Railroads, Libraries & Change…

This weekend I thought back to a story I heard years ago about the railroad industry. As people and products started using highways for transportation, most rail road companies did not diversify into those new modes of transportation because they saw themselves as railroad companies, not transportation companies.

It’s never easy to make big shifts when technology opens up new opportunities. Looking back in time it seems obvious that big, successful railroad companies should have been able to make the transition (or diversify) into new modes of transportation, but generally speaking they did not. How come?

  1. Change is difficult and scary at the same time. Bureaucratic inertia makes it difficult to change the direction of most large organizations, along with the fear of dislocation and not knowing how to do a new job.
  2. Another major consideration is that the “new direction” that is obvious to us know, is generally not obvious at the time. Mistakes will be made in technological transitions. There will be ventures down dead ends, before the new best practices become well worn paths.
  3. In the case of academic libraries, we are a service “department” inside of larger organizations. Out of necessity we support the direction of the University in the best way we can, and do not necessarily have the power to change the direction of the university no matter how certain that our version of the future is correct.
  4. Lastly, larger, consensus based, democratic organizations (like Universities) generally change more slowly than smaller organizations that have strong central authority to dictate to their direction (like Corsera, et al.). This is a double edged sward. On one hand we are not as nimble as smaller start-ups. On the other hand we have resources and prestige that can allow us to be very competitive if we can create a consensus to move in the “right” direction in a timely fashion.

Trying to figure out what is the “right” direction is the tricky part, and what I think we’re headed towards in the Strategic Planning process at the library where I work. One point to remember is that railroad companies survive to this day, but they are much less important than they were a century ago, in large part because they were unable to recoginize the importance of new technologies, and integrate them into their businesses.

P.S. Here are two great articles on the future of libraries by Seth Godin & Clay Shirky as food for thought:

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