More than just faith: Radical trust

Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. I’ve been so turned around by a number of things at work and at home that have all but monopolized my time, leaving very little left to do any writing of any kind. I really haven’t even been able to do what I really love at work: coding. I fear that June may be even worse, so I expect that this blog may not bear as much fruit as I’d want over the next several weeks–let me apologize in advance for that.

In a former iteration of my life, I was very involved with a non-profit organization whose mission was a dedication “to helping people grow individually and in community with others by providing educational experiences that foster an understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the natural world and that emphasize the power of focused, collective effort.” The many years I worked at this organization predated the web, let alone Web 2.0. But looking back at their mission statement in the context of where my mind is these days in the library world, I realize now that fundamentally, our work in back then was founded on the trust that the leadership put in its staff as well as the trust we, as an organization, placed in the people whose lives we touched. What also catches my eye in this mission statement is the word “stewardship” which has, lately, been a matter upon which I’ve been preoccupied with.

Take a look at that mission statement above again, substituting “the natural world” with “the record of human experience” and apply it to what you’re doing in your library. Are you fulfilling that mission? Does your mission include this type of approach? If not, what does it take to move in that direction? Who, what, and where are the change agents that can enable the kind of trust that makes this kind of stewardship possible? I felt like gathering some thoughts on this from an IT perspective.

Leadership

Radical trust does not inherently require leadership, but organizations do. The trick here is to ensure that your leadership adheres to the role of “coordinator” with their “collaborators”. If you were to look at the structure of a radically-trusting organization, it might look drastically different from conventional organizations. In some cases, you’ll see mistrust built-in to the org-chart. In other cases, you may not see it so explicitly, but it exists within or between departments. In that way, mistrust becomes like a curse, in the Blakeian sense that before you displace it, you must acknowledge and address it. This mistrust is just a function of the human experience. Many of us, by nature, are distrustful which is why in a radically trusting organization, one of the leadership’s primary responsibilities is to identify and handle those problem areas. An example of a bad situation would be the micro-managing leader who does not communicate or trust his or her subordinates to make the right decisions. Anyone who has worked in this kind of environment knows that this leadership style has a downward negative effect in the organization, stifling innovation, creativity, communication, and yes, trust. In addition, IT is often the focus of institutional mistrust which can pose a very difficult management challenge.

Innovation

It is possible to design and implement technology that embraces and encourages radical trust. This can be approached through both form and function. For instance, if you have a social software system that allows users to tag OPAC items, you may want to put a lot of consideration in to what the users experience is like. By making this process both fun, connecting and obviously open (not interfered with) you send a clear message that “yes, we trust you to handle this responsibility”. Interface, alone, can make a dramatic difference in your users attitude toward a service. Take Flickr as an example. Flickr’s success is due, in large part, to it’s UI and aesthetics. It is simple to use, yet not condescendingly so. It doesn’t hurt that their data handling is, I’m sure, a solid, robust engine. In addition to its interface, Flickr fills an important void in the lives of its users. The service sells itself, we do not need much convincing or coaxing to use it because its value is readily apparent. I suppose that is approaching the notion of a “killer app”. Can libraries provide killer apps? Why not?

Acceptance

When opening your systems up to the public, you will get plenty of content that does not adhere to your, or your organizations, point-of-view. With social software, comes social interaction. With that, come the tin-foil hats and assholes. Over time, you’ll get to know who these people are and where they troll for trouble. So will your other users. Anyone who has used the internet much knows what these people are like and how they can stir up a tempest. You can trust your other users to come to the conclusion that these individuals do not speak for your organization.

As the provider of these services, we need to a) have a clear policy on dealing with aberrant behavior that does not diminish anyones liberties and b) remain neutral, calm and accepting. By having a clear up-front policy that is agreed-to by all your users, you cover yourself legally and professionally when it comes time for enforcement. But what, exactly, should that enforcement look like? That depends on the circumstance. If someone is being lewd or using profanity, are you going to delete the post, star out the sh**ty words, or just leave it as is? Will you contact the person and ask them to be respectful? What happens if someone posts a recipe for crystal meth on a teen blog comment thread? Will you leave it? Consider these things.

On one hand, we vehemently defend the first amendment rights of the authors whose work we catalog. We don’t give in to interest groups who would have us pull certain material. Would we pull the “work” of our users? If so, is that hypocritical? Where is the demarcation between the two? Does anyone want to articulate what rights taxpayers have on the systems they helped pay for? It seems to me, that this is a supreme court case waiting to happen–a major topic for 21st century librarianship. No matter where the answer may lay, we shouldn’t just run away from it and not offer these services. That is not the answer. Someone’s got to deal with it at some point.

Tolerance

Along with acceptance, we need to be tolerant, especially of those who will never be pleased with the job we do. These are actually some of the people to whom the library means the most. As such, we need to listen and respond to their concerns whether we intent to accommodate them or not. The primary difference between acceptance and tolerance is that with acceptance, we make the decision to let an individual proceed with their behavior whether we like it or not. We recognise their right to act in whatever manner they choose. With tolerance, we know we do not like their behavior, but we understand that it’s important to actively engage that person and address their concerns or ideas. Librarians, in general, are incredibly tolerant people. More so than most other professionals I’ve ever worked with. So the challenge may not actually be tolerance itself, but translating it to an online experience in a way that accommodates and reassures our more… cantankerous… users.

Letting go

If it’s a real challenge you’re looking for, let’s take a look at how we’re to “let go” of our content and let it be at the mercy of an untrained collective. Let’s be honest and admit that when it comes to catalogs and material, librarians do not trust the public to make good metadata. A lot of these feelings are wrapped up in a time-honored tradition of providing authoritative information that has passed the scrutiny of official librarianship. Something like OPAC tagging (which will, eventually, be in the canon of online library service) is a terribly hard sell (I know, I’ve tried) because the response is, “we’re going to let our users do what? “I think there are two reasons why this is an entirely inappropriate response. First, it obviates the notion of radical trust between library and patron. Second, it presupposes that social OPACs and authoritative OPACs are mutually exclusive. Both of these fallacies in an argument against OPAC tagging will, in time, deteriorate as long as some of us continue to push the issue. They will eventually disappear because any resistance to OPAC tagging, or social OPACs in general, is not based on any reasoned argument. It’s a turf dispute, fueled by ego–an entirely natural, and understandable response that we can indulge for a little while, but ultimately cannot allow to disrupt innovation.

Darlene Fichter writes:

We can only build emergent systems if we have radical trust. With an emergent system, we build something without setting in stone what it will be or trying to control all that it will be. We allow and encourage participants to shape and sculpt and be co-creators of the system. We don’t have a million customers/users/patrons … we have a million participants and co-creators.

Considering social OPACs as an emergent system, we can see how distrust is a stifling force when you’re faced with the task of getting your users to begin producing content. If you’re simply trying to prime the system, mistrust can be the handicap that is the difference between success and failure.

Not risk-averse

It should be pointed out that, as libraries, we are in the unique position of operating within a relatively risk-tolerant environment. In other words, if we try something that fails, the fallout is rather mild. Without the omnipresent bottom-line of commerce piggybacking everything we do, we can afford to think radically and act progressively. Yet, libraries are some of the most conservative institutions in our communities (save a few mavericks). Risk tolerance should be considered an asset, something to be leveraged against the services we provide. How do we take advantage of such an asset? Library leadership and administration needs to have trust and faith in its people–giving them the latitude to try bold new things that have the potential to fail. New ideas should not be over-thought. Perhaps establishing several sacred directives (much like the three laws of robotics) centered around privacy and freedom would help to orient new ideas and help keep your organization out of the hot-seat.

Experimentation

Risk-tolerance leads to the willingness to experiment. In our library IT environment, we do a fair amount of that. Because of the trust and latitude provided us by an accepting administration and a forward-thinking boss, we have the time to play with new technology, write code that will never see the light of day, all for the sake of forging new and interesting features and services for both staff and patron. In a library environment, we watch our users, hypothesize on what they may respond to, prototype, test and, hopefully, roll out a new, popular product. A lot of things end up in the trash, but that’s the idea. Often times, only a small component of a larger whole is successful. We can extract those successes and move on. These are simple tenets of R&D. We are not blessed with an overabundance of resources to conduct R&D, but can make up for it with a willingness to accept failure as asset.

Selective

What about the risk that your department could turn into a lunatic’s workshop? That’s not a bad concern. Innovation has always been about harnessing creativity to address a need or desire. By brainstorming effectively as a group, you can be selective about what you pursue so that energy is directed properly. What you want, what you should be striving for is focused creativity. This means using planning, communication, and agreement as the perimeter of your experimentation. Inter-organizational collaboration is a useful tact here as well.

Collaboration

At the end of the day, collaboration is the trust-builder between staff members. Getting two or more people or organizations together to work on a project lets everyone see what the others are capable of. The very act of creating something as a group builds a bond between people that no other activity can. Of course, this assumes that all participants pull their weight and put in the effort expected of them. Again, supervisors need to check in with project members to see ho things are going without becoming a micro-manager. Sometimes, if someone is not pulling their weight, it’s an indication that they are not interested or not able to do the job presented to them–their talents may lay elsewhere.

Often times, collaborations leads to a kinship that begins a cycle of productivity that continues to improve and enrich both the lives of the people involved and the organization they represent.

Faith

You must forgive the fact that, as someone who studied English lit before making the jump to geekdom, I tend to dramatize my posts now and then. I often found myself caught between a fascination of both Modernism and Romanticism, which made for some very tortured papers (and make me take up with the likes of Wilfred Owen). But the idea of faith always seemed to emerge as the natural force behind triumph and success. In this case, I have faith that our libraries are going to be just fine. In fact, I believe libraries will play a drastically more important role in our communities. Accompanying that growing importance, however, will be major changes that ask a lot from our profession. Trust is a first step. When we can learn to trust ourselves, we’ll then need to give our trust to a public that isn’t even asking for it.


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