Fill your social interoperability toolbox

Social interoperability – the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding – is important. But it can be hard to achieve in a university environment. What we need are tools to make the job easier.

Strategies and tactics for developing social interoperability were the subject of the second 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 tools for cross-unit relationship building, and develop plans for increasing their own social interoperability.

In this post, we share some of the insights and perspectives offered by our participants in the workshop’s second session: “Case studies in successful social interoperability”. In the first session, we learned why social interoperability is important; in this session, we learned how it can be developed into a skill set we can use in our work.

Social interoperability skills are “people skills”

A participant in the previous session noted that social interoperability is about relationships between people, not abstract campus units. In this sense, it’s useful to think of social interoperability as “people skills” in a university environment. Even though we might talk about, for example, the Library working with the Office of Research to deliver bibliometrics services, it’s really the bibliometrics librarian working with a staff member in the Office of Research that makes the service successful.

With this in mind, we began the session by presenting strategies and tactics for building social interoperability, gleaned from interviews conducted as part of the Social Interoperability in Research Support report. Taken together, the interviewees worked in units representing every part of the Campus Stakeholder Model discussed in the first workshop session, and the social interoperability tools they spoke about were those they found particularly helpful in building cross-unit relationships and making them work. We grouped these tools into three broad strategies, each encompassing a set of tactics to help bring them about (see the report for a full discussion):

Securing buy-in: Successful partnerships involve each partner seeing a clear benefit from participating. Getting people on board means appealing to self-interest – how will the partnership help everyone further their respective goals?

Building Relationships: The social interoperability skill set is about building successful partnerships between people. This involves finding and sustaining opportunities to interact with colleagues in other units, in order to exchange information about expertise and capacities, and discover opportunities for collaboration and partnership.

Troubleshooting: Social interoperability tools are applied in a complicated, sometimes illogical world of real people. We need to be prepared to run into obstacles, and have tactics for overcoming them.

Social interoperability in action

Our first breakout discussion explored how our workshop participants utilized these tactics and other techniques for building social interoperability. A clear theme emerged across many responses: the importance of personal contact. Several participants suggested meeting colleagues in other units for coffee or lunch to get to know them better – to see “the human side of one another”, as one person put it. This helps break the ice and make future interactions less stressful. Others mentioned appearing at social events or public venues to make acquaintances as if “by accident”. Adapting to the necessities of the pandemic led a number of participants to resort to virtual meetings – interest groups, discussions, even virtual coffees – to connect to colleagues around campus and build camaraderie. According to one participant, being on the right groups and committees – especially those engaged in campus-wide initiatives – is an excellent way to build and maintain personal relationships leading to productive collaborations.

Several participants underlined the importance of early introductions to new hires in other units – one person even suggested distributing welcome kits as a means of initiating a connection. But stewarding established relationships is important as well: always “check in with your networks”, as you never know who one of your contacts might know. Some participants talked about the crucial role of the liaison librarian as a connector to other units on campus. One participant noted that the liaison role requires special skills and dedicated attention and cautioned against overburdening liaison librarians with too many additional responsibilities that might diminish their ability to focus on liaison work. Another emphasized the importance of providing liaison librarians with domain-specific training to improve their ability to connect with researchers.

Many participants talked about how important it was to build credibility and trust with colleagues across campus. Knowing your audience, speaking their language, offering solutions are essential for building social interoperability and productive working relationships that partners can rely on. Several people advised against appearing like a “salesperson” or telling others “you shall do it this way”. Be clear about what the library can do to help others solve their problems and advance their interests. One participant suggested using a specific area of shared interest, like RDM or grant development, as a “jumping off point” for making contact with other campus units. To make partnerships successful, try to move beyond the special interests of your unit and adopt a “multidisciplinary” perspective.

Participants also shared experiences in “what not to do” when attempting to build up social interoperability. Many participants shared the view that top-down mandates are often ineffective for getting things done in a university environment, and one person added that “rigidity around process” also tends to hinder cross-unit cooperation. Several people warned about ambiguous roles and responsibilities in cross-unit groups: state clearly why you are there and what you will do, and let others do the same. One person noted the importance of timing – “sometimes you are just offering advice at the wrong moment” – while another cautioned against starting initiatives without consulting enough people, thus avoiding embarrassing situations like duplicating something that has already been done.

Participants also noted challenges they have experienced in applying social interoperability tools. High rates of staff turnover were mentioned as an obstacle: one can invest in building strong relationships with colleagues in other units, only to have them leave their roles and being left with the necessity of beginning again with their successors. Several participants noted difficulties in connecting with colleagues in other units when there are “imbalances in the relationships” – for example, if one person is significantly higher in the organizational hierarchy. One person warned about being drawn into the “internal drama” or politics of other units, and having productive working relationships suffer as a result.

Sometimes someone in another unit is simply not receptive to working with you, which might mean looking for a different contact, or perhaps even asking someone else from your unit to take over the relationship. And institutional culture can also play an important role. One participant remarked that “the more informal, the easier it is to get things done”, while another observed that in their environment, there is a formal structure, “but we pretend it is not there”. But there are limits to the advantages of informality in building successful partnerships: one participant noted that a culture of coffee, lunch, and dinner engagements exists in their context, but it does not help get things done – “We need more formal informal ways!”

Social interoperability: Good when it’s there, bad when it’s not

In a second series of breakout discussions, workshop participants shared personal experiences when the application of social interoperability tactics helped, or would have helped, build cross-unit relationships and resolve difficulties in moving collaborations forward. These stories illustrated the importance of social interoperability in achieving successful partnerships, as well as the frictions that arise when it is absent. For example, one person described a project with campus IT that ran aground because of the lack of strong working relationships and good communication within the project team – a situation that could have been remedied with more attention to the Building Relationships and Troubleshooting strategies. Another participant noted how uptake of a new data repository service might have been improved if more effort had been invested in anticipating resistance, and understanding the sentiments of researchers – i.e., Securing Buy-in by “knowing your audience”.   

Participants also shared examples of how social interoperability smoothed the way for more productive cross-unit relationships. One person described the library’s expertise in research metrics and its close alignment with the university’s strategic interest in demonstrating impact and strengthening its place in global rankings – an example of enhancing social interoperability by “offering concrete solutions” and “knowing your value.” Another example involved a tentative plan to develop a text/data mining service. The participant who related this experience described how in reaching out to colleagues in other departments, they discovered that expertise in this area already existed in other parts of the campus – an example of how the Building Relationships strategy can place internal decision-making in a broader, campus-wide context. 

Many “lessons learned” about using social interoperability tactics emerged from the stories shared by our participants. For example:

  • Communication is key – often, challenges and risks can be mitigated if communication is streamlined.
  • Invest the time to find the right partners and project champions – this really brings results.
  • Shared/embedded staff is a key social interoperability tactic because it can facilitate many of the other tactics.
  • New or early career colleagues may find employing social interoperability tactics challenging. Consider having surrogates or mentors employ the tactics on their behalf.
  • In building a new relationship, don’t start with proposals for projects.  Get to know the person first: their role, their motivations, their objectives.
  • Know your value, but know the value of other people in the room, too. Speak up for them if they don’t speak up for themselves.
  • A good time to approach someone in another unit is when you have a story to tell about something you/your unit have done to help someone else.
  • If initial attempts to engage with a colleague are rebuffed, be persistent. Asking again/reminding is essential.

These are just a few examples of the valuable advice our workshop participants shared with one another in the discussions – there were many more! 

Coming next: Making your plan for developing cross-functional relationships at your institution

Our breakout discussions touched on an important aspect of social interoperability: building productive working relationships across campus requires an ongoing commitment of time and effort to sustain them. If you want the relationship to work, you have to keep working at it. With this in mind, the next step in our exploration of social interoperability was to help our workshop participants build their own plan for using the social interoperability tools in their personal work experiences. Watch for another post soon summarizing the highlights from the third and final session of our workshop series: “Making your plan for developing cross-functional relationships at your institution.” And keep your social interoperability toolbox handy!

Thanks to my colleague Rebecca Bryant for helpful comments that improved this post!