Working across campus is like herding flaming cats

Toffee needs to work on his social interoperability skills

Do you work at a university? If so, did you know that you work in a complex, adaptive system? And did you know that that makes it hard to build productive working relationships across campus?

This was the starting point of the first session of the joint OCLC-LIBER online workshop Building Strategic Relationships to Advance Open Scholarship at your Institution, based on the findings of the recent OCLC Research report Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-Campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise. This three-part workshop brought together a dynamic group of international participants to examine the challenges of working across the institution, identify strategies and tactics for cross-unit relationship building, and develop a plan for increasing their own social interoperability. In this post, we share some of the great insights and perspectives offered by our participants in the workshop’s first session: Understanding Social and Structural Norms that Shape Academic Institutional Collaboration.

We began with a brief tutorial on the concept of social interoperability – the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding – and why it is difficult to achieve in a university environment.

Working across campus is challenging for everyone

According to systems engineering expert and former university leader William Rouse, universities are examples of complex adaptive systems, characterized by, among other things, highly decentralized decision-making authority, independent agents that sometimes work at cross-purposes, lots of self-organization that occurs outside existing hierarchies, and limited ability to elicit desired behaviors through “top-down” direction or mandates.[1] This can make coordinated decision-making and collective effort a challenging proposition – like “herding flaming cats,” as one of our interviewees for the Social Interoperability report described their cross-unit collaboration experience. The missing ingredient? Social interoperability.

Figure 1: The key elements of a complex, adaptive system … or herding cats!

During small-group breakout discussions, our workshop participants endorsed the relevance of Rouse’s description of the university environment to their own experiences of working on campus. Responses to hearing that their work environment was a complex, adaptive system ranged from “Not surprised” to “Revelatory!” Some went even further than Rouse, describing the university environment as “anarchistic” and a venue where “everyone does what they want.” One participant observed that universities do not function from the top down: instead, things seem to just happen on their own. Overall, the breakout group discussions confirmed that the idea of universities as complex, adaptive systems resonated deeply as a description of the environment in which relationship-building across campus took place. And for some, there was a sense of relief to learn that achieving social interoperability under these conditions is hard for everyone!

Although Rouse’s model emerged from his experiences in US higher education, there was widespread agreement among our workshop participants that his ideas applied quite well to universities in other national contexts. Several participants from European higher education systems noted that while their university environments tended to be more hierarchical than those of their US counterparts, the general characteristics of a complex, adaptive system that Rouse described were still evident on their campuses.  

Participants in the breakout discussions shared a number of obstacles that, in their experience, can stand in the way of building productive relationships across campus. Many participants cited the complexity of the university as a fundamental challenge: there can be a profusion of stakeholder roles relevant to a given project, there is often no single point of contact even within units, and it may not be clear whom to approach. One participant suggested that too often “the arm doesn’t know what the hand is doing.” Difficulties in aligning priorities was mentioned frequently as forestalling productive partnerships; everyone has their interests (and bosses) to consider. Related to this was concern about “treading on others’ toes,” and the need to clarify roles and responsibilities – as one participant observed, someone may take the responsibility to move a collaborative effort forward, but then find themselves responsible for most of the work, too. And some participants expressed uncertainty over the authority they possessed to initiate partnerships with other departments or offices, or how best to reach out to colleagues elsewhere on campus (e.g., is a direct email sufficient for initial contact? If a decision is needed, is it better to work through regular channels?).

Lack of speed also made cross-unit partnerships difficult: participants noted that it was often difficult to get things moving, and once begun, to proceed expeditiously. As one person put it, there is a need to learn “what buttons to press” to get something done. Staff or leadership turnover in other units presents further complications, as well as a lack of clear communication lines across units. And of course, many of these obstacles have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic: as one person described it, Microsoft Teams is not as effectual in bringing together a group for the first time as getting everyone in the same room.

There are also library-specific challenges

Participants noted some obstacles distinct to the library that tended to stand in the way of building cross-unit relationships. One challenge mentioned frequently was the visibility and perception of the library on campus. For example, one participant observed that the biggest obstacle was lack of awareness about what libraries have to offer: all too often, librarians hear the refrain “I did not know the library could do that!” On some campuses, the library may not be seen as a leader or even a prospective partner for research support, and the full value of its services and expertise may be hidden. One participant suggested that librarians make themselves less visible because of the efficiency of access and delivery systems, while another believed that not everyone who uses systems in the library recognizes they are available only because of the library. One person remarked that people in other campus units may be unaccustomed to librarians with functional roles, rather than as subject specialists. Some suggested that it was important for libraries to become more vocal in overcoming “traditional perceptions”, and to remind campus partners that “we can be part of a project from the beginning, rather than just at the end.”

Several participants mentioned that, in their experience, the library was seen as a partner to come to with existing ideas or projects, but not as a co-creator. Similarly, one person remarked that the library needs to be seen not as a support service, but as a collaborator and equal partner. Another emphasized that the library might sometimes seem “invisible,” but it is an important part of the university and can serve as a “strong community hub.” Nevertheless, several participants observed that libraries tend to have no overarching strategy about forming relationships across campus – as one person put it, connections with stakeholders seem to form “by accident.” To remedy this, participants suggested finding ways to embed the library in the university’s formal inter-unit structures, like standing committees, and making sure to present the full range of library skills and capacities in those venues.

A framework for campus stakeholders in research support

Another topic discussed in the breakout was the types of stakeholders that participants commonly worked with on campus, with the Campus Stakeholder Model from the Social Interoperability report serving as a reference point. Participants noted relationships with a wide range of stakeholders that touched on every component of the model: for example, the research office, communications staff, the graduate school, campus computing, faculty affairs units, research centers, digital humanities institutes, post-doctoral students, and so on. One participant remarked that they aspired to work with all stakeholders in the model, but recognized that achieving this is a long journey and takes time. Another noted that they work with many stakeholders in different ways, but this results in a fragmented network of relationships.

Figure 2: Campus stakeholder categories … which ones do you work with?

The discussion highlighted difficulties in establishing productive relationships with some campus units. For example, research centers sometimes present challenges, because there are often many on campus, with each wanting to organize activities in their own way, such as managing their own data. Units on campus offering similar services to libraries can also be difficult to partner with: a data visualization librarian, for example, may find similar capacities offered in discipline-specific centers providing discipline-specific support. It can be difficult to learn who is doing what, and how it relates to what the library is offering – especially when the fabric of services across campus is changing all the time. And as one participant observed, another problem with maintaining productive relationships with units around campus is that often, stakeholders want “centralized services without centralized interference.”

Coming next: Strategies and tactics for improving social interoperability in research support

One theme seemed to pervade the discussion: building bridges to units across campus is all about personal relationships. We frequently heard comments like “it’s all about people” and “relationship building is one to one” and done with “people, not units”, like the “individual researcher, or the individual member of faculty”, or “someone who can represent the other unit.” Of course, the personal element of social interoperability can present challenges as well, ranging from uncertainty about who to approach, to the necessity of starting all over again if an established partner leaves their position. Meeting these challenges requires a toolbox of strategies and tactics for building social interoperability. Want to know more? Watch for another post soon summarizing the highlights from the second session of our workshop series, where we’ll show you that working across campus does not have to feel like herding flaming cats!


Thanks to my colleague Rebecca Bryant for providing helpful suggestions for improving this post!

[1] Rouse, William B. 2016. Universities as Complex Enterprises: How Academia Works, Why It Works These Ways, and Where the University Enterprise Is Headed. New York: Routledge.

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