As you have probably noticed from past posting in this blog, I fundamentally believe that community engagement is the path in which libraries need to take in order to ensure their relevance to communities. I was recently shown by a co-worker one of the best documents I have ever read regarding the use of community engagement by organizations from the perspective of organizational leaders (see Rick Harwoods Organization First Approach document here). I strongly encourage everyone to read this!
It has taken me a while to try and process this document. This document shows us that there are other necessities outside of engagement which drive organizations – such as stability, plan implantation etc. And after some initial feedback on this posting, it is important to acknowledge the heart of the issue I am trying to get to here. Do organizations engage communities to ensure their services reflect the needs of communities and are the most relevant they can be, or is engagement seen as a process where organizations talk with community members in order to fulfill a mandate created by the organization (e.g. goals/objectives). Rick Harwoods document provides us a lot to chew on. As it indicates in the introduction:
“Just when leaders and organizations need to turn outward toward their communities, they turn inward toward their organizations. The dominant focus becomes their own programs, strategic planning, fund-raising, internal board matters, branding, and other related activities. It is in this realm that leaders believe they can exert the most control and where they feel most confident in their abilities. Other research and initiatives we have undertaken clearly show that the more leaders and organizations try to turn outward and focus on the communities in which they work, the more they reach for inward practices for guidance about what to do. The result is a cycle that binds them ever closer to a posture of inwardness.”
It also clearly delineates that some peoples definition of engagement, or the rationale behind it, does not match Rick or mine. At times it is easy to forget how language can at times be lost in translation. One’s belief or definition, does not necessarily matches someone else’s.
Some additional key points I have taken away from this document is that there is safety in allowing staff members within organizations (libraries in this case) to defining what they consider is important to address, such:
- Services/programs and the role of the library in community,
- measurement tools, and
- ultimately policy and strategic directions.
This makes me wonder, is engagement viewed by some as a deductive process, which is:
- Inherently a top down approach
- Providing certainty to responses (during the engagement activity), since reality and the questions asked of community are based on the ‘expertise’ of professionals.
- Usually based on theoretical or research model – where we as experts may predetermine the parameters of response people provide …
This makes library work and service planning easier, but the engagement process may not eventually lead to what I believe is the best intended outcome from engagement – ensuring library services are more relevant to individuals in local communities.
Shouldn’t libraries be employing a much more exploratory and inductive process to determining community need? This would introduce:
- Uncertainty – and with that innovation
- Allow for library staff to acknowledge that the community is an expert of its own needs,
A (excuse the term) bottom up approach, where engagement leads to finding patterns, exploring and hearing issues – and feeding these into the strategic planning process, seems to make more sense to me. This seems to me to be best for library service innovation – and the continued relevance of library services.
However, I wonder if for some this uncertainty is viewed as too risky?
What is the risk to libraries if we don’t take the later approach?
Is there a balance between the two? (thanks John – for this thought).