

Collaboration. Information professionals are becoming more embedded into the essential mission of their organizations.

Librarians have come to master the art of collaboration through both innovation and necessity. By sharing information, resources, and know-how, we have surmounted many great challenges over the years. Even today, we continue to learn how to reinvent and reinvigorate ourselves, as well as do more with less, through a carefully crafted series of collaborations. The very existence of this Future Ready 365 blog is a shining testament to what we can accomplish when we work together.

~ John DiGilio, Aug. 1

Technology. Information professionals depend on advanced technology. Its use is essential to being prepared for the future.

Nowadays, you can teach someone to fish but next week you’ll likely watch in frustration as they attempt to harpoon an angry bird with their fishing rod—the evolution is that fast and varied.

~ Megan Wiseman, Nov. 24

Soft skills. While technology is essential, more than wikis and iPads are required for success. We had many posts emphasizing soft skills, such as relationship building, understanding the client’s business, and adapting to change. We are still human beings, working with other human beings, and playing nice still counts.

Librarians and information professionals can demonstrate our future readiness by continuing to find and create innovative ways to add analytical value to our work.

~ Emily Rushing, Sept. 28

What are some of the characteristics that allow a person to be flexible? Curiosity and a willingness to experiment with new ideas and technologies.

~ Anne Koopman, April 18

Emerging roles. Information professionals are finding new roles and using new skills with their M.L.I.S. degrees that make them future ready. Just knowing these jobs exist helps point the way to a better future.

They call it “data fusion.” I call it sexxxay! This is the kind of thing that Tech Services needs to add to their repertoire.

~ Juliane Schneider, April 15

Now I am teaching social network investigations and reminding the audience of the oft-missed deep and invisible Web, which is valuable in most criminal and civil cases.

~ Cynthia Hetherington, Oct. 10

Future Ready Is …

SLA president Cindy A. Romaine asked information professionals to think about whether or not they are “future ready.” But what does that mean? Here’s a selection of definitions from the contributors to SLA’s FutureReady365 blog.

“[Y]ou have to become a respectable storyteller to be future-ready.”

~ Jill Henize, March 9

“When you define your library as a place for innovation and experimentation with information technology and digital content, the possible roles for librarians are limitless and the types of services offered are dynamic and ever-changing. This is a true definition of ‘future-ready.’”

~ Helen Josephine, March 10

“To me, being future-ready means many things. Personally and professionally, the minimum requirements are resilience and adaptability. Future-ready means bringing my skills of assessment and analysis to the status quo, as well as skepticism to calls for change for change’s sake and speed for speed’s sake. It means being ready and willing to get my hands dirty today with the hard work of implementing change that makes sense for tomorrow, at the same time scanning and evaluating the external environment for opportunities and threats, all with an eye on the horizon. It means a personal and professional commitment to lifelong learning and the incredibly lofty, yet so critical, goal of achieving an information-literate society in a world where information is seemingly available to everyone while, at the same time, a digital divide persists. Fundamentally, it means a laser focus on doing my best to help connect users with authoritative, accessible, actionable information.”

~ Jill Blaemers, April 5

“I think to be future ready we need to stop worrying about the ‘what ifs’ and ‘somethings.’ We all have our bombs under the table. Stop waiting and worrying about when or if they’re ever going to go off. You may be missing out on something great—personally, professionally or organizationally—because of it.”

~ Sarah Glassmeyer, April 17

“To be ‘future ready’ in today’s market means more than being proficient in traditional Library Sciences. It means being futuristic, strategic, and quick to adapt to change.”

~ Quincie Rivers, May 11

“[T]aking on an opportunity that drops into your lap = future ready. Being willing—note that I do not use the word ‘unafraid’—to dive into unfamiliar territory = future ready. Knowing you can machete your way through that territory = future ready. And in my case, plunging my career into glorious chaos = future ready.”

~ Kama Siegel, July 19

A ‘Future Ready’ Story

Lora Kloth

I showed my unpublished blog post, which was inspired by a visit from SLA President Cindy Romaine, to my manager. He greeted the project with support and enthusiasm. I also asked an editor in the publications department to review my writings. She found it inspirational, and asked if she could publish it in Credit Union National Association’sFront Linenewsletter! I was surprised and delighted by this honor.

I also shared the blog with a few friends and family members, one of whom has asked me to speak about my job experiences at her company at a women’s career development initiative. This blogging experience, for me, has had many unintended and exciting consequences. I am not sure what else my future may hold as a result, but currently it includes increased visibility, professional recognition, and self-acknowledged personal growth and contemplation because of my participation in SLA’s “Future Ready” project. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Here’s an edited version of my post:

‘Know Thyself and Drink Lemonade’

“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade …” To be “future ready,” we must confront changes as growth opportunities.

Three years ago, my defined career as full-time association research librarian abruptly changed with reduction to a part-time schedule. I felt deluged with lemons.

I allowed myself a brief hiatus for frustration, but realized that wasted time. The new schedule created an opportunity to try new things.

Thus, I discovered aspects of myself I didn’t know existed:

  • I’ve enjoyed brief “stay-at-home mom” status.
  • I considered a career change to court reporting and went back to school—and failed miserably! But in this “failure” I realized my true calling is librarianship.
  • I accepted the opportunity to teach information literacy … and I’d never taught anything before. But I did it, successfully, and made some wonderful connections with my students.

Here are guidelines that can help us become future ready:

  • Identify your personal life and career goals, and find a balance.
  • Discover your strengths and weaknesses.
  • “Failure” offers experience and potential for future success.
  • Don’t underestimate what you can achieve.
  • Be flexible and find new choices with change.
  • Know what makes you happy.
  • Learn about yourself and others through interactions with diverse groups of people.
  • Try new things!
  • Commit to lifelong learning.

The future starts now; we build our futures on experiences we seek and find. Self-knowledge, proactivity, and forging of connections enables us to move ahead to success without trepidation. Know thyself! Lemonade is actually a refreshing beverage.

Just Do It

Here are some “just do it” tactics bloggers identified that you can use to get yourself prepared for the future.

Be your own widget by combining or showcasing your services in unlikely places.

~ Valrie Davis, March 11

Being present in information users’ day-to-day work life helps them to see the information professional as a member of the group and promotes credibility.

~ Mary Talley, Sept. 22

[B]ut it is vitally important that WE define ourselves first so that we can communicate who we are and what our value is to our various stakeholders and constituencies. Capture the vision, promote it, and remember to stay on message.

~ Denise McIver, March 14

The future rarely belongs to those who simply fulfill the requirements of the job description. It belongs to those who, when encountering the unexpected, forge a different path instead.

~ Michelle Mayes, Oct. 19

Operationalization

As with any project involving myriad details and geographically dispersed team members, nailing down logistics was paramount.

The team. The truly dedicated volunteers took a “crazy” idea and made it real by tapping into their own personal networks, sharing their time, and offering their talents and domain knowledge. There is a distinct word for that: connectors.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, connectors are the people who “link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” Out of the necessity to feed a daily blog, all the team members became connectors.

And the team members all filled other roles too, for while functional roles were not defined when they volunteered, members organically settled into roles such as IT administrator, district manager, process manager, quality assurance specialist, strategist, and marketer and, in doing so, propelled the project further and faster.

Implementing a repeatable process. The process quickly settled into a scalable, predictable pattern. We edited, tagged, and uploaded posts directly into our WordPress template. We informed authors of their go-live dates and followed up with thank-you notes. We gave bloggers tips on how to market their posts—and by extension, the FutureReady365 blog—via Twitter and Facebook. Our IT administrator located copyright-free images for each post.

Obtaining posts. With the challenge of a post a day, soliciting posts became a constant focus for every team meeting for the first 8 months. In November, 2 months before launch, we sent emails to 40 thought leaders and high contributors, hoping to generate content and early buzz. After sending out several additional rounds of requests, we discovered what served us best was the personal invitation. Here’s a quote from one of the FutureReady365 posts:

Recognizing a spark, talent or skill in another person and then inviting them to be involved honors the invitee and inspires them to get involved.

~ Jan Chindlund, July 29

We also layered in personal contact with SLA members as Romaine presented at more than 15 SLA meetings across the country. Gray presented at an additional five SLA meetings. These meeting presentations were opportunities to promote readership as well as to recruit bloggers, and they were quite successful. In fact, let us repeat that key finding: In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, we found personal relationships and the old, reliable telephone to be highly effective for recruiting.

Tools. Our production tools were cloud-based and, thus, available to all team members, inexpensive or free, and easy to learn. Our working documents resided on Google Docs. Our blog platform was WordPress, augmented with the Akismet plug-in to detect spam. We implemented a copyright commons protocol.

Generating traffic. You may have heard the phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” We were not so sure. We capitalized on the resources we had to promote the blog continuously.

1. We posted on SLA chapter and division listservs.

2. We tweeted, liked, LinkedIn, and created a Paper.li daily.

3. We wrote for traditional media sources such as SLA’s Information Outlook.

4. We highlighted and solicited cross-postings from well-trafficked blogs.

5. We presented at events and talks to educate and promote.

6. We sent lots of emails and made lots of phone calls for content to help trigger traffic.

7. We asked authors to promote the blog to their own networks when their respective posts were published.

Measuring the results. The statistics for the site speak for themselves. As we mentioned previously, the site generated more than 4 million hits and 400,000 visits.

Using some back-of-the-envelope calculations, if the FutureReady365 blog were a commercially run project, based on its traffic, we could exceed $50,000 in revenue. This would be a healthy budget for a niche blog, and it is quite an achivement for a volunteer effort.

Unexpected Discoveries

Aside from the insightful content of the blog, there are key lessons that come from having actually lived through the implementation of this “big, hairy project.”

There are worlds within worlds in social media. Just signing up for a Twitter account does not make you a social media expert. There are complex strategies for being effective in the social media world. The lesson here is to build a following, and then you need to use all social media connections aggressively.

The real world counts too. Whatever your message, it must be reinforced through one-on-one conversations, opportune meetings, lengthy phone calls, personal contacts, and direct appeals that do not all happen in cyberspace, but in the real world too.

Potholes. It was not all lollipops and rainbows. Midway through the project, Romaine, who had been the project instigator, was ready to declare victory and wrap things up. Unexpectedly, several team members rolled off the project. Then there was the time we were expecting seven posts on a very tight deadline and received zero. The lesson here is to build in redundancy so that when something goes wrong, you have coverage. Courage is important too.

Professionalism works. Even though this was an entirely volunteer project, we treated it as if it were a business. Within that, we retained an element of social media playfulness. The lesson is that in order to be taken seriously, you need to take yourself seriously.

Conclusions

FutureReady365 highlights valuable and successful ideas, strategies, and experiences for the benefit of information professionals everywhere. We had an open and positive discussion about the challenges and opportunities in our profession, and we were successful in identifying bright spots in our professional domain. It was a lot of work. Because of the effort, focus, and generosity of 365 bloggers, we moved the needle toward a more valuable information professional, and that makes it worth the effort.

As we send this article to press, we are on day 336 of 365 and remain unsure of the future of FutureReady365. Perhaps we will develop it into a book project, or perhaps it will simply go dark. It is possible we will continue in modified form in 2012. Regardless of what we do, like so many of our FutureReady bloggers have done and said, it will be future ready. Mission accomplished.

Collaborative Social Networking: An Applied-Science Tip Sheet

Here is your tip sheet on how to create your own daily, collaborative social networking project.

1. Consider your project an experiment in social media, leadership, or communications. If you think of it as an experiment, you can learn from the project whether you succeed or fail.

2. Find a subject you are very passionate about. You will be talking about it to others for 12 months and for 50 targeted conversations per month, plus five-and-a-half follow-up emails. So with 12 x 50 x 5.5 = 3,300 touches on the subject, you should be very passionate about your topic.

3. Define a Purpose. Recruit a team. You will want to have the team commit to a Purpose (with a capital P). You want team members to have different skill sets and to mesh as a team. It is OK to lose and gain team members during the process.

4. Define the goals and objectives of the project. Use the following statements as examples:

a. Our blog will be a smashing success if _____________.

b. We will have benefited if we learn __________.

c. If successful, management will support _________ going forward.

d. How will we measure success?

5. Use free cloud-based tools that all team members will have access to. The following are some examples:

a. Google Docs

b. WordPress, Bloglines, or other blogging software

c. FreeConference.com or other web conferencing tools

d. Skype or other phone conferencing tools

6. When you launch the project, your first order of business is to promote it everywhere and all the time. Here are some places where you can gain readership:
 a. Newsletters
 b. Internal communication channels
 c. Social media posts
 d. Emails to your personal network

7. While the project is in production, ascertain what is effective. For example, measure traffic and mentions from Google Analytics.

8. Guest bloggers can add weight and recognition and help you generate additional interest.

9. Be sure and share your results with others.

References

Heath, Dan and Chip Heath. “Switch: Don’t Solve Problems—Copy Success.” Fast Company. Feb. 1, 2010. www.fastcompany.com/magazine/142/switch-how-to-change-things-when-change-is-hard.html

Johnson, Steven. “The Genius of the Tinkerer.” Life & Culture, The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 25, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575503730101860838.html

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little Brown, 2000, p. 41.

Recommended Resources

Here are a few titles to help you understand the power and benefit of social media for your enterprise.

Brafman, Ori, and Rod A. Beckstrom. The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. New York: Portfolio, 2006.

Howcast. “Blogs in Plain English.” YouTube. November 2007. www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN2I1pWXjXI

Levine, Rick. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2001.

Li, Charlene. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Scoble, Robert, and Shel Israel. Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Sullivan, Andrew, “Why I Blog,” The Atlantic, TheAtlantic.com. November 2008. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/11/why-i-blog/7060

Teten, David, and Scott Allen. The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online. New York: AMACOM, 2005.

Meryl B. Cole (merylbeth@gmail.com) is principal at Masterminds Strategic Research, accelerator for SLA’s FutureReady365 Blog Task Force, and author of Instant Messaging Reference: A Practical Guide.

Christian L. Gray (cgray@atlasconsultinginc.com) is a partner in Atlas Consulting, Inc., a business development professional, connector, catalyst, and room-to-read advocate.

Cindy A. Romaine (cindy.romaine@romainiacs.com) is an entrepreneur, a strategic thinker, an innovator, and information researcher extraordinaire. She is principal, Romainiacs Intelligent Research, and the 2011 SLA president.

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