Organizational Change

by Amanda Rust

Learning Objectives

After completing self-study with this Orientation (The Toolkit and Organizational Change), the learner will be able to:

  • Identify and further develop personal skills relevant to creating a successful workplace proposal around inclusive information systems.
  • Identify potential opportunities and obstacles to advocating for inclusive information systems within their organization.
  • Design a plan for using the Toolkit in activities that will effectively advocate for inclusive information systems within their organization.

Content

Key Resources

Bradbury, A., Brenner, M., & Slaughter, J. (2016). Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Detroit, MI: Labor Notes.

A highly practical and readable summarization of good practices, with lessons learned from many years of labor organizing. While some handouts and checklists from the book are online, the entire work is a valuable read. Note that many labor organizing resources assume a relationship of conflict, whereas this Orientation generally takes a more collaborative stance, assuming that in most contexts potential partners in creating more inclusive information systems are not immediately hostile.

Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.

A powerful book and system of thought that has deeply influenced this document. It notably focuses not on just strategies for change, but strategies for change in an unpredictable world where groups must not only be effective but also resilient, inclusive, and adaptable. Emergent strategies are the process of building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions. Emergent strategies emphasize critical connections over critical mass and change through interactions that follow three main principles: avoid useless predation, spread lessons, and proliferate change. Goals are to increase connection rather than win or dominate. This system of thought was developed by the author’s years of work in non-profit social justice organizing, which provides a potentially more relevant frame for the daily work of cultural heritage organizations than organizational change literature developed solely in and for for-profit business and IT contexts.

Core Assumptions and Implications

Before we get started, it’s useful to outline some of the core assumptions behind this Orientation.

Where you put your energy is a political choice. As Emily Drabinski succinctly noted in 2018 1, in our daily work we make choices on which actions to take. Taking some actions means not taking others, which is a statement about what we find important. Whether deciding which cataloging backlog to tackle, which meetings to attend, or which budget priorities to submit to the university, we all make those choices within the politics of existing power structures.

This Orientation assumes that most cultural heritage organizations are operating without enough resources. By being attentive to the choices that are being made in lieu of more inclusive information systems, users of this toolkit will be more aware of where to focus their efforts for change. Even if potential partners agree with the goal of creating more inclusive information systems, there will need to be a period of proposing change, figuring out how to acquire resources for change, and testing the best methods for change.

Our position affects how much access we have to power. Understanding the structural effects of race, class, gender, and disability is a crucial step in good technical design.  The concept of intersectionality is particularly powerful for this type of analysis. It was developed by legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, and is the study of how intersecting or overlapping social identities, particularly those of marginalized people, operate within larger societal structures of power and oppression. 2

Within a group using this toolkit for organizational change, there may be members that have different identities that give them authority (or not) in different ways. In cultural heritage organizations, it is sometimes the most vulnerable members (temporary employees like interns or fellows, or new employees just entering the profession) that are asked to lead new or innovative initiatives. For a successful initiative, it is best to also give those employees the support of someone with established authority in the organization.

Technology developed and used for and in the non-profit cultural heritage sector represents both opportunity and risk. The cultural heritage sector often relies on theories of entrepreneurship and innovation without consistent reflection on the context and history of those theories. See, for example, the wide adoption of and re-use of the theory of “disruption” without consideration of its criticisms in the academic literature 3, or consistent valuing of new and innovative services over the “traditional” without consideration of the importance and impact of maintenance work 4. This can lead to internal competition within cultural heritage organizations between the “technical” and “public” sides, or the “innovative” and “traditional” sides, or the “tech-savvy” vs. “luddite” employees.

However, cultural heritage organizations are in a unique position to instead embody a participatory approach to systems design, balancing the demands of centralized computer systems with the responsibility of representing the variety of human culture and experience. All employees at cultural heritage organizations should be empowered to learn more about information systems, and the toolkit can be used to increase connections between “technical” and “public” departments, particularly if study groups are designed to include representatives across departments. Using the toolkit to focus on successful examples of partnership in the design and implementation process can show that, by reframing outcomes around connection and partnership, technical projects can both innovate and serve responsible, long-term and sustainable curation goals.

The toolkit can also provide evidence that projects centered on partnership may, in fact, take more time, but end up with more robust results in the end. In other words, cultural heritage information systems represent an opportunity to bring long-term, non-scalable, human values to technology via real-world implementation of inclusive systems.

We can redefine optimal. Within a wide range of realms from business and information technology to archival processing and cataloging, “efficiency” and “optimization” are loaded words. They are typically defined as processes that achieve the “most” in the shortest and least costly way possible. Cost may be defined not just by obvious monetary cost, but also staff time or computer processing power. Fastest is assumed to be best.

While cultural heritage organizations operate within limited resources, they also represent a context in which we could redefine efficiency and optimization around values of connection, partnership, and sustainability. Cultural heritage organizations inherently play a caretaker role, so are a place to ask: what if the “optimal” outcome is the one that leaves us with the best relationships? What if a system is optimized for the most flexibility and sensitivity in user interface, rather than server load time? What if we define the most efficient cataloging process as the one that ends with terms developed with the most community input, rather than completed in the shortest amount of time?

Change may be slow and the tipping point unclear. Change towards more inclusive information systems may happen fast or slow, and it is not always possible to predict when a good opportunity will arise. Depending on the organizational context, there may have to be many repeat conversations as people change their minds — or change their minds on what is important enough to resource — little by little. This toolkit can be used to empower multiple people to have those conversations, and to look at repeat conversations not as a failure, but as a successful series of increasing connection. Each time people in an organization talk about creating more inclusive intellectual property protocols, it increases the connection people feel to that topic and others working on that topic, and increases the chance that, when an opportunity arises, change will happen.

Change means vulnerability. 5 Even if you are talking about something as seemingly dry as database structure, this process may be more emotional for you than you anticipate, or may lead others to feel more emotion than you anticipate. Change involves opening up oneself and others to the experience of being a beginner, as you stop familiar work practices and begin new.

To be particularly useful to cultural heritage practitioners, we need to include practical steps for change. In the cultural heritage world, workers’ time and energy are the most scarce resources, and most practitioners do not have space for research and writing in their primary job responsibilities. Feedback from early presentations of this toolkit showed that even when many practitioners wanted to support more inclusive information systems, they needed concrete examples of the design of inclusive information systems to prompt ideas about what could be achieved in their workplace.

Personal Skills for Advocacy

There is one final central assumption of this Orientation: there are core, practice-able personal skills that will help you effect change. Users of this toolkit for workplace advocacy may or may not be used to leading an initiative, and may or may not feel comfortable doing so. However, there are specific skills that anyone can practice that will help build consensus and lead an initiative. Three of the most important are

  • Active listening and empathy.
  • Facilitating collaborative but effective meetings. 6
  • Developing compelling conversations and communications.

While there is a broad literature on each of these skills, and users of this Orientation are encouraged to seek out additional resources, this Orientation brings together some beginning resources and exercises to start.

Activity 1: Improve Your Communication Skills

Resources

  1. Fagan, E. (n.d.). Characteristics of Effective Listening. The University of Chicago. Chicago Center for Teaching.
  2. Stanford Teaching Commons. (n.d.). Characteristics of Effective Listening. Stanford University. Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.
  3. Boston University. Office of the Ombuds. (n.d.). Active Listening Handout. Boston University. Office of the Ombuds.
  4. Greater Good in Action. (ca2015). Active Listening Exercise. University of California – Berkeley. Greater Good Science Center.
  5. National Education Association. Center for Organizing. (ca2015). Organizing Conversation: Guide and Sample Outline. National Education Association.

Activities

  1. Read resources 1-3. Write a 5-minute reflection listing where you feel that you already practice active listening skills, and where you that you could improve. Note both the specific skills you do well or could improve (i.e. rephrasing) and the contexts in which you do or do not practices those skills (i.e. you may rephrase frequently during one-on-one conversations, but not during group meetings.)
  2. Read resource 4 and practice active listening with a trusted colleague or friend.
  3. Read resource 5 and, using that outline as a sample, write an organizing conversation that uses the principles of active listening to create a compelling conversation around an issue of inclusive information systems at your organization.

Activity 2: Run a Collaborative Meeting

Resources

  1. Lakey, B. (n.d.). Meeting Facilitation: The No-Magic Method. Training for Change.
  2. Cullinan, R. (2016, April 29). Run Meetings That Are Fair to Introverts, Women, and Remote Workers. Harvard Business Review.
  3. Gass, R. (2013). Tools for Transformation: DARCI Accountability Grid. Social Transformation Project.

Activities

  1. Before your next three work meetings, review resources 1 and 2 on facilitation. After each meeting, write a 5-minute reflection on how the meetings were run collaboratively, and how they could have been changed to run more collaboratively.
  2. In your next work project, create a work plan using the framework in resource 3. If possible, introduce it to others in that project to test if it works well for you. Otherwise, test it in your personal work. After that project is over, write a 5-minute reflection on how an accountability grid did (or did not) clarify the partnership process.

Additional Resources

Digital Library Federation. (2016 – 2018). DLF Organizers’ Toolkit.

Scan and Plan

How the Toolkit Fits In

Some libraries, archives, and museums can be conservative, and more inclined to follow than lead. Cultural heritage organizations can also place a lot of weight on formal authority. Therefore, using resources from recognized sources may make administrators more likely to consider educational initiatives or plans for change. This Toolkit may serve as that recognized source, or this Toolkit may lead you to case studies, articles, communities of practice, or other projects that can serve as a recognized source.

By gathering examples of both existing projects and the existing scholarly literature, the Toolkit provides items that can work as either inspiration or evidence. You may need to show that this is a problem understood as worth of attention in the cultural heritage field, or show that other organizations have attempted to create solutions. You may need to show that this is not just a “technical” problem but rather one that actively excludes potential users, or show that existing processes and systems can be successfully modified.

By packaging these items in a format designed for self-study, the Toolkit also provides a mechanism for the first steps in making change: creating a community and raising awareness. The best first step at many organizations will be the creation of a self-study group to follow relevant study paths in the Toolkit. Participants in that group will be empowered to review their organization’s current practices in light of best practices in the cultural heritage field. Participants in that group will also form a core constituency for the next phase of creating change.

Practical Strategies

  • Connect for the long-term, even if your initial projects are short-term.
  • Create multiple levels of involvement, and let people start small. Create room for participants to contribute in multiple ways. For example, a monthly in-person study group wherein participants complete one study path per month is a low time commitment. However, Toolkit study paths can stand alone or be used to create a narrative that builds, so that activities are focused around a single area of emphasis.
  • At the same time, create a core group of committed participants. Personally invite people that you think will be strong supporters. Ask them to commit to the initiative, and to reporting on it back at their home department.
  • Start with “low-hanging fruit” — easy-to-make changes that will lead to early and visible success.
  • Report on your success outwards via the appropriate mechanisms at your organization (an all-staff meeting, an organizational newsletter, a presentation to your department.) Make sure to report upwards to your leadership team as well.
  • If appropriate, involve interested outside groups (student organizations, local arts collectives), providing lunch or dinner.
  • Connect your initiative to organizational goals. For example, if you work at a university and that university has a goal around increasing partnerships with community members, see if there is funding to host events where community members enhance archival photo metadata.
  • Be prepared to talk about inclusive information systems over and over again. This is not discouraging, it’s rather building a foundation.
  • Don’t let technology be a block: some will refuse to participate in anything relating to “technology”, seeing it as others’ jobs. Start with activities that are pen-and-paper, imaginative brainstorming that anyone can do.
  • Where necessary, propose pilot workflows to measure how much extra time an initiative might take, and develop factual answers to questions about staff resources. Some organizations might be unwilling to commit to an immediate larger change, but might be willing to put resources behind small pilots or prototypes.
  • Target your message for your audience. For example, your library administration may be interested in hearing how your efforts contribute to your library’s diversity and inclusion plan, whereas museum educators may be interested in hearing about how participatory design events can be used with K-12 audiences.

 

Activity 3: Scan Your Organization

Create an organizational scan by answering the prompts below.

Scope
What are the areas related to inclusive information systems that you want to learn more about, review, or change? Be as specific as possible, noting where you simply want more information, where you know you want to review existing processes, and where you already know you want to make change.Prioritize your areas of focus in order of importance.Who works in those areas? Who sets policy in those areas?
Potential supporters
Who do you think would be most likely to support this specific initiative on inclusive technology and information systems? Identify at least one person in each department in your organization who might be interested in the topic of inclusive information systems.Who do you think would be least likely to support this specific initiative on inclusive technology and information systems? Why? Who might be indifferent, and who might be openly hostile?Who are the existing champions, either within your department or larger organization, of diversity and inclusion initiatives generally? If you are in an educational institution, don’t forget about student groups and departments in student affairs, which may have many kinds of expertise to contribute to inclusion initiatives. Note that, depending on your organizational structure, you may need clearance before reaching out to them. Also identify who might already feel empowered by technology, and who might see it as an obstacle.
Potential resources
What are the parts of your organization’s mission, values, and high-priority initiatives on diversity and inclusion that might relate to inclusive technology and information systems? Are there sources of funding within your organization for diversity and inclusion initiatives?Are there professional or peer organizations that your administration particularly respects and/or looks to for guidance? These might be local, regional, or national organizations. What are those professional or peer organizations doing that’s related to inclusive technology and information systems, that might be persuasive to those higher up in your organization? (Hint: the Design for Diversity Toolkit may have useful examples!)

Activity 4: Create a Proposal for Staff Development

Follow the prompts below to create a group and propose an initial action in which you convene a group and use Toolkit study paths to learn more about inclusive information systems. Please modify these steps as needed for your organization! See the “Tools for Emergent Strategy Facilitation” chapter in Emergent Strategy for additional ideas on how to structure and govern your group.

1 or 2. Get supervisory/administrative approval. This step may actually come second, after forming your group, depending on the nature of your organization. Some cultural heritage organizations are very hierarchical, and it’s worth letting a supervisor know that you want to explore creating a new interest group, even a casual one. Some supervisors or organizations will be more receptive to a study group proposal if it comes from multiple people.

2 or 1. Form your group. You may be able to do this entirely within your organization, or you may be able to work within a group to which your organization belongs such as a local consortium. Starting with one-on-one conversations and using your environmental scan, locate the people who want to learn more about inclusive information systems or that already see inclusive information systems as an important issue. Once you’ve formed a core group of supporters (possibly no more than 1-2 other people to start), you may wish to send out a public call for participation. Ideally this group includes people across multiple departments or areas in your organization.

3. Agree on values. Outline why you want to begin this study group. Relate your plan for more inclusive information systems to your organization’s mission, values, and current initiatives. Articulate a shared vision, and places where your vision is not in alignment. (e.g., this study group will learn more about inclusive cataloging, but does not have consensus on whether or how our organization can implement such practices, or will not recommend changes in workflow without outside consultation.) Send out a written version for your group to review, and hold an in-person meeting to affirm or amend.

4. Publicize the group’s existence and invite additional participants. Again, when you can actually do this may depend on your organizational structure and culture — you may need formal approval. If possible, a public call for participants will not only let others know that this issue is a priority, but may also bring in some participants you did not expect. You can use your shared values statement to succinctly describe why you think this is important.

5. Prioritize the issues. What areas of inclusive information systems will you focus on? There are many options in the Toolkit, so your group should first scan potential topics and determine which study paths are most relevant to your organization. You can also use your initial organizational scan to bring up, to the group, areas you’ve already identified as good options for research. This process may take a few meetings, but you should end with a list of Toolkit topics and relevant study paths developed by the group.

6. Write a brief proposal and work plan for your study group. This is helpful in not only summarizing your work so far, but also in communicating your work outwards and upwards to supervisors or administrators. Include who, what, when, and where it will happen: your group members and their responsibilities in the initiative; what you propose and why (i.e., a study group for staff development); when you will meet and how often; where you will meet; and when the study group will finish their first round of study. You may wish to also propose a mechanism for reporting back out to your organization via a presentation to staff, brown bag lunch, or agenda item on a departmental meeting — whichever makes the most sense for your organization.

As you work, talk about your work! Using the skills of active listening and creating organizing conversations, have one-on-one conversations with others in your organization about the concepts you think are most relevant to your organization. Charge others in your group to also have these one-on-one conversations. They do not need to be formal, but make sure that your group is sharing what you’ve learned. This also helps set the stage for putting additional changes into action.

Hopefully, with this series of steps, you have convened a group, made this issue more of a public priority in your organization, and begun staff development in the area. The Toolkit study group is just the first step, and your group will continue with next steps such as reviewing existing processes, making recommendations for change, and putting into practice new systems and workflows for more inclusive information systems.

Inspiration and thanks

There is a long history of people thinking and writing about how to organize to make change. This Orientation is a very selective and idiosyncratic interpretation of that history, filtered through the author’s experience and aimed at providing suggestions on how to use the materials in this toolkit specifically in the cultural heritage sector. The resources listed in this document are only a fraction of a fraction of what is available. Special thanks go to Giordana Mecagni, Des Alaniz, and Emily Drabinski, whose presentations and writings have been vital.

Footnotes

  1. Drabinski, Emily. 2018. “Are Libraries Neutral?” presented at the ALA Midwinter: President’s Panel, Denver, CO, February 11.
  2. Adewumni, B. (2014, April 2). Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use.” New Statesman.
  3. King, A. A., & Baatartogtokh, B. (2015, Fall). How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation? MIT Sloan Management Review; Lepore, J. (2014, June 23). The Disruption Machine. The New Yorker.
  4. For more on the importance of maintenance, see the work of The Maintainers, including Russell, A., & Vinsel, L. (ca2016). Hail the maintainers. Aeon.
  5. Phrasing taken directly from Emergent Strategy, which is particularly eloquent on this point.
  6. Keeping in mind the previous point that “effective” may not mean the fastest or cheapest! Especially when starting out, an approach that builds consensus and connection is important. Emergent Strategy describes this as using governance that exemplifies a social justice approach; see in particular the chapter “Tools for Emergent Strategy Facilitation.”