A recurrent theme of this blog has been that networking changes the way we think about organizational boundaries.
So, we have seen a major shift to webscale which has reconfigured whole industries as well as individual organizations. Some obvious examples are the influence of Expedia/Orbitz/Travelocity on travel, Amazon on retail, Netflix on movie distribution, and the Web generally on newspapers and TV. Discovery is now largely a webscale activity.
At the same time the web has accelerated the vertical disintegration of firms and the sourcing of capacity with specialist providers. Think historically of payroll, or more recently of customer relationship management and SalesForce.com. A wide range of capacities may be sourced externally: think of anything from data centers, to the provision and care of plants, to education and counselling services. Companies make decisions about what their distinctive capacities are, and often externalise other capacities to networks of providers and partners. And, in fact, effective supply chain management has become an important competitive factor.
These types of questions are becoming more important for libraries, even if they don't pose them in quite these terms. And they are not especially new. Historically, for example, think of two major shifts: shared cataloging/resource sharing and the move to licensed access to A&I databases and e-journals. In the former case, activity was externalised to consortial activity or to national-scale organizations, and today many organizations provide such services around the world, including OCLC. In the latter case, libraries gave up the institution-scale management of the A&I and journal resources they had collected in print form. They externalized this activity to, often commercial, third parties. At the same time, JSTOR was developed aiming to give libraries confidence in externalising the management of journal backruns, although it developed a broader role.
This trend has accelerated and will continue to do so as the network makes it easier to collaboratively source activities or to conveniently acquire service from third parties. Think of the variety of hosting options libraries now have across a range of systems and operations.
I was thinking about this last week as David Kay was visiting OCLC. David is a consultant working with the association of UK universities and national libraries, SCONUL, on a feasibility study into further 'shared services' in the library management systems. 'Shared services' is a UK government policy area which emphasises the advantages of consolidation through collaborative sourcing, potentially with commercial third party involvement. This policy area is inherited in higher education and for an example of the types of consolidation being discussed see the list of funded feasibility studies, including some in the library area.
David and colleagues are exploring with SCONUL the feasibility of various shared services to support library management systems. They have a project blog where you can find an interesting interim deliverable: the results of a survey of SCONUL membership about their readiness to embrace shared services across library operations. A brief report is available [.doc], as well as a summary of the responses [.doc]. Here are some of the highlights from the project blog:
[SCONUL Shared Services]
- The strongest focus is on adopting digital solutions and electronic content to reduce physical holdings and therefore space (85%)
- A good number are ready to consider consolidating physical assets (51%)
- Whilst 90% see reducing overall cost as an immediate high/medium priority, there is more interest in repositioning human resources (82%) than in reducing the establishment (50%)
- High cost benefits are principally linked to content licensing (69%) and physical space savings (43%); possible staff cost savings are predominantly linked to management time (29%) and cataloguing (29%)
- There is greater interest in library management systems functions being delivered through external shared services (80%) than by other local institutional systems (52%), though developing the role of the library service within the institution is a high priority intangible gain (84%)
- Leveraging larger (web) scale services is seen by 73% as a high/medium 3-5 year priority but only an immediate priority for 46%; this fits with the high priority interest (84%) in enhancing flexibility and agility for developing electronic services
- There exists a high level of readiness to consider Open Source software (30% with a further 45% neutral)
There is further detail in the blog and in the report. A video of David's presentation at OCLC is also available (.wmv).
It is interesting seeing the high acceptance of the shared services model and the focus on particular areas. It will be interesting to see the final report. Of course, it will be more interesting to see whether there is the organizational will to put in place frameworks for such services to emerge.