This newsletter often spotlights the companies that provide technology-related products and services to libraries. Itís a diverse group of organizations, including large international companies, large non-profit membership organizations as well as medium-sized and small firms. The ownership and business models also vary. Some base their offerings on proprietary products as others promote open source software. Some trace their roots to the pioneering days of library automation while others emerged more recently. As libraries make strategic technology decisions, one of the important components involves assessing the qualifications of these organizations. I donít have an inclination in favor of or against any of these business configurations, but libraries need to look carefully for the qualities that identify an organization as a worthy technology partner. Given that libraries tend to stay with their automation product for more than a decade, these decisions will have a long-term impact.
Five of the qualities or characteristics that I see as essential in the organizations who want to engage with libraries would include integrity, stability, insight, capacity, and creativity. The actual products and services offered will be subject to rigorous scrutiny in a procurement process. Itís also important to think about the some of the desirable features that define the organization upon which a library will depend for its strategic technologies.
Integrity. Libraries need to have confidence that the organization will honor its commitments and will deal with the library in an open and honest manner. From a legal perspective, libraries can enforce the terms of contracts. But beyond legal compliance, the individuals that represent the company must follow the highest standards of ethics. I have much more respect for company reps that honestly represent their products, even when that means acknowledging limitations and areas of needed improvement.
Stability. Weíve noted that these partnerships will endure for many years. Libraries need to have evidence that the organization will be around for the duration. Many have established very long track records with proven products and business models. Those that have come on the scene more recently need to demonstrate that their organization is on track for long-term survival. Nothing disrupts a libraryís technology plan more than one of its strategic products losing its viability due to some kind of business transition.
Insight. Organizations intending to attract libraries as business clients must have a deep understanding of the mission and values of libraries in addition to our expectations regarding technology. The dynamics of selling products and services to libraries differs considerably from that of doing business with other for-profits. While itís vital to understand that libraries have limited budgets, itís even more important to understand that libraries have long planning cycles and must operate within the oversight of their local boards, funding agencies, or governmental authorities. On the technology front, these organizations must have a deep understanding of both the broad environment, but also the nuances of operational details. Those whose ranks include high proportions of experienced librarians naturally gain an edge in understanding the values and methods of our profession.
Capacity. Libraries need to verify that their providers have adequate resources to meet obligations and expectations. No set formulas define the adequate personnel or business infrastructure needed to deliver excellent customer service and ongoing development and research and development for future products. Yet the library should look for evidence of these capabilities, with a close eye on an established track record and additions or reductions in workforce that might impact future performance.
Innovation. Itís also important to seek organizations that that embrace a spirit of creativity and innovation. A strict adherence to tried-and-true technologies and business models may leave libraries in a conservative position, not well prepared for the rapid changes in technology around us. A more creative approach may imply higher risks, as does maintaining the status quo in a way that fails to keep up with the evolving realities that continually reshape how libraries function in society. Technology products and services built with a spark of creativity can help maintain credibility with todayís tech-savvy library users.
Iím not necessarily suggesting that these five qualities represent the definitive list that defines the ideal technology provider. But building on my assertion in last monthís column that "technology should be more about partnerships that procurements," I hope that libraries will think about these and other positive characteristics as they choose their technology partners.