How to Improve Staff Communication by Reducing Silos
At your library, do multiple people or departments — for example, public services, technical services, and administration — work independently of one another to achieve similar goals? If the answer is yes, Judy Pinger, Assistant Director of IT Technical Services and Collections at Milwaukee Public Library (WI), wants you to know that you’re not alone in this “siloed” approach to library management.
During her 2019 Wild Wisconsin Winter Web Conference presentation, Pinger explored the many isolated systems that she has observed throughout her library career. This approach is sometimes necessary — Pinger herself recognized that “subject expertise is very valuable in many circumstances, as we do need specialists to help us create order in a very complex world.” However, if unchecked it can end up introducing unnecessary and costly operations redundancies.
Read on to explore what library silos are, when and how they can be reduced, and how using technology can make communication at your library more efficient and effective.
What Are Library Silos?
The word “silo” may bring to mind tall farm structures used to store grain, but of course that’s not the definition that is relevant to your library. In libraries, Pinger describes silos as “systems, processes, or departments that operate in isolation from others.”
“Silos emerge when a need for knowledge transfer is unmet,” Pinger explains. There are generally three types of silos encountered in libraries:
- An individual: Do you have an employee at your branch who has been in his or her position for many years, who has collected an impressive amount of information and keeps it all in his or her head? When Pinger had this experience at MPL, it highlighted the potentially negative impact of silos. When an unexpected emergency medical situation came upon that person, Pinger’s library had no contingency plan for completing this employee’s day-to-day tasks, and MPL struggled to reconcile accounts at the end of the year.
- A group of people: If you work for a large library system, you’re likely familiar with this type of silo. In her presentation, Pinger shared how MPL’s approach to staff scheduling resulted in one of these group silos: “We have three different public services schedules, and they are completely separate from one another. If you are not stationed in multiple groups, there’s no way to find out who is scheduled when and where.” Because there was no open communication between the three different groups, the teams were unable to support one another in the case of a staffing emergency.
- Technology: Remember cassette tapes and floppy disks? These are great examples of how quickly technology can become outdated and take the knowledge that it stores with it. MPL made the mistake of creating a bottleneck with a specific type of technology and thus a silo was created: “In the 1970s to mid-1980s, we had a robust marketing program that resulted in the creation of very rich content,” said Pinger, “but it was all saved to Betamax, the state of the art technology of the time.” When the library unearthed these tapes later on, they were unable to even review the content, much less make use of it.
Though silos are not always negative, these examples show that there can be consequences to working in isolation. “As libraries, we need to be able to adapt very nimbly, to pivot to meet the current needs and patterns of our patrons,” shared Pinger. Adapting requires innovation, and it also requires that costly risks — like investing all of your content in an ephemeral format! — be avoided.
Why Should Libraries Reduce Silos?
By working together rather than in silos, your library will benefit from centralizing the information needed to make important decisions, and you’ll also have more perspectives to help you tackle complex problems from multiple angles. There are myriad benefits to taking this approach:
- Increased efficiency: When you have more transparency between departments, it’s easier to ensure that no two departments are investing time and effort into the same tasks, resulting in time and cost savings.
- Large-scale project support: By streamlining operations, you uncover more opportunities for large-scale project support, and you benefit from the introduction of best practices across your library.
- More inclusive staff culture: By encouraging people and departments to help each other and share information, you are also fostering stronger relationships among staff members.
How Can You Reduce Silos at Your Library?
When Pinger found that MPL’s many departments and branches were working as “islands in and of themselves,” it became clear that the silo situation was getting out of control. Pinger recommends several ways to address the issue:
- Have more people attend meetings. MPL found that part of addressing the isolation was as simple as getting more people into a room together. “We ended up having our facilities manager attend our monthly public service managers’ meeting,” Pinger explains. Public services managers could have their building maintenance questions answered in a timely manner and thus better address patron concerns, while the facilities manager could provide updates about ongoing projects and gain insight into patron priorities.
- Use online forums. If you’re not able to physically bring your library’s teams together, consider setting up Facebook groups or creating a listserv that opens up lines of communication across departments.
- Use program management software. Are separate groups responsible for each age group’s summer reading program at your library? If so, you’re likely not only duplicating the administrative work that goes into setting up your reading programs, but you’re missing out on an opportunity to brainstorm innovative ways to improve your programs as well. Many libraries have consolidated their reading program management by implementing an online tool like Demco Software’s Wandoo Reader.
- Use event management software. When you’re all working in the same place, it’s easier to gain insight into best practices and to see where your manual tasks can be streamlined. The same goes for event management — if you use event software like Demco Software’s SignUp, you can introduce better alignment across your library by getting everyone on the same page about what’s scheduled and who is involved with each event.
- Rethink how you build teams. Sometimes, convening a short-term team for a one-time project is the best way to get the job done. For instance, if your library is considering launching a mobile app, build a cross-departmental team to help you make key decisions along the way. The perspectives of staff from various levels will ensure the solution you choose best meets the needs of your library and its patrons. You’ll also have greater stakeholder buy-in that you can leverage after the app launches. MPL took a similar approach to processing proposals and managing implementation of two new print management solutions. Pinger saw the working group as a great way to kick-start the collaboration and cooperation that would be necessary once the new tools were up and running.
Need Help Moving Beyond Library Silos?
It can feel overwhelming to restructure the way your staff operates, but there are tools that exist today that can help make this change more manageable. “Technology, whether it’s social media or enterprise solutions, has enabled the work of staff at all levels to communicate in all ways,” shared Pinger. “We should use technology to challenge silos whenever possible.”
At Demco Software, we develop technology that helps you offer a better patron experience, but we know how important it is to help your librarians do their best work as well. That’s why all of our solutions are focused on giving you convenient access to resources, introducing greater efficiency, and facilitating connectivity between departments. Learn more about how our suite of solutions can help you de-silo your library at demcosoftware.com.