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Volume 12 No. 5 • July/August 1998
Strategic Planning in a University Library
by Lisa Schulz

About 2 years ago, staff members devised a mission statement and goals to align the Maryville University of St. Louis Library with the university's emphasis on providing quality, student-centered service. Recently, we (both library faculty and full- and part-time staff) have spent 6 months revisiting strategic planning for the library. This is our story.

Our Situation and Background

Maryville University of St. Louis is a small, well-established private university with 3,000 students, 10 percent of which reside on campus. Over the past 10 years, the institutional management philosophy has been shifting from solid top-down management to a participatory environment in which the ownership of vision is increasingly extended to include faculty and staff as stakeholders.

Our present library building is an architectural showcase built in 1988. Our director, Dr. Eugenia McKee, enjoys deanship status. Maryville Library operates 7 days a week with five full-time librarians with faculty status, five full-time support staff, and five part-time support staff. Our work force is augmented by student workers. We use the Horizon automation system, which we acquired 3 years ago and recently upgraded. Presently, we are considering participating in a common platform resource-sharing arrangement. Our collection emphasis is shifting from ownership to access, and we belong to several consortia that enhance interlibrary loan services and allow for group purchasing benefits.

Presently, the School of Business is temporarily housed in the library building during a period of construction. McKee took advantage of the positioning opportunity and invited the dean of the School of Business, Dr. Pamela Horwitz, to facilitate our meetings and to lend expertise to the planning process. Horwitz has an extensive background in strategic planning consultation. We entered the first meeting expecting to begin by constructing a vision statement. We left instead with expectations of specific benefits and outcomes of the planning process, an agreement that we would continue to meet biweekly for at least a few months, a strategic focus (we are positioning for win/win situations beyond survival), and homework to prepare individually or in small groups for the next meeting.

Our Strategic Planning Begins

These are the payoffs we hoped to realize through the strategic planning process:
  1. Developing a usable strategic plan supported by appropriate implementation strategies
  2. Gaining a better sense of the library's and the individual's role in the university organization
  3. Getting feedback on our ideas
  4. Learning to appreciate the interdependence of different areas of the library and of the university
  5. Identifying general resource needs and developing a sense of priorities
  6. Realizing a sense of shared vision
  7. Achieving improved organizational communication and developing strategies for networking communication with various departments throughout the university
  8. Securing commitments from areas outside the library to support our goals and action plans

On the first day, we reviewed the basic planning procedure. We assessed the direction of our organization by first identifying our current situation regarding our services, various user groups, competencies, and values. We realized that our values constitute a pattern of assumptions that our customers (user groups) may not be aware of. We strive to be user friendly and to provide prompt, one-on-one assistance, but this value has created a sense of urgency that is difficult to reconcile with the daily reality of operating without enough staff and without enough leverage within the parent organization to effectively negotiate our needs.

Our homework was to attempt an environmental assessment (SWOT analysis) among ourselves to prepare for the next brainstorming session. We needed to:

  1. Identify Strengths (what the library currently does well)
  2. Identify Weaknesses (what the library's current problems are)
  3. Identify Opportunities (forecast possibilities for the future)
  4. Identify Threats (external pressures that could worsen in the future)

The immediate goal was to develop a picture of the library's culture so that we could examine ways in which it might be an obstacle to growth, as well as ways in which it might aid our growth. Initial Planning Session Outcomes

During our next session, we put the results of the independent SWOT analyses on the blackboard for discussion. Our goals were to leverage our strengths, take advantage of opportunities, and address those weaknesses that might be easily fixed. Specific prioritization and action planning would come later.

Some of our strengths that were easy to define included a positive relationship with the computer services department, a handsome facility with a favorable West County location, and the presence of an art gallery in the library building. Some weaknesses were equally easy to identify, such as marginal staffing and funding support. Other situations proved to be more complicated, such as the mixed blessing of a high-tech multimedia room—which is ideal for bibliographic instruction and is located in our building, yet is beyond our control. As we attempted to forecast threats and opportunities, the element of external control molded by outside perceptions became especially apparent. Our direction is contingent on that of the university, but the administration sometimes overlooks the necessity of including the library voice in discussions of critical issues until late in the negotiation process. Developing effective communication strategies to negotiate a greater degree of control over the direction the library will take in the future was a necessity requiring our concentrated effort to educate others. "Perception is not truth," noted Horwitz. "But where there is perception, it needs to be addressed."

What specific awareness did we want to instill in those involved in university planning? A desire for earlier and fuller participation? That seemed vague. We needed to identify problems and shape some of our own solutions during our strategic planning process, then offer them to the administration as concrete action plans. "We need to be goal driven and outcome driven, not process driven," said Horwitz. "If you want to be effective in communication, you need to be willing to shoulder 90 percent of the burden initially for maximum outcome in the future. If the outcome entails more work and no eventual benefits, then don't do it."

Next, the planning team identified the 10 most important issues facing Maryville Library. This process amounted to outlining the war between resources and service in terms of what users want and what we can give. The issues we isolated are those facing most academic libraries today, such as the desire for balance between high-tech and high-touch, and the identification of collection collaboration opportunities. We also established that the perception of faculty sets the tenor of expectations for students in the classroom. We realized that we needed to educate faculty to recommend visiting our library facility first, even though there are bigger libraries nearby. We reasoned that this education process would involve building alliances. We wanted students to view us as a partner, not just as a resource. A resource is turned off and on, whereas a partnership is dynamic. Spreading the perception of a partnership would require us to undertake a major educational process.

Having established these key goals, we were ready to apply the W3 model (pronounced W cubed). W3 addresses three crucial planning questions: What do we want? What do they want? and What can we do? It maps out as sets of three overlapping circles, one set for each user group served by the library. W3 is a stepping-back process, the key to which is identifying what our "value-added" components are—what we have versus what is offered by the competition.

It was important to identify all our user groups for this exercise (faculty, administration, students, and community), apply the model to each one, and visit the models in separate planning sessions. Later we would find that these groups needed to be subdivided into many more (such as the nontraditional-aged student and the part-time adjunct) as we formed a more accurate image of our various customers and their needs through the interview process. As we filled in the circles and despaired at the small wedges of overlap that emerged, we were instructed to ask ourselves: Are we efficient in what we do? We were also reminded to be realistic about how we thought we could change.

Another question we kept in mind was this: What reinforcements do we have at our disposal to help mold expectations according to what we are willing to provide? Conversely, how could we discourage certain behaviors (such as unannounced library scavenger hunts launched by faculty members unaware of our expectations), and yet retain those people as customers? Where no overlap was possible between what "they" wanted and what "we" could do, we had an apparent expectation mismatch. "Don't spend much time and energy dealing with these issues," advised Horwitz.

After filling the blackboard several times over with lists of wants and possibilities, we came up with concrete lists we could show to any library user and ask several questions: Is this what you really want from us in terms of library service? What else is important to you? Where is our service disappointing you? Did you realize that this is what we want from you?

Our next homework was to divide ourselves into interview committees designated by the user groups we had identified in the W3 process. Since there are not many of us, each member of the planning team joined an average of three interview committees. For example, I was to interview undergraduate students, a specific administrator, and part-time Arts & Sciences faculty. This was to be a process of validation and refinement. It was very important not to base our long-range planning on our own assumptions of what our users expected from us. Similarly, we did not want to base our solutions on problems defined by our perception alone. We knew that communication with users would realistically define our problems and would help us to reach mutually satisfying goals.

Each committee member was free to devise his or her own interview strategy, as long as they interviewed both males and females from the departments assigned to them. Some came up with survey questions; some decided to have interviewees read our lists and then comment on them; some decided not to show our lists at all, but rather to formulate questions or discuss issues as the interview evolved. All of us compiled feedback and brought it to the next few meetings. With our perceptions clarified, we were in a better position to understand what leverage we had in meeting expectations and negotiating partnerships.

The results revealed a few surprises, underscoring the importance of the validation process. Many undergraduate students, for example, didn't understand why we didn't own every journal indexed in EBSCOhost and wanted assurance that their subject area was fairly represented in the collection. Some adjunct faculty felt cut off from our resources, and many users didn't understand the scope of our services or feel comfortable with the technology. We saw the need to clearly and effectively communicate our policies and services to all users and potential users. We quickly redrew our "what they want" lists and moved on to identifying what we could do. What do we do well that we can leverage to give them what they want? Our strategy was to merge "what they want" with "what we want" and convert lists into action to produce win/win situations. The process involved weeding and prioritizing issues, then establishing measurable goals, and finally devising action plans to reach those goals.

The planning team next met to prioritize "can do's" so that we could effectively distribute the energy we would invest in solutions. Unfortunately, on our map of three circles, the domains of "what we want," "what they want," and "what we can do" did not lie on top of each other, so we decided to concentrate on areas of overlap. To some extent, what would best serve faculty would serve students as well. One problem was prioritizing our user groups in terms of the degree of service we were willing to provide, given our staffing and resource situation.

We realized that those in our "community" group (students from other institutions, alumni, Friends, walk-ins from the public, and the world-at-large) constituted such a diverse group that they demand much more from us than we are willing and able to give. We can only reserve a basic level of service for them.

Next, we categorized the faculty into four groups:

  1. Very library friendly: This segment will work with you and give appropriate notice for their library needs.
  2. Library friendly: This bunch appreciates the library but does not maximize the ability to work with us.
  3. Hopeless/clueless: These people don't understand our services or policies. They may send students to us unannounced and nprepared.
  4. Hostile: This segment is spreading negative perceptions about the library that may have stemmed from a single experience.

We decided that our strategy would be to work with the "easy sells" first. We could begin by converting number twos into number ones with a publicity effort conveying our interests. Then we would focus on the threes, and recruit number ones to help convert the threes and fours. The purpose was to correct the perception of the library, to increase alliances, and to enjoy the synergistic effect of furthering our message through multiple messengers. The same process would work for our student and administration groups as well.

Having discussed level of service priorities among various user groups and the process of recruiting allies, we needed to discriminate among issues. One of the messy parts of the strategic planning process was dividing up and prioritizing the issues before converting them into action plans. Following certain steps facilitated the process for us:

  1. We focused on areas of overlap disclosed in the W3 exercise.
  2. We identified easy fixes. We looked for issues under internal control, and broke them down into those that would be easy to implement and those that were more complicated. (The need for external input would prolong the time it would take to realize affected goals.)
  3. We decided what we didn't want to do and weeded those issues from consideration.
  4. We discussed what purpose would be served by solving each remaining issue. How important was it?
  5. We were realistic in establishing priorities, especially since we would be formulating action plans that we would have to sell to the administration. For example, if staffing was the issue, we asked: "What problems would one more body solve?" "What are the alternatives?"

Horwitz pointed out, "You have an argument where you can't do things because of the lack of staff. Don't ask for more staff in order to do business as usual; ask if you can present a case for not being able to deliver a reasonable level of service."

As we mapped out these issues, we began to discuss possible solutions. For less-than-easy fixes, we were encouraged to look for interim solutions. For example, we wanted a break room for students in an area of the library that temporarily housed business faculty. The administration wanted to convert that space into a classroom. Could we settle for soda machines and a few chairs in the hallway? To propose action plans, we needed to understand competing issues for space and funds, to reflect on our mission, and to arrive at win/win situations in terms of concrete goals.

During our last meeting, in April, we isolated seven major organizational goals then selected target dates and individuals to be responsible for devising action plans for each goal and to present these action plans to Library Council. Some of these goals involve processes already underway. Follow-up planning is also necessary so that we can effectively track our successes or failures. We expect our first follow-up session in 6 months.

Looking Far Down the Road

Strategic planning is an ongoing process with a window of 1 to 3 years. We will need to reestablish overarching issues by revisiting the environmental assessment as our long-range picture changes. Perception will continue to be a strong force in action planning for Maryville University Library.

Lisa Schulz is currently a Library Science student at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She serves Maryville University Library as the reserves technician and as a member of the public relations team, and already has 8 years of experience in library public service, 2 of which included serving as branch reporter for the St. Louis County Library newsletter, the Co-Lib Chronicle. Her e-mail address is

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