In the footsteps of a learning organization

The city of Tornio is located on the border of Finland and Sweden, at the northern arch of the Gulf of Bothnia. The city has a population of 22,500 and the number is increasing. The rapid changes happening in the library field sometimes makes your head spin; what things do we need to know to stay on top? The staff must indeed know a lot and constantly learn new things. Having an open-minded attitude towards learning is vitally important.

Considering tools

As far as strategies are concerned, the activities in Finnish libraries are regulated in many different ways. Municipalities usually have their own strategies that regulate activities. Also, the Ministry of Education and Culture provides documents for regulating the activities in libraries. The latest of these strategies is the Finnish Public Library Policy 2015, published in 2009. It states that the greatest challenge on the municipal level is to increase the level of expertise and that a skilled staff is the most important meter in determining the quality of services. In addition to this, the Quality Recommendation for Public Libraries (2010), also published by the Ministry, defines the criteria for a good library, e.g. the development of the staff’s expertise as an important and recognized part of management. These issues made me wonder: How do organizations learn? Or more importantly, how do the people in an organization learn to learn? How does an organization become a learning organization, i.e. how do the organization’s individuals become lifelong learners?

After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that the Tornio Main Library needs tools to determine the current level of expertise and their potential expertise. If the staff knows everything they need to know perfectly, there is no need for development (although I have never come across such an organization during the course of my career). In my opinion, the traditional development discussion between management and staff is an insufficient tool for persistently developing internal expertise in the entire organization because usually such discussions concentrate on the individual and the organization as a whole is forgotten.

In search of expertise

I decided to plan a project which would help to improve the staff’s expertise. One important part of the project was to make a survey of the staff’s expertise, which would help to determine the level of expertise in the organization. I thought that once I could determine the current level of expertise in our organization it would be easier for me to consider the desired level of expertise for the entire organization, and at the same time create a vision to achieve persistently through various means, e.g. by setting subgoals each year.

I tried to make the questionnaire as short and clear as possible to enable other libraries to use it. The questionnaire contained the following topics: recognizing the patrons’ needs for information, knowledge of contents (e.g. children’s non-fiction), skills in carrying out library work (e.g. getting material ready for borrowing), skills in using databases (those used by the library and in the library), command of office software and ability to teach patrons how to use it, basic use of internet (e.g. creating an email account and showing patrons how to create accounts), use of social media services and instruction for patrons, use of other devices (e.g. scanners) and being able to show patrons how to use them, public appearance, marketing library services (e.g. making brochures), pedagogical skills (e.g. orientation), knowledge on copyright issues and ability to provide related advice, interest in developing activities and following field-related development, and interest in new technology (e.g. e-book reading devices and digitalization).

I made a numerical evaluation scale to allow a comprehensive comparison of the conclusions to use in the future as time series data, for example. To keep it clear and simple, I made the scale short (1û4 where 1 = no skills and 4 = excellent skills). I originally planned to give the questionnaire to the staff to fill out beforehand, but I changed my mind when I realized that the same word can mean a different thing to different people. Instead, I made a short online questionnaire before doing the survey where I resolved the staff’s understanding of library work and the needs for expertise in the future to find out whether the staff members had any other perspectives, which I did not consider on my questionnaire form. There were none and therefore I moved on to surveying their expertise, which I did during the annual development discussions.

For me, the discussions were quite rewarding; I received many good tips on areas of development and I also felt I got to know the staff better. One of the discussions lasted more than two hours, so clearly there was much to say. During the discussions, I explained the items on the questionnaire and survey together with the person being surveyed. I made an Excel chart of each respondent where I wrote the results of the survey and the respondent’s personal areas of interest and suggestions for development. I did not give the charts to the respondents; rather, I kept them for myself because in my opinion (Finnish) people tend to dwell upon things they feel they need to improve. I feel people should develop those characteristics that they themselves feel are good because it motivates them more and makes development easier.

Disclosure of expertise

I made a summary of all of the results. The staff and I agreed on a day when I would present the results of the survey. As I stated earlier, I feel it is easier for people to be motivated towards developing their strengths and therefore I listed only the areas of excellent expertise in the final conclusion of the presentation.

At the same occasion, the staff members received a task to do in pairs: they had to choose a couple of items on the questionnaire that they felt should be improved at work. They also had to think of means to improve the items in question. I summarized their results; five things were left over. They included evaluation of the collection, new computer technology (e.g. reading devices for e-books), using databases, knowledge of contents and marketing of library services, all of which became areas of development for the entire organization. Since there is no sense in trying to improve all five items at once, I made an online questionnaire where the staff was asked to list the items in order of priority. Use of databases received the most votes, and we will be investing in this area at least through training in spring 2012. I also intend to consider how to maintain the skills acquired during the training.

Towards lifelong learning and a learning organization

The survey of expertise provided a basis on which to increase our capital of knowledge, e.g. by participating in training, using mentors and tutors and even through peer learning with people from other libraries. I strongly believe that in the future we will be able to understand our work as something that constantly changes and requires development without feeling anxious or pressured. The rule of thumb is to remember that you do not need to know everything, nor are you able to know everything, but you can and are allowed to develop your expertise as interest arises. I feel that in this way we can become a learning organization, little by little, and that a positive attitude towards lifelong learning will come to penetrate into all of the activities we carry out.

Pälvi Lepoluoto
Library Director Tornio City Library

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Library Director Tornio City Library