All posts by Katherine Kott

About Katherine Kott

Management, organizational effectiveness, and organizational change consultant in the academic sector. Experience working with libraries, museums, archives, and other not-for-profits to manage change and enhance organizational effectiveness. Areas of expertise include meeting facilitation, team building, leadership development, volunteer program development, organizational design, performance improvement, change management, systems thinking.

Why I am “pro” rather than “anti”

About the same time that I proposed to use an Appreciative Inquiry approach for strategic planning with a new client, Chris Bourg wrote a piece about anti-harassment policies at conferences for her blog, Feral Librarian. Chris advised other libraries to join Stanford in encouraging staff members to look at whether a conference has an anti-harassment policy or not when making a decision to attend. These two events got me thinking about why I prefer to stand for than against. Continue reading Why I am “pro” rather than “anti”


Fiddling While Rome Burns

The heated debates prompted by the recent announcement that University Librarian, Karin Wittenborg has changed the status for new librarians at the University of Virginia from faculty to staff strike me as fiddling while Rome burns. Those who advocate for faculty status for librarians working in academic settings cite the importance of librarians participating in shared governance.

While participation in shared governance may be an important avenue for librarians and faculty to meet and learn about each other’s work in large research universities, librarians and faculty in small college settings have other opportunities for relaxed conversations and serendipitous discovery of complementary skills. If the goal of faculty status is to have an impact on research and learning at a programmatic level, there is not a one-size-fits-all model for accomplishing that goal in every academic setting.

What is perhaps more important to consider is that faculty themselves no longer really have faculty status in terms of having access to shared governance to the degree they once did. The trend towards unbundling in higher education has meant an increasing percentage of faculty are adjunct. A recent article in Inside Higher Education, Making the Case for Adjuncts, references a 2009 study showing that only one-third of faculty are tenure track. Two-thirds are not eligible for tenure, and almost twenty percent are part-time. The faculty voice is bound to become weaker when fewer than half of the people responsible for teaching and learning have a seat at the table. This shift will most certainly have a greater impact on shared governance and the future of higher education than whether or not librarians have faculty status.

Another facet of the discussion about librarians and faculty status focuses on librarians’ participation in the teaching and learning mission of the university. I have worked in academic libraries for decades but have never participated directly in course development or delivery of course content in a physical or virtual classroom. My jobs have included developing new systems and services and managing production operations and systems (and I would include circulation in that category). Many librarians have these types of jobs, which are primarily either task oriented, or administrative in nature. That is not to say that the tasks or program administration do not require specialized knowledge or training, but that is a separate conversation. I posit that the percentage of time librarians as a class spend in direct service to the teaching and learning mission of their institutions makes a weak case for their participation as faculty in shared governance.

In my experience as a consultant to libraries, in libraries with faculty status for librarians, cumbersome promotion and tenure processes and procedures seem to interfere with performance leadership programs designed to align performance with library strategy. The case for faculty status for librarians begins to look like a case for librarians being able to act as independent operators, doing what they’ve always done, in opposition to administrators. What the current higher education environment needs from librarians is participants who can help shape the future of academic libraries in a dramatically shifting environment.

The us/them dichotomies that arise when people and institutions are under threat do not serve us well when creative solutions are needed. Faculty versus staff, unions versus management, MLS librarians versus “librarians” with other credentials. Let’s put down the violins and focus on finding new ways to join the conversation about the fires burning in higher education today. Should we try to put them out, work on a controlled burn, or let them flame on, knowing that some new growth requires heat for seeds to germinate?


Innovative Organizational Design in Academic Libraries

Academic library leaders seek new organizational models to support the agility and experimentation needed to respond to an environment characterized by disruptive technological change. While some libraries have created new departments or units within their organizations to focus on digital library development or scholarly publishing, these new endeavors remain situated in traditional 19th century hierarchical organizations.

What organizational structures and processes can provide capacity for innovation, including generation of ideas, launching prototypes and experiments, and evaluating those experiments to decide what new products or services should be implemented? Design thinking–methodologies for generating and implementing new products and services based on user needs–is one framework to explore.

Companies that devote themselves to incubating innovation such as IDEO are able to operate using a fluid organizational structure. IDEO, for example, is organized into “studios” with teams that form and disband as projects come and go.

While this type of organizational structure does not seem feasible for an academic library, which must still engage in running standards-based production operations and services (e.g. metadata creation, digitization, stack maintenance), some libraries are experimenting with bringing design thinking into their organizations in other ways.

The University of Rochester Libraries have led the way in the application of design thinking to service development as well as systems design. While responsibility for this perspective seems to be situated in the Libraries’ usability lab, many people in all departments of a rather traditionally organized library have been involved in design projects.

The Virginia Tech Libraries, under Tyler Walters’ leadership have launched a set of initiatives to encourage innovation, including a library-based hub to build capacity for new systems and services. Although they have not applied the design thinking label to this endeavor, the concept seems to be aligned with design thinking principles.

Based on anecdotal evidence, design thinking may be catching on in academic libraries, albeit slowly. The dominant model for bringing design thinking into the library seems to be through an innovation incubator (working group, council, or hub) or a usability group. Is this a viable model? What are the advantages/disadvantages?

Is it important to introduce design thinking throughout the organization? Is there an innovative organizational design that would enable this? How would a hybrid model of “studios” with self-organizing team alongside a traditional departmental structure organized along functional lines work?

I would love to collect more data about various organizational models libraries have used to foster innovation, and how those models have worked, so post your stories here, or send me an email.



Structural Obstacles to Effective Digital Preservation Practice

Last week, I had the privilege of attending iPRES 2012 in Toronto. The conference was replete with case studies and research reports detailing the state of the digital preservation field. A number of presentations provided strong evidence for progress in web archiving and frameworks for understanding data curation, as well as development of tools and systems to support preservation workflows.

Two obstacles seem to stand in the way of going beyond incremental progress in digital preservation practice:

  1. Continuing to re-invent the wheel rather than building on the work of others–sometimes referred to as the “not invented here” syndrome.
  2. The incredibly local nature of funding. Where is the global economy for digital preservation in cultural heritage organizations?

In one of the sessions, I asked how we could move beyond the drive for perpetual involvement in sexy new development to a focus on adaptive re-use and improvement of existing tools for implementation. Paul Wheatley, SPRUCE Project Manager at the University of Leeds commented that his organization has run some workshops that focus on building workflow support from existing tools. CURATEcamp has also experimented with this model and would seem to be well positioned to continue to support and extend it.

In his closing plenary, Kevin Ashley of the Digital Curation Centre made a case for more collaboration between the UK and Canada. Can’t we do better than that? I realize there are structural and political issues with funding models that draw geographic boundaries around our work. This was well documented as long ago as 2006 by the American Council of Learned Societies in their report Our Cultural Commonwealth about cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences. Perhaps future iPRES conferences could include invitational sessions for funders, focused on leveraging their investments through international collaboration.

My interest in organizational studies may be what gives me this perspective. By focusing some attention on the way we structure our digital preservation work, we can leverage all of our contributions so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What do you think?


Logo Conveys Consulting Practice Purpose–To Enable Organizations to Realize Potential

I am thrilled with the new logo design the talented designer Justin Rands created for me. Derived from the photo of inflating hot air balloons on my web site banner, the logo conveys movement and growth.

My consulting practice adds value to organizations by bringing an outside perspective to help break out of patterns that stand in the way of change. The logo is the perfect complement to my tagline,  …Unleash the Potential.


Consulting Services that Meet Client Needs

Last week, at a conference, a colleague asked me, “What differentiates your services from those that other consultants offer?” It didn’t take me long to respond.

I pride myself on tailoring services to meet client needs rather than leading with a particular technical solution. Like the organization development consultants I studied in my dissertation research, I use Bowen theory as a framework for my work. Within that framework, in collaboration with my clients, I select other theories and tools to enable us to reach our common goals.

For example, Galbraith’s Star model provides a model for understanding how strategy informs structure and other organizational processes. Appreciative Inquiry provides a way to engage people throughout an organization in creating an aspirational vision for the organization. Technologies such as World Cafe create an environment for large group conversations.

While taking the time to identify theories and tools that fit the client’s situation can delay  a project launch, that time is well spent. Finding the best process fit from the start goes a long way towards creating circumstances favorable to a successful engagement.


Application of Bowen Theory to Organization Development Practice

At the end of May, I presented a summary of my dissertation findings to my dissertation committee and fellow Fielding Graduate University students. This event is called the Final Oral Review (FOR). My FOR was a webinar–but we had some technical difficulties, and the session was not recorded. I wanted to be able to share a summary of findings with the study participants and other folks who might be interested, so I created Application of Bowen Theory to Organization Development Practice, a movie of the FOR, created from the power point presentation with narration added.

The movie provides a summary of what I learned from twelve organization development consultants who use Bowen theory in their work–in just under 30 minutes. Continue reading Application of Bowen Theory to Organization Development Practice


The Shift from Performance Evaluation to Performance Leadership

This is Performance Assessment season in libraries. I see colleagues posting anguished messages on Facebook about this fraught annual ritual. There is really no need for the process to be so stressful! Earlier this week, I introduced managers and supervisors in one library to two concepts that can reduce the anxiety spike of annual performance evaluation–SMART goals, and coaching for performance.

Regardless of what forms are required for institutional compliance, there are two relatively simple changes managers and supervisors can make to reduce annual performance evaluation stress. The first change is to focus on goals that contribute to organizational strategy when planning work for the year ahead. The second is to meet regularly to measure progress towards goals.

The SMART framework encourages creation of goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. This can be a shift from annual goals that look more like a lists of tasks from employees’ position descriptions. Although the performance cycle may be annual, goals can be set for shorter time periods that are nested within the year. Remember to put the focus on those goals that contribute to the organization’s strategic mission. People are motivated if they can see how what they do connects to overarching organizational goals.

By meeting regularly, employees and managers can check on progress towards goals. During the year, if resources or priorities shift, goals can be adjusted. Consistent communication about priorities and performance will insure there are no surprises when the time for documenting performance rolls around. And by documenting the performance related conversations at regular meetings, by reformatting the information when it is time to fill out the forms, what was once a tedious job will be far less daunting.

This time of year marks the beginning of a new performance cycle for many, so it’s a good time to institute a new way of thinking about performance management. A shift to SMART goals with a plan for ongoing coaching and regular performance related conversations creates a culture of performance leadership. Not only will this change make the annual performance cycle less stressful, it will also contribute to more effective performance on the part of individuals and the organization as a whole.

In collaboration with a colleague, I have created a training module that covers SMART goals and coaching for performance. The module is designed for use in academic libraries, but could be modified for use in other types of libraries, or other academic settings such as IT organizations. Let me know if you would like to learn more!



Overcoming Irrational Forces in Work Systems

Are you curious about why some work system engagements go so well and others are so difficult when by all appearances, the presenting issues seem similar? Have you thought about irrational forces at work in human systems and the power those forces have to hijack good thinking? What can a consultant do to help people recognize “emotional process” in the workplace and learn to function better in the face of it?

This is the topic I explored in my dissertation research. I studied how organization development consultants use Bowen theory in their work. I found that consultants who ground their practices in Bowen theory take a different approach and stance than other organization development consultants. The biggest difference is in stance. Consultants who use Bowen theory take a systems perspective and make every effort to remain neutral and stay outside the organization’s emotional process.

Emotional process describes how people respond unconsciously to each other. Murray Bowen, who developed his theory in the mid-20th century believed that awareness of the process, and an effort to engage the “thinking brain” could improve individual functioning. In turn, improved individual functioning makes for better functioning families and work systems.

Following this line of thought, the consultants help their clients become aware of emotional process and support their efforts to come up with thoughtful solutions to their problems. The consultants often engage in coaching to help individuals within an organizational system represent their points of view more effectively with their bosses, their subordinates, and in meetings.

The consultants who use this approach find it effective, especially when they engage with clients who are interested and motivated to learn a new way of thinking about work systems. Based on my research findings, I am developing a reference model for Bowen theory-based organization development consulting. When I have completed the model, I will post the details. In the mean time, get in touch if you would like to learn more.


Keep Calm and Carry On

A leader I know posted a link to a video that explained the history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster on her Facebook page last week. Watching the video made me think about how attractive the poster’s message is. Why has it become so popular? To think that we (humans) have the capacity to keep calm and carry on even under extreme circumstances is reassuring in these tumultuous times. But sometimes it doesn’t seem that easy to do. Does leadership make a difference? I think so.

Earlier that week, I had visited the organization the person who had posted the link leads. As I watched the video, I remembered how impressed I had been by the clarity of vision that came through in the meeting I attended. This is an organization that has undergone significant budget cuts over the past several years.

There may have been moments of absolute chaos during the transition period, but what I saw and heard was thoughtful articulation of a mandate and menu of services that had been adjusted so that the organization could meet its goals with current resources. The organization is developing creative new offerings for new markets, they had stopped offering some services, and had made scope adjustments to systems they were continuing to develop and support.

I suspect what enabled the organization to go through the ordeal of cutbacks and come out the other side looking like they are thriving is the quality of leadership. From what I know of this leader (who did not attend any of the meetings, by the way) I suspect she modeled calm behavior through the organizational change process. Just as people can get stressed out at work by a highly emotional leader (especially one who is unpredictable), a clear and calm leader can lower anxiety and stress throughout the organization.

When people are calmer–less anxious and stressed, they are able to think more broadly and creatively. The organization I visited was not simply carrying on in the sense of maintaining the status quo. They had adapted to their new circumstances through creative problem solving. An external threat may have been the catalyst for change, but a calm leader enabled adaptive transformation to occur. Keep Calm and Carry On!