Social interoperability builds a stronger three-legged stool

My work over the years has led me to witness or participate in the expansion of library interests in areas like digital preservation, preservation metadata, collective collections, shared print, and research data management. Reflecting on these experiences, it strikes me that the necessary conditions for developing viable, sustainable capacity in these areas often fall into three categories:

  • Technical solutions involve creating a workflow, tool, service, infrastructure component, technical standard, or other resource that satisfactorily performs some prescribed functionality, and in doing so, yields value to its users.
  • Organizational solutions involve building the decision-making, logistical, and governance scaffolding needed to turn a technical solution (e.g., a prototype, a pilot program, a proof of concept) into a dependable resource that, from a practical standpoint, can be sourced, scaled, managed, and evolved over time.
  • Economic solutions involve establishing adequate flows of funds and other needed inputs to secure the sustainability of a technical solution over time. One might argue that this is part of building an organizational solution, but solving the problem of economic sustainability has proven ubiquitous – and difficult – enough to be considered separately.

Successful efforts to build library capacity – whether within an institution, across a group of institutions, or through other means – rest on a metaphorical “three-legged stool” of technical, organizational, and economic solutions. And as the metaphor implies, removing any one of these legs will cause the stool to collapse.[1] It is easy to bring to mind examples from the library domain of efforts that have securely established all three legs and are thriving, and, unfortunately, equally easy to recall examples in which one or more legs were missing, with predictable results.

My experiences have led me to believe that it is the organizational and economic solutions that are hardest to achieve – for example, see the work of the US National Science Foundation Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, or more recently, the work of my colleagues Lorcan Dempsey and Constance Malpas on operationalizing the collective collection of the Big Ten Academic Alliance. Making technical solutions viable and sustainable by embedding them in robust, workable organizational and economic solutions is, in many instances, the “hard part.”

Many factors combine to achieve technical, organizational, and economic solutions, but at least one thread seems to run through all of them: interoperability. The most familiar example is probably technical interoperability: a technical solution often must integrate and interact with other components of the eco-system in which it operates. We can even imagine interoperability in an economic sense: the mechanisms by which funds and other sustaining resources move from stakeholders who benefit from a technical solution to those who are responsible for managing it.

Another form of interoperability arises in building organizational solutions, and that is the focus of a new OCLC Research report I had the pleasure of co-authoring with my colleagues Rebecca Bryant and Annette Dortmund. Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-Campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise looks at how different units around campus – including the library – work together to develop and manage research support services. The glue that brings these units together is something we call social interoperability: the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding.

Research support – think of services such as research data management, research analytics, researcher profile systems – is a capacity that is developed by the combined efforts of multiple campus stakeholders, including units in academic affairs, the office of research, campus computing, faculty affairs and governance, communications, and, of course, the library. So effective cross-campus partnerships and collaborations, fueled by social interoperability, are a vitally important element of building robust organizational solutions. The catch, however, is that achieving social interoperability is challenging in a campus environment characterized by, among other things, highly autonomous individuals, diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, and highly diffused decision-making authority.

In our report, we share the results of nearly two dozen interviews with individuals from across campus at 17 research-intensive US universities, in which they discuss their experiences developing cross-campus partnerships – both what worked, and what did not. From these interviews, we compiled a wealth of practical advice on facilitating social interoperability to support campus partnerships, including strategies for initiating and building cross-unit relationships, trouble-shooting existing relationships, and common challenges encountered. 

How important is social interoperability? As one of our interviewees put it: “Well up front, I would say I can’t get anything done without partnerships. I mean it’s just absolutely essential to partner, whether it’s with centers, institutes, department chairs, academic deans, research deans, all the above.” But achieving social interoperability requires a significant investment of time and effort: “It all takes longer and has more dependencies than you think,” cautioned another interviewee.

But the return on the investment can be substantial. Social interoperability is of growing importance in a landscape where cross-campus partnerships are becoming both more prevalent and more necessary. Robust, impactful research support services increasingly rest on the presence of strong social interoperability across campus stakeholders. And achieving that social interoperability, to return to our metaphor, is a key element in building up the organizational leg of the three-legged stool.


[1] The idea that technical, organizational, and economic solutions are necessary conditions for creating viable library capacity also applies to another very timely example: a COVID-19 vaccine. A vaccine must be created (technical); it must be manufactured and distributed at scale (organizational); and it must be funded (economic).  

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