Why I look forward to meetings, the ALA is like Cthulhu, and everything’s better with Ronald Coase

I look forward to meetings.

I mean, I hate meetings. Everybody hates meetings, right? My poor husband is sufficiently good at his job he no longer gets to do it very much and instead is in meetings all day, and we commiserate about this.

But I look forward to meetings at Unglue.it. Partly that’s because I work from home so the chance for actual human contact, not on the internet, is gratifying. But partly it has to do with Ronald Coase.

Ronald Coase and getting things done

Ronald Coase won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on transaction costs. It’s the sort of easy-to-explain, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that work that, once you’ve seen it once, you see it everywhere — it makes the everyday world make new and different sense. Genius. If you’re not familiar with it I strongly encourage at least Wikipedia-level familiarity.

I’m reading Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers[1] and he discusses one application of this, Coase’s ceiling: the size past which an organization can’t scale without decreasing value. “You can think of an employee inside an organization having two parts to his job: coordinating with people inside the organization and doing actual work that makes the company money….There’s a point where adding an additional person to the organization increases the internal coordination for everyone else to a point that’s greater than the additional actual work he does.”

And in larger organizations, this internal coordination is a big part of what meetings are for. And don’t get me wrong: it’s important…it matters that people know enough about the organization’s priorities and activities that they can make good decisions about which work to do and how to situate it. It’s important to avoid duplication, identify collaborators, and understand strategic goals.

But it’s boring. It’s not getting things done. It’s prerequisite to that, but is not that itself. So those of us with a preference for getting things done, you put us in a meeting, we start to climb the walls.

I work for a company with four employees and three contractors. And even at this scale the coordination work is noticeable — particularly because we all work remotely we’ve had to put a lot of conscious attention into building culture and communication channels, into selecting tools. Even at this scale coordination is a big, important chunk of the work and it can fail. But even so: a lot of it can happen informally. And that means when we have meetings, they are focused on getting things done. There are specific projects and features and needs on the table, and we address them, and we come away with to-do lists, and then we do them. And (shh, don’t tell) I actually like that kind of meeting.

The ALA: many tentacles undermine transparency

I think of the ALA as Cthulhu. (Bear with me; I promise this connects.) It has a million tentacles, and the fifth right tentacle doesn’t know what the forty-second left one is doing, and if you gaze upon it trying to understand it too long you start losing sanity.

The ALA has problems with coordination at scale.

And here’s the thing: if you’re an organization with tens of thousands of members, but you exist in a time before internet technology, before cell phones, before widespread private telephony, before easy long-distance transportation — all of which have been true for at least part of ALA’s history — you want to not be a transparent organization. You may want to have open meetings because it gratifies your moral sensibility, but, you know: “open” meetings that no one not on the board actually comes to, at venues most of the membership can’t afford to get to, poorly minuted. Because that is the only way you can get things done. If you start bringing into the room the overhead of coordinating your thousands of division members, your tens of thousands of association members — even just the overhead of clearly communicating with all your committee and round table chairs and making sure they get proper orientation and they’re all fully briefed on where the organization is going and they know enough about one another to work together effectively and not duplicate labor — well — you can no longer get things done. Boards can’t deal with all of that in two three-hour meetings every six months and actually make any decisions. Best to write policies that look like inclusion and ensconce oneself in a culture that keeps people effectively out of the room.

Which works just fine, until the membership starts to care. They cared in the sixties and seventies, when they forced the open meeting policy in the first place. And some of us care now — an internet culture hungry for getting things done, at speed and at scale, wanting an organization that facilitates our energy and collaboration rather than pouring it into a black hole where coordination should be, and isn’t.

LITA and its technologies

LITA has flailed about transparency for all the two years I’ve been watching it. (OK, it’s not technically correct that no one not on the board goes to those meetings.[2]) And, from one angle, what it comes down to is a clash about the technologies the board should be using to manage its coordination overhead. And by “technologies”, I don’t just mean Twitter and blogs and virtual meetings — although that sort of technology has greatly decreased the transaction costs of communication and thus increased the Coasean ceiling at which organizations can function effectively. I also mean cultural technologies. What are the processes by which meetings should be run? What counts as a “meeting” and falls under that rubric? What is it necessary to communicate — and what is it permissible to conceal? Should LITA have a secretary, a person who in some way owns the process of communication and transparency — and what does that mean?

It’s frustrating to watch LITA meetings, because it feels like years of flailing with nothing getting done. Because I like it when the things that get done are real and tangible — a publication, an event, an active communications channel. But very little of this stuff can get done, at least at the board level, because there is all this desperately important, and necessarily slow, and often confrontational and paradigm-altering and difficult, cultural work. What is LITA? And what sorts of technologies — cultural technologies — should it construct to enable it to do its work?

Reference and User Services Quarterly; or, a kerfuffle

This past week there’s been a kerfuffle on some corners of the internet about Reference and User Services Quarterly’s move away from full open access.[3] I don’t know much about how other divisions of ALA operate — I’ve dropped all my memberships except LITA as I simply don’t have the brainpower to understand more than one and LITA will, in all likelihood, be fully absorbing that for years — but I’m curious, and I know my understanding of LITA would be improved if I understood other divisions, too. Knew how they operated. Had their models in mind to challenge the assumptions that my LITA experience may have engendered. Cross-pollination is always a good thing; I just don’t have the energy for it.

But this has been a chance to see a bit of how RUSA operates. And it’s fascinating because it’s the same issue. What does the board, and the journal, need to communicate? With what technologies, in what venues, to whom? What suffices?

I’ve skimmed the last few years’ worth of RUSA minutes on ALA Connect — a fantastic repository for recent ALA history, a good way to get up to speed — a good technology — and it’s clear that the open access decision was discussed, but the reasoning of those discussions was not minuted (in fact I couldn’t find the term “open access” at all). One set of minutes, Midwinter 2011, refers to a proposal for implementing RUSQ’s transition to all-digital, but I didn’t see the proposal itself. Does that suffice? The open access issue was mentioned in the editor’s column in Volume 50, Issue 4 of RUSQ — which, by the way, those of us without RUSA memberships or institutional subscriptions can no longer read, until the next issue comes out and rolls the embargo forward — one sentence on the second page — does that suffice? I think it’s a little locked-filing-cabinet, disused-lavatory, beware-of-the-leopard myself, but opinions vary. I would like to see the OA policy in the author instructions, and I think it should have been communicated not only at the point of decision but again at the point of changeover — in the journal and on its site, and quite possibly on RUSA’s site or blog as well; I think information should not merely be buried in some FAQ but embedded at point of need. An information architecture approach to organizational communication, if you will.

Now I know that people who are making decisions do not, in fact, sit around brainstorming who might be affected by them, and reach out to them and ask if these decisions have some crazy side effect or turn out to be really important in some unanticipated way from some other perspective, or if there are everyday details that affect implementation that people need to know before making the large-scale decision. I know that expecting that is some sort of naive fantasy. But I’d like it anyway.

Organizational coordination is work, and it’s craft, and it requires thoughtfulness. The explosion of communications options gives us more tools for doing that — not only with our electronic technologies but also with our cultural ones — and, along with that, more prospects for engaging a larger number of members, for releasing their energies, for getting things done.

But none of this happens automatically. And a sixty thousand member organization with the cultural and communications technology of ten, thirty, fifty years ago — Coase is ever against us.


[1] I also blogged about this book recently in the context of trust and school cultures. Seriously, it’s a good book. You should read it.

[2] In fact there will be an online LITA board meeting next week on the 15th, and you should go.

[3] As I had submitted a complete column draft to them shortly before said kerfuffle and presently owe them an author agreement, I have a lot of thoughts on this, and have been debating how many of them it is politic to share.

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answering Andy about ALA

(Can I resist the alliterative title? No.)

Andy Woodworth asks the entirely reasonable questions about ALA reformation:

But on this point, I have questions for my fellow young librarians. How is it slow? How is it bloated? How is it not meeting your expectations or needs? What should it be doing?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As one of the current class of Emerging Leaders, it’s important to me not only to maintain an enthusiasm for the organization and to learn as much as I can about how it works, but also to maintain a critical perspective: enough independence of thought that, even as I become acculturated, I don’t end up blinded to things that need to change. The thoughts I have in re Andy’s specific questions:

What should it be doing? Well, I’m not entirely sure of that yet, which I suppose prevents me from successfully advocating for change, eh? I do admire work like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries Toolkit — things that members might not have the time or resources to put together on their own, that let them do their jobs better. Force multipliers. But I’m still looking for my professional footing (obligatory reminder: I’m on the job market; hire me?) so I’m not entirely clear what ALA could be doing to better support practicing librarians.

How is it slow? How is it bloated? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the context of virtual participation, LITA board streaming, and all that parliamentary procedure I have yet to read. The information-profession landscape is changing constantly. My husband is busy at his information-profession (software) job lately because they have a release coming out this week. Just like they did last month. And the month before that. And, you know, perpetual beta: it’s not just a catchy phrase.

Meanwhile ALA has face-to-face committee meetings twice a year, and can’t seem to make important decisions between them? (Maybe I’m wrong on this. Please tell me I’m wrong.) When the issues are changing that fast, how can a six-month lag time in every major conversation be anything other than — not just cumbersome — but not even credible?

I appreciate that politics moves slower than technology, and ALA needs to operate in a way that allows for discussion and input and transparency, and sometimes that’s messy and slow. But its operational infrastructure seems to outright prevent it from addressing fast-moving issues. And a lot of the issues I’m interested in move very fast.

There’s another question he verged on asking, which is what’s stopping you from being the change you want to see? And to that I would say…there is a lot of institutional knowledge it seems you have to get a handle on before you can do anything. ALA is enormous and sprawling — my mother gasped in horror at its org chart — and that was just the org chart of the central offices and so forth; it didn’t begin to touch the committees. (Oy vey, the committees.) I’ve gone to the last three conferences and have been remarkably lucky in getting to meet insiders; I chose my Emerging Leaders project specifically because it was the one that seemed most likely to get me deep into the guts of the organization, figuring out how it works; and seriously, it’s just so big. It seems like it will take years to build up enough knowledge of the organization that I would have enough leverage to do anything interesting with it.

Partly this is something ALA could rectify by doing a better job of reaching out to new members, making it easier to figure out the unwritten rules of getting involved, et cetera (so maybe that’s something else I’d like to see from the organization — and I should mention that groups like NMRT and ACRL NMDG do well at that — once you find them in the sprawling vastness). But partly, it’s just hard to get a grip on an organization with tens of thousands of members and a well over a century of history. And more committees than a school of hypertrophic squid has tentacles.