Social interoperability at Montana State University

To develop robust research support services across the entire research life cycle, individuals and units from across the university, including the library, must work across internal silos. Libraries are increasingly partnering with other campus stakeholders in research support, such as the office of research, campus IT, and academic affairs units.

The MSU mascot is a bobcat. Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash

Cross-campus partnerships are made possible by strong social interoperability, which a 2020 OCLC Research report defines as “the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding.” More simply, it’s all the non-technical activities that ensure user adoption and project success. Throughout my career, I’ve often heard this vaguely described as “the social stuff.” 

I’m fascinated by examples of how libraries are exercising social interoperability and building strong relationships with others across the campus. Montana State University provides a great example. 

Social interoperability at Montana State University

Recognizing the siloed and confusing array of services available to Montana State researchers, this fall the MSU library has begun physically hosting a new Research Alliance, comprised of a coalition of units across campus that includes:

These five units provide support to students and researchers through the many stages of their research and teaching life cycles. But to researchers, these services have appeared atomized–separated by physical space, organizational structures, and diffuse messaging–making it difficult to identify or utilize the services designed to support them. Researchers too often learned about resources by word of mouth. 

That’s changing. Now these units will all be co-housed on the third floor of the library and also co-branded as a “one stop shop” of research and teaching support services. Researchers no longer have to know about multiple units spread across campus but instead just need to know about a central resource, making it easier for them to benefit from campus resources.

While co-located and co-branded, each unit retains its place in the existing campus hierarchy, representing a type of operational rather than organizational convergence. It promises to offer significant benefits for the units and the professionals working within them, beyond greater researcher awareness. For example, closer proximity should lead to synergies, by increasing awareness and respect for the offerings of other units. By working in a shared space, under a common organizational brand, these individuals are now much more of a team. 

Of course, this effort didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of years of discussion and intentional work by the MSU Library. In recent months, both the executive sponsors and the practitioners have been meeting regularly to discuss the shared work space, communications planning, and assessment activities. A memorandum of understanding has been developed to document the basic elements of the multi-stakeholder agreement, including partnership expectations and guidelines for use of the shared space. 

Graphic showing the research lifeycle, which has 6 steps supported by MSU's research support services within the Research Alliance. These steps are: new ideas, planning and proposal development, project implementation and leadership, publication/presentation, preservation/dissemination, and measuring impact.
Research Support Services lifecycle diagram from the Research Alliance at Montana State University

The library is the nexus for research support

The library chose to reallocate a student study area and assign library faculty and staff as organizational leads within the partnership to create the home for the Research Alliance. This can create valid concerns about the potential loss of library space and autonomy. But viewed from another angle, the library is instead taking bold action to position itself at the center of research support activities–both physically and in terms of the library’s perceived role in research support.  

To remain relevant both to researchers and to the parent institutions that fund them, libraries must demonstrate their central role in the research enterprise. This can require a paradigm shift, reimagining existing services and organizational structures. Montana State University’s Research Alliance provides an example of one of the many paths forward.  

The Research Library Partnership as consultant

OCLC Research Library Partnership affiliates have, as a benefit of membership, the opportunity to consult directly with RLP program officers who can share their expertise and offer guidance in our areas of programmatic focus. Over the last several months I’ve served as an informal advisor to MSU’s Research Alliance effort. 

Through regular meetings with project leader Jason Clark, the Head of Research Analytics, Optimization, and Data Services in the MSU Library, I’ve been able to contribute an external point of view as the project has moved toward implementation. For instance, I’ve offered input on the development of a joint memorandum of understanding, communications strategy, and group assessment plan. I’ve also met with the Research Alliance team members, explaining the key findings of our Social Interoperability report and facilitating a discussion about their multi-unit collaboration. In particular, we discussed some of the strategies and tactics they might adopt to set themselves up for the greatest success.

Clark notes, “Conversations with Rebecca crystallized our thinking about the Research Alliance partnership and helped us clearly define the MSU Library’s role. Moreover, her workshop with the Alliance partners helped ground our work together, got us thinking about shared services and projects, and set us on our current path to a successful opening of the Research Alliance this fall.”

Upcoming Social Interoperability Workshop for RLP affiliates

Developing strong trust relationships with non-library stakeholders can be challenging. . . even intimidating. But you aren’t alone. 

I invite our OCLC Research Library Partnership affiliates to join us in October for a concise 90-minute workshop where together we will explore these challenges and then individually identify specific strategies and tactics to apply locally. We will be offering the workshop at two different times to accommodate global participation. 

I particularly encourage institutions to send cohorts of learners, as it offers significant synergies for learning and implementing the social interoperability tactics. And if you’re early- or mid-career, this training may help you avoid some of the mistakes I made earlier in my career! 

I encourage our RLP affiliates to register today