Collaboration is optional

This dog has the option to chomp the hand poking his nose. So far, he has chosen not to exercise it. Photo by Benjamin Williams on Unsplash

I really like the concept of options as a way of thinking about future opportunity. In this post, I’d like to make a case that adopting an “options perspective” can strengthen library decision-making in a range of scenarios – including the decision whether to collaborate. But let me start with a few brief remarks about options that will help clarify application of this concept to libraries.

An option bestows upon its owner the right, but not the obligation to do something. For example, in finance, a call option grants the right, but not the obligation, to purchase a security (say, a particular stock) at a specified price at any time before the option expires. Why is a call option valuable? If the market price of the stock rises above the price specified in the option contract (the “strike price”), you can exercise the option, purchase the security at the strike price, and then sell it on the open market for a profit. But there is no obligation to exercise the option; if the market price remains below the strike price, then the option will likely be allowed to expire unexercised.

If you boil away the details of particular types of options and the specific features of the option contract, I think you are left with two general points:

  1. Options represent an opportunity to do something in the future.
  2. Possessing that opportunity is valuable.

Call options – and other types of financial options – are not free. In fact, option values are monetized and traded in financial markets. This leads to a third general point about options:

  1. There is a cost to acquire an option.

In other words, you pay an upfront cost to acquire an option, in the hopes of exercising it for a larger return sometime in the future. So you must expend resources to get an option; it’s not just a choice that already exists on its own.

The options perspective

Enough about financial options. What does this have to do with libraries? Let me illustrate the connection through examples having to do with digital preservation and research data management.

As I mentioned at the outset, I like the concept of options, and the reason is because I have found that it pops up in all sorts of contexts, and often provides some unexpected insights. In 2010, I wrote an appendix for the report Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-term Access to Digital Information in which I made the case that the concept of options deepens our understanding of investing in digital preservation. Preserving a digital object is an uncertain enterprise – in particular, it is often unknown whether future usage of the object will justify the expense of preserving it. But this decision need not be made once and for all at the outset; by making initial commitments to retain the object for a finite period – say a few years – the repository has for all intents and purposes “purchased” the option to preserve the object for a longer period, a decision which can then be made at a later time after reevaluating usage patterns for the object over the initial retention period.

The example of digital preservation satisfies the three basic features of options enumerated above:

  1. Opportunity: the opportunity to preserve the digital object long term
  2. Value: the potential benefits of ongoing usage of the object
  3. Cost: the expense of initial preservation actions

The scenario laid out above is not merely a thought exercise, but a useful framework for addressing a real-world problem for many academic libraries: data set retention. For example, the Illinois Data Bank is a “public access repository for publishing research data from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” The preservation policy associated with a deposited data set includes a commitment to preserve the data set for a minimum of five years. After this period, the Data Bank reserves the right to review the data set and determine if it will be retained or deaccessioned. This is implicitly an option-based approach to data curation: an initial investment to retain the data set for a limited period sets up an option to continue to preserve it long term. The review described in the preservation policy is, essentially, a decision whether or not to exercise that option.

Contrast this to an extreme case: a once-and-for-all decision at the time the data is ready for deposit to either accept the data set and commit to retaining it indefinitely, or not accept it at all. In either eventuality, an element of choice, or flexibility, is lost: either the ability to deaccession a data set if its predicted future value does not warrant its preservation cost, or the ability to resolve some of the uncertainty over the data set’s future value by preserving it for a limited time, and then make a more informed decision about long term retention later. And of course, if the object is not retained at the outset – if the option to preserve is not created through the initial investment in curation – a potentially valuable data set could be lost forever.

The option to collaborate

But the utility of the options framework does not end here. Our latest OCLC Research report, Building Research Data Management Capacity: Case Studies in Strategic Library Collaboration, highlights another area where an option-focused perspective yields useful insight: library collaboration.

Our report documents several case studies of multi-institutional collaborations in the RDM space. One theme running through these case studies was the importance of trust among collaborating partners. Trusted partners not only improve the chances of success for current collaborative efforts, but also open up opportunities for expanding collaboration into new areas. As we observe in the report:

“Another example of an intangible benefit is the accumulation of trust through the shared experience of collaboration. Trust, in turn, is important to the success and the prospect of future partnerships. . . . In this sense, collaborating is itself a benefit of collaboration, building up a shared foundation that can create an ‘option to collaborate’ for the future.”

In other words, investing in a collaboration – even a small-scale effort with limited objectives – cultivates among the partners a shared experience of working together, which can be leveraged as other opportunities for collaboration arise. This intangible benefit – the creation of an option to collaborate in the future – sits alongside any direct, transactional benefit an institution receives from participating in the partnership, but is probably rarely accounted for in any cost-benefit analysis of participating in a collaboration.

The report illustrates this idea with the example of the Texas Data Repository (TDR), a service that allows researchers affiliated with a member institution of the Texas Digital Library (TDL) to publish their data sets. As the report notes, an important incentive to participate in the TDR was that it “was designed and operated by the TDL, a trusted entity with a track record of building community and shared capacities among its membership.” The experience of working with TDL partners on past collaborative efforts created a viable “option to collaborate” on future joint endeavors – an option that was indeed exercised when the opportunity to build shared data repository capacity arose.  

“Part of the value of collaboration is collaborating”

A similar observation is found in another recent OCLC Research report, Sustaining Art Research Collections: Case Studies in Collaboration. This report explores the experiences of several art museum libraries partnering with academic libraries as part of a strategy for achieving long-term sustainability for their collections. The report notes:

“. . . [A]n important intangible benefit of any partnership is the creation of a shared history of collaboration between partners that can be leveraged in the future. As staff from different institutions accumulate experience working together, a measure of trust and confidence in the relationship grows. This ends up representing an ‘option to collaborate’ that can be exercised in the future—either on an entirely new effort, or on extending existing collaborations into new activities. Part of the value of collaboration is collaborating, and this should not be overlooked when assessing the benefits returned from working with other institutions.”

For example, in a case study detailing the partnership between the Hirsch Library at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the nearby Fondren Library at Rice University, we found that individuals we spoke to at both institutions emphasized the value of the relationship as distinct from the value of the current collaboration. They believed that “regardless of the benefits perceived from the original agreement, the relationship between the two institutions is valuable and should be protected and preserved.” These partnering institutions saw that the full value of a collaboration goes beyond the immediate transactional benefits, to include the value created by cultivating an option to work together in the future.

In short, collaboration shares the same option-like features we saw with the digital preservation and data set retention examples mentioned earlier: a value in investing in something that creates the opportunity to make choices at a later time. And like those examples, there is insight to be gained about collaboration from thinking about it from an options-based perspective.

In making the case for the option value in collaboration, I am not suggesting that libraries should enter into every collaborative opportunity that comes along in the expectation of creating valuable options to collaborate that can be exercised in the future. Instead, the potential value of a trusted relationship with a partnering institution that can catalyze future collaborations should be considered alongside the many other factors that play into treating collaboration as a strategic choice. In doing so, libraries will be addressing the recommendation put forward in Building Research Data Management Capacity: value the intangible benefits of collaboration.

Insights from options improve decision making

More generally, the findings from our research on library collaboration, as well as our work in other areas of strategic interest to libraries, suggest that decision making can be improved by adopting an options perspective. When confronted with decisions that involve future opportunity, it is valuable to factor that opportunity into assessments of costs and benefits. Can a modest investment now lead to an expansion of future choices or flexibility?

Many decision makers probably consider this option value at least implicitly as part of their decision making process: for example, repository managers know that if effort is not made to retain and curate a data set now, the ability to use the data set later may be irrevocably lost. But the existence of an option value may be less clear in considering collaborative opportunities and the value that flows from them. In these situations, we may need to look a little harder for the option value. But as the findings from Building Research Data Management Capacity indicate, the option value is often there, and it can be significant.