The Hyperlinked Library MOOC: Participatory Service

I had the privilege of speaking with Michael Stephens for his upcoming Fall 2013 Hyperlinked Library MOOC at the San Jose State University, School of Library and Information Science. The topic of our conversation was participatory library service, community engagement, the use of teams, and a few other interesting issues.

Computers, the 1980s, and Computer Chronicles

Shortly after I got my first computer in 1982 — a Commodore VIC-20 – I started looking for information regarding games, programming, computer hardware, etc. One of my first dependable sources for information came in 1983 when I began watching a new PBS television show called Computer Chronicles, hosted by Stewart Cheifet.

This week, Cheifet is interviewed on Leo Laporte’s Triangulation. It’s a good interview, with lots of discussion about the early days of personal computer technology. And, if you’re interested in viewing any of the old episodes of Computer Chronicles, you can find them all at the Internet Archive.

Cloud Computing Contracts

Clouds over Lake MichiganUntil only a few years ago, most of the software we purchased was installed on servers located in datacenters we owned. Sometimes we managed the software, sometimes an outside vendor managed it for us. But the software was almost always on a physical server housed under our control.

But this is 2013, and many government and private organizations have adopted some variation of a cloud-first strategy. A large number, if not a majority, of the services we purchase are delivered via software located on servers outside of our physical control. Our websites sit on Rackspace or Amazon or SquareSpace servers. Our HR/Payroll software may reside on a Sage or Kronos or SAP server cluster. Even our ILS software is now often based remotely in a Polaris or LYRASIS datacenter. Bibliocommons, probably the best discovery layer available, is offered only as a hosted solution.

The point is, many of our tools which we formerly put on local servers are now run from remote servers. Whether you call this “cloud” or “hosted” or “remote”, it all boils down to the same thing — someone else controls the hardware and runs or manages the software. You and your library are no longer in full control regarding access and management. (For this post, I will use the phrase cloud-based to refer to any software installed on a server or cluster of servers outside of your physical location.)

Don’t misunderstand. I am a huge proponent of cloud-based services. They are often easier to manage, better protected, more feature-rich, and cheaper to procure than the old solutions. But the steps we have to now go through to select and purchase cloud-based services has fundamentally altered the procurement process. We used to source software, perhaps purchase some professional services and maintenance, and sign a simple contract reflecting these points. With cloud-based services, the procurement process has been dramatically altered and it is still changing.

If you are about to purchase a cloud-based product, you have a few more things to investigate than you did in years past. I have placed links at the end of this post that direct you to several of the sources I use in reviewing cloud-based services and contracts. It’s easy to get lost in the large amount of information and recommendations in the documents, but it helps to see what’s discussed most frequently. You will want to follow your local organization’s purchasing policy with regard to contract formulation. But if your organization has not rewritten its cloud-computing contract and procurement requirements, you may want to start lobbying today. If you are responsible for your organization’s data and/or network, you may want to counsel change. I strongly suggest consulting your organization’s legal advisor for assistance in finalizing any contracts.

There are a myriad number of points you could insert into cloud-based contracts. If you research the documents linked below, and the many articles available on crafting cloud-services contracts, you will see just how many variables are involved. Here are a few things I now look for when buying a cloud-based product:

Network Cabling1. Service level agreements (SLA) and compensation for outages

Things will break and there will be outages. You want to make certain that your contract clearly spells out response times for service interruptions, compensation for major outages, and what key performance metrics will be identified as measures.

Does the vendor notify you of outages? How quickly? Is there a Help Desk ticketing system in place for your use? How many services or people need to be impacted before the issue is automatically escalated? Before compensation kicks in?

If the outage or service interruption results in corrupt or lost data (not a data breach), what are your options for recovery and/or compensation?

If the vendor updates the service and specific functionality that you depended upon is lost, what happens? Can you cancel your contract without penalty? Does the vendor have to compensate you for the lost functionality?

Not every possible scenario can be defined in the SLA, but it is this part of the contract you will rely upon when things break and service is interrupted. Make certain the SLA is easy to understand and looks out for your needs.

2. Data — Who owns it and who can get access to it?

Most U.S. public libraries do not have legal requirements to store data in a particular nation, but some government and private organizations do have this requirement. Make sure you know if yours is one of them.

If the cloud-based service breaks, does the vendor’s promise to repair everything include the restoration of your data? What kind of backups does the vendor maintain, and what is the frequency of backup?

If you cancel your contract, how long do you have access to your data and in what format can it be returned to you? If the data is in a proprietary format structure then it will be useless to you.

Security breaches happen, but the disclosure of personally identifiable information — of staff or customers — can have significant financial and PR ramifications. The vendor should have clearly defined security measures in place to protect your data. Similarly, the vendor should have contractually defined notification procedures in place for contacting you in the event of any security breach.

Who is responsible for damages, fines, etc? Security breaches can often result in large financial penalties and settlements and the contract should clearly define liability and any limitations. It does you no good if the vendor denies responsibility for data breaches and leaves you to cover all of the costs.

If an ex-employee or anyone else takes legal action against you and issues a legal demand to the vendor for your data, what will the vendor do to notify you of this action? Will you have legal recourse before the vendor discloses the data? Will you or your legal representative be able to review the data and remove any personally identifiable information before the vendor hands it over? Remember, the data is no longer on a server in your datacenter, it is not under your direct physical control.

How long does the vendor retain backups and archives of your data? Does this comply with any legal requirements your organization may have regarding data retention? And if you cancel your contract with the vendor, how long will they retain the data and what recourse will you have should litigation or law enforcement ask the vendor to turn over your data once you no longer are their customer?

3. Get me out of here — Ending your contract

What recourse do you have regarding termination of contract? You should be able to terminate the contract at any time. If a penalty is to be applied then this should be in the contract.

Also, as mentioned above, it should be stated how long you will have access to recover your data and whether or not your data will be retained by the vendor following contract termination.

Your data should be returned to you in a usable format. You should not have to rebuild databases in order to transfer the service to a new vendor. The format in which your data is accessible to you should be defined.

Conclusion

This is a simplification of the many issues that now come up in cloud contract negotiation. Cloud-based services have fundamentally altered the way IT manages and implements solutions. Now that the data and servers are no longer under our direct control we need to adopt new procedures and requirements that protect the library and its many interests. Getting these formalized may be complicated and time-consuming, but it is of vital importance. Make sure the decision-makers in your organization understand these new complexities. The old way of crafting software and service contracts has changed.

Documents & Links 

If It’s in the Cloud, Get It on Paper: Cloud Computing Contract Issues, by Thomas Trappler via Educause

Creating Effective Cloud. Computing Contracts for the Federal Government. Best Practices for Acquiring IT as a Service (PDF), via the Chief Information Officers Council

Legal and Quasi-Legal Issues in Cloud Computing Contracts (PDF), by Steve McDonald via Educause

Best Practices for Negotiating Cloud-Based Software Contracts (PDF), a DoD ESI Whitepaper [8/5/13 link appears down]

Security in the Cloud: What nonprofits and libraries need to know to secure their online data, via Techsoup

Cloud Legal Project (U.K.) via the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS) at Queen Mary, University of London

Negotiating Cloud Contracts: Looking at Clouds from Both Sides Now, via Stanford Technology Law Review

Dispel Distrust at Work

Change can make any work environment stressful, and with stress often comes distrust. This article from HBR is a good reminder about how transparency, relationships, and shared success can go a long way towards creating a better working environment, no matter where you work.

Leaders can shift people’s thoughts away from threats by fostering an open, transparent environment in which everyone shares and discusses as much as they can about what’s really going on. This sends a strong signal to everyone’s lower brain that “trust is in the air”. One conversational ritual you might try is hosting regular sessions with your team members to talk about pressing issues, challenges, concerns.

Source: HBR Blog Network: How to Dispel Distrust at Work

Still Relevant After Seven Years

The last few years have been difficult ones for many libraries. Budget cutbacks, hours reductions, salary freezes, and falling staff morale are but a few of the challenges that libraries have had to address. But signs of a (slowly) improving economy have many of us hoping for better times to come. With this thought I was reminded of an open letter to library directors, penned almost seven years ago. I am reprinting it here because I believe it is both timely and (still) relevant. Perhaps the only change I would make would be to address not only Directors, but Leaders at all levels.

Dear Director,

As the person in charge, you have perhaps the best understanding of your organization’s goals and you are empowered to coordinate change and innovation. Every suggestion here depends upon you for organization into a coherent, big-picture strategy.

1. Move staff around. While we would not want to encourage arbitrarily moving staff around, sometimes lateral transfers can be healthy for both the staff and the organization. This can be accomplished both in systems with several branches, where staff are given lateral transfers between branches, and in a main library, where a staff member is moved to a separate department. Although you would not want staffing to be so fluid as to prohibit stability within a branch or department, it is in a library’s best interest to acknowledge the positive aspects of staffing relocations and transfers. Such change provides fresh perspectives and gives staff the opportunity to work with different management styles.

2. Pull people together. Have a big project? Temporarily relocate staff to improve communication and efficiency in order to get the project done. This can occur on many levels. Administrative staff are usually already in the same building, in which case pulling everyone together should not be a problem. But when you identify who you want on your team (see the next few ideas), you may very well find that team members are split across locations. Bringing them together into one facility, even if only temporarily, allows for more face-to-face meetings, fewer misunderstandings and conflicts, and a better final product.

3. Listen to your young people. Young and new employees bring a wealth of ideas and opinions to their new positions. Harvest this enthusiasm by bringing several new staff into every project, every service creation meeting, and any other meeting that could use a shot of energy. Consider positioning them in areas that need improving, or bring them into headquarters and put them on a team.

4. No one should inherit a position. How often have we seen the following: You have a retiring department head who has been in her position for 10 years or more, and her second-in-command is automatically chosen to replace her. Maybe not the worst decision, but not necessarily one that will spark change and innovation. Instead, don’t automatically move her executive officer into the position. Look outside the department for new blood, with new ideas, someone who is going to think outside the departmental box. You are bound to find a lot of talent out there in other departments, branches, or libraries.

5. Change and innovation begin at the top. Are you the boss, the director, the CEO? How often do you host brainstorming sessions? Do you sit in on departmental meetings? If you make this a regular part of your routine, staff will grow accustomed to your presence, and, hopefully, be more open and honest in front of you. Try pulling in your younger staff and including them in your thought process. Give them an inside picture of your organization, and listen to what they have to say.

6. Reward and recognize your change leaders. Do you rate your management team on new ideas and implementing positive change? Are supervisors given real credit for innovating and improving library services? It is time to begin formally recognizing these talents and rewarding your employees for their originality and innovation. But make sure they know that leading a successful team that creates positive change is more important than simply tossing out new ideas every few weeks. Change is team-oriented, and those managers who can create innovative teams and nurture positive change are the most valuable.

7. Create a team of eyes and ears. Tap several staff members system or library-wide and appoint them as your personal reconnaissance officers. Let them look for ideas for new services and ways to improve existing services. Give them the library car (or leave to explore) every three or four months, and have them visit other libraries in your region. Then, let them meet with you regularly every couple of months and listen to what they have to say. Keep your department heads out of this meeting so your recons feel free to talk about what they think needs to be changed. Be open-minded, because a lot of what they say will sound naïve and may call into question some fundamental principles under which you have always operated. Don’t hold their enthusiasm against them, though; this naiveté is exactly what you are looking for in order to break through traditional thinking.

8. Nothing stimulates change like change. When staff members observe new ideas being implemented, they see that innovation is recognized—and possibly rewarded. What methods do you have in place for fast-tracking ideas? Does everything have to go into the strategic plan, or do you have the flexibility to take an idea from one person or team and quickly pull together an implementation team? Set a goal of two or three fast-track ideas a year. Get them going, gather numbers regarding success or failure, and have a review team sit down and evaluate after six months. If it isn’t working, kill it. Don’t make a big deal out of failures. But, if it is working, then make sure that the entire system knows who came up with the idea—and reward that person or group in some manner.

9. Frontline staff know your customers better than anyone else. What are your customers saying? Face it, you don’t really know. You may speak to one or two in the course of a day (often to those who are the most upset). You may have friends who visit your library and give you feedback. But you still really don’t know your customers nearly as well as your frontline staff does. Frontline staff may deal with several dozen people each day, hearing every comment, suggestion, and complaint imaginable. Make it easy and safe for frontline staff to get their ideas up to you and your leadership team. And get those same frontline staff to pass along customer comments— not just those that customers take the time to write down, but the verbal comments and concerns that staff hear every day. Have a rotating team of one or two staff members from every branch location. Let them meet quarterly and produce a simple report, so that ideas are mixed together and no one person feels like they cannot be honest in his or her communications for fear of retaliation. Read their reports and share the ideas with your leadership team. Much like your reconnaissance team members, try to be open-minded and see your staff’s viewpoints and reasoning.

10. Just do it. If you attempt even just a few of these ideas, you will find yourself out of your office more— which is a good thing!

[from Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service]