As part of their Future Skills Project, CILIP has recently invited members to feed back on the first draft of the revised Body of Professional Knowledge and Skills. I have already submitted my comments using the online form, but I thought it would be useful to spend a little longer reviewing the document.
The proposed BPKS clearly tries to address the problems attributed to its predecessor, often criticised for being woolly and impractical. I certainly think it is a step in the right direction. The coverage is good and I like the matrix approach. It is obvious that CILIP have tried very hard to accommodate everyone and everything into this framework. Perhaps that is the problem with this draft: it is trying too hard not to miss anything. In fact, the introductory text on the consultation page is a bit of a give-away:
This consultation aims to identify any gaps and gauge opinion on whether the subject headings we have included are the right ones.
I did not find any gaps (although I am by no means an expert on some of the wheel wedges). For me, the issue was that there were far too many strands, too many headings and subheadings and quite a lot of repetition. Even without the descriptions, the list of “skills” is far too long.
If the new BPKS wants to become the standard competence framework the information industry, it needs to be, first and foremost, usable. It should communicate, pretty much at a glance, where you are as a professional, and what steps you need to take in order to move forward in your chosen career path. It also needs to work on variety of professional environments. In my opinion, making it too specific is a mistake and I believe there are some things that should be addressed.
- Soft skills: I see no point in having a section on communication skills. They are important, yes, but they do not define what we do. I feel the same about research skills or information synthesis competences (collating, abstracting, summarising…) These are common to professionals in most fields and the BPKS should focus on what differentiates library and information professionals from everyone else. I’m not even sure that the sections on ‘Professional confidence’ and ‘Leadership’ are necessary. Most of the headings in these areas are behaviours rather than skills, and they can be covered by the level of competence.
- Tools and technologies: I think there is too much detail about understanding technology and using certain tools. An information professional should be able to pick and choose the most relevant tools at the time, whether it is a thesaurus or social media or something we haven’t yet heard of. Listing particular names is only going to date the document and make it more difficult to maintain. At most, they should be included as examples, nothing else.
- Core skills and duplication: As I mentioned above, I did notice quite a lot of repetition across the document. For example, ‘evaluation’ and ‘financial management’ appear in more than one place and section 12 (strategic planning) ends up as a replica of section 11 (resource management). There are also strong connections between sections that could be merged together, e.g., section 8 (marketing and customer focus) is really a subset from 9 (service design). I think more could be done to distill the core skills that define the profession. Tina Reynolds makes an interesting point about giving a whole wedge of the wheel to Records Management (RM). My feeling is that although in some cases RM is very specialised and separate field, other times (or perhaps it would be better to say in some organisations) it is closely intertwined with information management and perhaps even librarianship. As someone who has worked for many years in hybrid role, I know very well how blurry the edges of professional areas can be. I am in favour of better definition of professional boundaries, because it provides clarity and helps people find support networks, but it has to be done in a way that is flexible enough to accommodate these role discrepancies. Perhaps a solution would be to focus not so much on the label, but on the tasks that record managers do, e.g. content creation, management and disposal. These are skills that are required outside strict RM.
- Self-assessment: The BPKS has a table linking qualifications, knowledge and skills, and competence level. However, professional competence is not just determined by qualifications and the skills definitions are quite woolly, which means the whole thing is too vague and subjective to be useful. Working through the toolkit and scoring oneself should be straightforward and consistent.
Complex as it must be to come up with a solution that is concise, flexible and usable, I believe it can be done. I have read blogs drawing parallels to skills frameworks in other professions, e.g., law, surveying or health, but there are other examples that are much closer to home.
The Government Knowledge and Information Management (GKIM) Professional Skills Framework is one of them. CILIP have obviously used this framework to inform the new BPKS. It is referenced at the end of the draft and the section on “Using and exploiting knowledge and information” has been added pretty much verbatim. The framework clearly defines four categories with a business, user, process or compliance perspective. It also specifies four competency levels: practitioner, manager, leader and strategist.
Our IT department is currently being mapped to the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). The BCS (Chartered Institute of IT) also uses SFIA (branded SFIAPlus) as the basis for their career framework for IT professionals. SFIA is divided in six strands: strategy and planning; business change; solutions development and implementation; service management; procurement and management support; and client interface. And it has seven competence levels: follow; assist; apply; enable; advise; initiate/influence; and set strategy/inspire.
What I like about these frameworks is that they are manageable and very easy to interprete. They clearly identify professional pathways and link career stage to competence level, addressing the issue of consistent self-assessment quite effectively. In both cases, there is additional documentation fleshing out the detail, but even without it, I would be quite happy using tools like these to explain where my role fits in the big scheme of things.
I really hope the consultation process provides CILIP with useful feedback that allows them to address the remaining issues and come up with a solid solution. Oh, and I understand the consultation is still open until the end of Sunday 29th April, so if you still haven’t had your say, you better hurry up and send your feedback before midnight!
I recently ran a usability study for our new library discovery and delivery system. Despite being proprietary software, the system is reasonably customisable and we wanted to make sure that our implementation decisions were sound and the resulting site was as usable as possible. We invited a group of University students, academics and researchers and I observed them while they performed a series of scripted searches on the site.
Sitting down with a user and watching them navigate a site is fascinating – you always discover something new. This time I was impressed by how sophisticated users’ online behaviour has grown. Looking back a mere 3 or 5 years to other evaluations I have done for similar products, it is clear that people are much more internet savvy than they used to be. They make very relevant comparisons with other sites and their expectations are so much higher. I also noticed that, although the overall online behaviour is much improved, users can approach the same task in very different ways… and they expect their method to work. If the site cannot accommodate their approach, then, well, it’s all but failed in meeting their needs.
In fact, it seems that personalisation is a key requirement nowadays, particularly when it comes to large, complex sites like the one we were evaluating. Various users commented that they would like to be able to move filters to a different part of the page or close them down altogether to minimise information overload. Others wanted more information at a glance and greater ability to control what was presented to them. The only way to accommodate all these different preferences is by letting the user customise the interface according to their own needs.
Working on the move, anywhere, anytime, is clearly another core expectation. Most participants got very excited when they saw the site was optimised for mobile access. Many asked if there was an accompanying app. As it happens, the plan is to integrate this search into the University’s mobile app and it’s very useful to know that there is an appetite for that.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following advances on web development and user behaviour studies, but as someone who learns best from experience, I really appreciate having the opportunity to see with my own eyes.
My overall conclusion is that the demands of these sophisticated users require a great degree of commitment to research and development. Clearly, we do not have the local resources to compete with the likes of Google or the latest web 2.0 startup. No, delivering to these requirements is now very much in the hands of library technology companies with the added pressure that library systems are not being evaluated just in comparison to one another, or even to other specialist applications like e-resource platforms. Web technology has well and truly crossed the boundary from work and study to all ambits of life, making these wider experiences an open field from where user expectation will continue to grow.
There was a time when I was able to remember tasks to do without any help. No lists, no reminders, no knots in my hanky. Then I got older and life got complicated. The task list became longer and I started relying on my notepad to keep track of chores. For the last ten years or so, pads and checklists – with a little help from Outlook – have kept me on top of the things I had to do. But last year the level of complexity in my work increased once again, and I began to notice the cracks in my old system: forgotten tasks; the stress of beginning the day with a long list of things to do, in no particular order of importance or priority; having to take my notepad everywhere, which wasn’t really practical… I realised that life would be much easier if I could keep a task list somewhere ‘in the cloud’ and access it from anywhere. As I already had access to just about everything else from my phone and tablet, finding for a tool to manage my ‘to do list’ seemed like a logical step. Thus, I started looking for some software that met what I thought were some simple requirements:
- Easy to add and edit tasks and categorise them by type, priority and due date
- Accessible from my work and home computer, phone and tablet
- Can synchronise across all these devices
- Ability to filter down the number of tasks I see at a time. For example, show me just what I have to do today, or tomorrow or this week. Basically, I was looking for something that cut back information overload and would make my task list less overwhelming.
I suppose, another implied requirement was that the tool would be free. My phone and tablet are both Android devices and in all the time I’ve had them I’ve barely spent any money on apps. I just haven’t had any need because the Android Market is full of good quality apps which are often completely free.
However, I soon discovered that task management apps were a different kettle of fish. It’s clear that there is money to be made helping people to stay on top of their workload, because most the software I found came at a cost. Very often you could install a trial or cut-back version, but it was lacking essential features like synchronisation or had limitations on the the number of tasks you could create. And worse than that, one after another, I downloaded and installed software and apps and found them all unsatisfactory in a some way
- I started with Wunderlist which was simple to use and available on Windows and Android, but I soon found it didn’t allow me to filter and manage the tasks effectively and it wasn’t much of an improvement over my paper notepad. The android apps were also quite buggy and took a while to refresh.
- Tried My Life Organized, a proper GTD based application and run with it for a while but felt there was too much going on and the screen always looked very busy. I didn’t really want to adopt the GTD system in full, just some elements that suited my way of working and this software seemed overkill for that. If I’m honest, I didn’t like the look and feel of the product either – very Windows 90-something and, shallow as that may sound, I find that if my tasklist is presented in a way that I find ‘attractive’, it helps with my motivation to actually work on the tasks. Bottom line: I wasn’t keen on paying for the full edition.
- I moved my tasks to Action Method Online which unlike MLO was aesthetically pleasing and very good at cutting back the ‘noise’ of incomplete tasks. However, I found that the functionality was more geared towards managing tasks that you shared with others and again, I didn’t see a point on paying for a system that only partially ticked my boxes.
- I read blog posts about using Evernote or Springpad to implement GTD. I had a go with Springpad but, I found that I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole and I wasn’t really using the tasklist to manage my work load. I wanted to make task management simpler, not more complicated so this defeated the object.
- I then moved to using Astrid – Chrome app, Android app, nice simple interface, but despite the positive feedback from other users I found it completely unreliable. Synchronisation didn’t work and tasks appeared and disappeared at will. No good.
After going through lots of reviews for other applications, even installing and quickly discarding a few more, eventually, I decided to take another look at Remember the milk. I had seen the app on the Android Market early on, but I dismissed it because the name made it sound as if it would be far too simple for what I needed. I was wrong. RTM was exactly what I was looking for:
- Browser app – tick
- Android app – tick
- Nice, clean interface – tick
- Ability to add and manage tasks easily – tick
- Ability to tag tasks so you can filter by due date, priority, project, location, etc – tick
- Reminders that work – tick
- Instant synchronisation – tick
I loved it from the moment I installed it on my pad. I even forked out £16 for a year subscription to a pro account pretty much straight away. I have only been using RTM for about a month, but it’s made a huge difference already. Now I feel like I’m on top of my task list. I can easily add new jobs wherever I am, even if it’s just a quick note that I tidy up later. It tells me at a glance what I should be doing today. It’s not overwhelming, but it has plenty of functionality to tailor your list(s) to your personal needs.
So, yep, it’s been a long quest, but ‘Remember the Milk’ has saved my bacon and got me organised at last. It just goes to show that you should never judge a book by its cover!
Last month I spent some time working on a creative project, with the aim of producing promotional materials to publicise the library at an upcoming Plymouth University event. Nothing particularly unusual there – this was within the realms of my fairly open role. What is interesting about it is that despite a really tight deadline and working with a group of very busy colleagues, the whole process went really well. This made me think that it would be worthwhile spending some time deconstructing what happened and seeing what lessons I can learn for the future.
To kick start the ‘task’ – I won’t call it project because we didn’t really have the time to go into proper planning – we had an initial meeting that involved representatives from each library team. The meeting was useful in understanding what was required, exploring some options and deciding that we’d produce some posters and a video or automated presentation. In other words, it gave us the brief for the work we had to do. As the group was large, and some admitted not to have an interest on getting hands-on with the design, a smaller sub-group was tasked with coming up with ideas for the posters.
Three colleagues and I set out to brainstorm for a couple of hours. After ensuring we all were clear about the brief, we started exploring the topic we wanted to promote. I made a deliberate decision to take on the role of facilitator, even if it was at the expense of offering fewer ideas. My colleagues are closer to the service provision than I am and I felt they would have plenty to contribute. While they talked, I jotted down their thoughts and, depending on the situation, I asked questions to clarify, expand or focus their ideas. I also kept an eye on the clock so we had sufficient time to reorganise our thoughts and come up with a few concepts that would represent the message we wanted to communicate. I did have to work hard at staying in the ‘facilitator zone’ and every now and then I chipped in with my two-pennies-worth, but overall, it worked really well. Best of all, we came up with a concept that everybody liked and was a true collaborative proposition, the result of bouncing ideas off each other and then capturing the essence of what was being said. I think this was achieved by having someone who was keeping an eye in the whole picture – in this case that was me, though it could have been anybody else. I’m not saying that it couldn’t be done without a facilitator, but I think it would have been more difficult.
Putting it together
Now that we had our mind-maps and sketches, we set out to translate them onto paper. Due to the tight deadline, I worked on the poster drafts alone, but having the material from the workshop made my life so much easier. With the presentation we used a collaborative approach again, although this time in a sequential way: I set the original template and my colleagues enhanced it by adding more content.
Feedback, deadlines and editorial control
We sought feedback from the ‘briefing team’ after the brainstorm and before the posters were sent to print. There wasn’t time to hang about so we had to set really harsh turnaround times for comments. Despite their other commitments, most people replied straight away or shortly after receiving the feedback request. And the responses seemed to be very focussed, possibly because people understood we didn’t have time for many changes and they concentrated on what really mattered to them. There were some differences of opinion, but the ‘design team’ decided to only make changes to the proposal if the majority was in agreement. This allowed us to move really fast from that point on and get all the materials ready on time. Although we received good feedback from various sources, interestingly, at the end of the process we felt that even if the materials hadn’t been that successful, it wouldn’t matter so much. They were only ideas; we could use them today and ditch them tomorrow.
So this is what I think I have learnt from the exercise:
- You need a brief and everyone to be clear about what it is. Very often people come to projects with different ideas or expectations. The library managers getting together and deciding what they wanted was a crucial part in the success of this task.
- Although I said earlier no planning was done, by that I meant ‘planning’ in project management terms. Clearly you do need to sort out a timeline and make sure everyone is clear about their role and deadlines.
- Creative brainstorms may not work with a large group
- Creative brainstorms work better with someone facilitating
- Deadlines focus the mind and help you and others concentrate on what is important.
- Work in beta – there are some lessons to be learnt from agile development. We increasingly work with fewer resources and more demands. We need to readjust our expectations and be able to deliver outputs that are not perfect, but they are good enough. I’ve been involved in this kind of work in the past, where drafts have been around for months. In this case, because there wasn’t time to mess around, we made ‘executive decisions’ and it worked. I wouldn’t recommend this approach for everything, but at the end of the day, a poster is just a poster. If people don’t like it, we can bin it and start again.
Obviously we don’t always have the opportunity to try things out and see what happens, but I really think we could be more agile in the way we produce content and resources. Something else that would have helped us to speed things up – and saved a lot of angst when trying to evaluate and act on the feedback received from colleagues – would have been to ask the ‘briefing team’ who had ultimate editorial control. It is quite frequent for projects and tasks in our department to have many stakeholders and/or sponsors. This slows down decision making and reduces the chances of a quick turnaround. Having a single person who is responsible for saying yes or no to a design, even if they take advice from others, could be a huge improvement.
I feel that it would also be useful to turn experiences like this into some guidance that people could follow when faced with a similar task. I’m certainly hoping that by sharing my thoughts with others, we can perhaps improve the way we handle creative work as a team.
Some months ago I blogged about my take on reflective practice. Since then I have been doing a lot of thinking around the topic, mostly because I have started to put together my CILIP Chartership portfolio and demonstrating that I am a reflective practitioner is a key part of the process. After staring at several blank pages, wondering how to start writing reflectively I realised that, before I could go any further, I needed to get a better sense of what my reflective style is.
I reflect, therefore I am
I say this because ‘I know’ I have a reflective style. As explained in my previous post, reflecting comes naturally to me, and this has been confirmed by feedback from others, in various situations, both at work and in education. Whenever I take a learning styles questionnaire, invariably I come up as reflector-theorist-pragmatist in fairly equal parts – my activist is lagging well behind. Why then, am I finding it difficult to write a reflective blog? In part, I guess, it’s lack of practice but there is more to it than that. I started blaming it on the way my mind works and the way I have been trained to think like a scientist.
And then it just dawned on me that having an analytical mind doesn’t stop me from engaging in reflective practice, in fact, it should be quite the opposite.
Doing it like a boffin
It seems to me that the social disciplines have claimed ownership of reflective practice, when in fact scientists do this all of the time. As a scientist, reflecting is a quick cyclical operation. Look back to those days in the chemistry lab. Following a procedure for an experiment, you were told to observe and write copious notes. What happens, can you explain the reaction? What would happen if you repeated it in different conditions? Can you improve the yield? This experiential learning – which also forms the basis of scientific research – relies heavily on reflective practice.
In my previous life as a research chemist I had to do this all the time and I learnt most of the key skills that still serve me well today: attention to detail, analytical and organisational skills, problem solving, and creative thinking amongst others.
The big difference between the pure science and social science approach to reflection is that the former works only with hard facts, whereas the latter is happy to bring in a subjective perspective. I think it could also be said that the reflective practice cycle in hard science happens faster and in smaller increments. That’s how I learnt to apply my analytical mind in the lab: observe problem, hypothesise solution, apply solution, observe reaction, prove or disprove hypothesis and continue this cycle until a theory could be established. By repeating this process it became, not just a way of conducting lab experiments, but also the way in which I operate and approach every learning experience.
There are good and bad news here. On the positive side, I think this reinforces even more the extent of my reflective nature. On the down side, it tells me that I have become so used to my own version of the reflective cycle, that it is difficult for me to externalise it.
What I think I need to do is follow this same process but slow it down so there is more room for the subjective observations to emerge. I also feel that I should not be afraid to use description mixed with my reflection. Much of the advice you get about writing reflectively says to avoid description and that has been worrying me, because I realise I do have a tendency to describe facts (that analytical mind again). However, taking a look at my old lab books, which are in a way the ultimate log, I realised that writing down the facts allows me to review them, draw conclusions and build solutions. Deep down, I’m always going to want something ‘solid’ behind what I say. It’s what makes me who I am, and if accepting that helps me to move forward and find my reflective writing voice, I think I may be onto something.