Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BPE 2009: managing change

Fynette Eaton defines "change" and "transition," Best Practices Exchange, 3 September 2009.

Shortly after I became an electronic records archivist, I attended Partnerships in Innovation: Serving a Networked Nation, a conference sponsored by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). One of the speakers, a scientist who helped to develop the Open Archival Information System Reference Model said something that has stayed with me ever since: the greatest digital preservation challenges we face are not technological but sociological. In other words, conflicts over terminology, turf, roles, and responsibilities can be and often are the thorniest problems we face. As time passes, I'm increasingly convinced that he was right.

Fynette Eaton's exhilarating session at this year's Best Practices Exchange made me think about some of the sociological challenges that we confront within our own institutions. Using NARA's Electronic Records Archives (ERA) program, which will enable NARA to preserve and provide access to the archival records of federal government and to modernize its scheduling, accessioning, and other workflows, as an example, Fynette discussed the principles of change management. She emphasized that although most administrators fail to realize it, implementing new procedures and new technologies and overcoming resistance to change are fundamentally human resources, not technological, issues.

Fynette began by emphasizing the difference between change and transition (see above) and outlining the three phases of the transition process:
  • Ending: letting go of the old way of doing things and the sense of comfort, familiarity, and confidence in one's own expertise that comes with having mastered the old way, saying goodbye to the old way and one's old sense of self, and achieving some sort of closure.
  • In-between time: feeling as if one is lost in the wilderness. This phase is often difficult, but it also results in the generation of new ideas about how to do things and about the self.
  • New chapter: the sense that one has mastered the new way of doing things, often accompanied by a sense of personal and organizational renewal.
Not surprisingly, it's the process of transition, not the change itself, that people most often resist. The sense that one's identity and worldview are being questioned, the chaos of the in-between phase, and the risk of failure that accompanies any new beginning are all deeply unpleasant.

When I first became an electronic records archivist, I started thinking about what separated me from the colleagues who privately told me that they were glad they were still working with paper records or that they would retire within a few years. My colleagues consistently talked about their lack of comfort with technology or our (minor) differences in age, but more and more I came to realize that, in many instances, the most significant difference was my relatively high level of tolerance for chaos and uncertainty. I don't think I enjoy the transition process any more than anyone else, but I'm willing to live with it -- and to set the process in motion -- if I think that the stakes are high enough.

Of course, dealing with the immense and complex challenge of digital preservation requires more than a few librarians and archivists who can deal with a certain degree of chronic upheaval. This session was full of information about how to implement sweeping changes effectively and humanely.

Fynette identified the key success factors for implementing change:
  • Alignment of and visible support from the organization's executive team, including senior managers. Without visible, consistent support from the executive team, change won't succeed.
  • Formation of a change management team charged with planning and preparing for implementation of the desired change.
  • Consistent communication with employees, including early involvement of employees in pilot testing and other parts of the change process; research indicates that key points need to be communicated a minimum of seven times (!)
  • Frequent communication and negotiation with stakeholders, which for archives and libraries include end users and creators of records and publications.
She also detailed the greatest obstacles to change:
  • Employee and staff resistance.
  • Middle management resistance -- a significant factor at NARA.
  • Poor executive sponsorship.
  • Limited time, budget, and resources.
  • Organizational inertia and politics -- also in play at NARA.
Reviews and audits that track measurable progress can help overcome opposition from external stakeholders, and direct one-on-one contact and pressure from peers who accept the need for change can help to alleviate internal opposition; removing tools and systems that sustain "the old way" of doing things can also eliminate resistance, but this step should be taken only after everyone has been properly trained to use the new system.

Fynette devoted most of the session to NARA's efforts to manage the changes that accompanied the development of ERA, which ought to serve as a model for other cultural heritage institutions making similar changes.

NARA's change management team was responsible for:
  • Keeping NARA running while ERA was being built.
  • Building and sustaining the momentum needed to set changes in motion.
  • Dealing with the human dimension of organizational change.
  • Managing NARA's transition to a new and sustainable way of doing business.
The team, which developed a NARA-wide plan and compiled and continually updated a "global assessment" of progress, learned several lessons that are, in my view, broadly applicable:

1. Clarity and consistency of vision are essential. NARA leaders' perceptions of ERA's scope and mission were inconsistent and varied over time, and some leaders had difficulty sticking to decisions that had been made during earlier phases of the project. Averting endless review of past decisions -- which in some instances wa a form of resistance -- was particularly important.

2. A variety of users must participate in the testing and pilot phases of system development. Doing so helps to ensure that all users feel as if they have a voice and that problems are identified and solved before the system's agency-wide rollout.

3. Communications must be actively managed:
  • Staff needed reassurance that ERA's implementation would not cause NARA's operations to grind to a halt and that they would not lose their jobs as a result of the change. The team frequently met with staff and encouraged them to discuss their concerns. It also identified champions -- people who, regardless of their official position within NARA's hierarchy, had the respect of their colleagues and who could persuade others to support ERA.
  • External stakeholders, whose perceptions of NARA often differ sharply from NARA's perception of itself, also needed confirmation that ERA was on track. The team helped to bolster ERA's credibility by emphasizing NARA's extensive and ongoing involvement in cutting-edge digital preservation research. (I've always been deeply impressed with ERA's research component, and I was both stunned and amused to learn that NARA has actively nurtured this perception.)
Those of us who care passionately about digital preservation have no choice but to address the change management issues that Fynette Eaton highlighted. In the short term, change management might seem less important than finding and testing the technical tools needed to acquire, preserve, and provide access to electronic records and digital publications. However, if our senior managers and our colleagues don't buy into the changes in workflow and, in some instances, organizational structure that digital preservation requires, our institutions -- and archivy and librarianship -- will suffer greatly in the long term. NARA's started tackling some of the sociological challenges of digital preservation, and the rest of us have to do the same.


js said...

Nice wrap-up. As a psychological strategy, how about packaging change as evolution, or, more radically, as "nothing new." Personally and when I talk to colleagues, I find the best way to assuage anxiety about digital preservation is to think of as nothing more than a new manifestation of the core responsibilities of archivists.

While that's a little coy, it's a good starting point.

L'Archivista said...

Thanks, JS! You're absolutely right that emphasizing the continued relevance of traditional archival knowledge and skills is a very good starting point. Doing so really helps to demystify digital preservation and reassure people that their experience and expertise remain relevant.

I nonetheless see the need for active change management, particularly when it comes time to alter workflows or roll out new systems. One of the things I didn't mention in my recap -- but really should have -- is that the NARA's change management team assessed NARA's organizational culture and quickly identified pride in NARA's mission and awareness that NARA was legally and ethically obligated to care for e-records as two major strengths.

The team consistently tapped these strengths when making the case for ERA, but it also recognized that these traits weren't sufficient to ensure ERA's success: many NARA staffers readily saw the need for institutional change, but they also hoped that their own working lives would remain untouched by that change. It took me a long time to figure out that some (but by no means all) of my own colleagues held similarly conflicting thoughts.

ERA's still under development, so the final report card isn't available at this time. However, keeping people focused on NARA's mission, making sure that they feel supported and valued as their day-to-day tasks change, and giving them the opportunity to supply feedback should dramatically increase its chance of success.