Social interoperability: Getting to know all about you

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Building and sustaining productive cross-campus partnerships in support of the university research enterprise is both necessary and fraught with challenges. Social interoperability – the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding – is the key to making these partnerships work. There are strategies and tactics for building social interoperability – can you use them to learn more about an important campus stakeholder and potential partner in research support services?

This was the challenge we posed to participants in the third and final 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 insights and perspectives from the workshop’s final session: “Making your plan for developing cross-functional relationships at your institution.” In the first two sessions, we learned why social interoperability is important, and how it can be developed into a skill set we can use in our work. In the third session, we explored how, as library professionals, we can use our social interoperability skill set to reach out to other parts of the campus.

The Library as campus partner

The session began with a reminder of the important role the Library plays as a stakeholder and partner in the delivery of research support services, with recognized expertise in areas such as metadata, licensing/vendor negotiations, and bibliometrics/research impact. At the same time, the Library often occupies a distinct space in terms of the perspective it brings to its mission, such as a strong preference for “free” and “open” solutions. Given this unique blend of skills and values, the Library is often viewed as a trusted and “agnostic” partner on campus, as we heard from our interviewees for our Social Interoperability report.

But we also heard from our interviewees about several sources of frustration encountered when working with the Library. For example, some campus stakeholders described how, in their experience, the Library did not focus enough on the “bottom line”, or moved too slowly in comparison to the needs and workflows of researchers. During the session, we conducted a quick poll of the workshop participants, asking them to put themselves in the role of a different campus stakeholder and consider how that unit would describe the Library in one word or phrase. The results were revealing: while the top responses included “supportive”, “helpful”, “competent”, and “expert”, “slow” was also a frequent choice, and other responses included “friendly but not fully relevant”, “opaque”, and “reactive not proactive”.

Social interoperability: One word or phrase to describe the library

The important takeaway was that in building cross-campus relationships, library professionals need to take into account, and in some cases, shift, how the Library is perceived by potential collaborative partners, rather than relying on self-perceptions. While unflattering characterizations of the Library may be based on misinformation, unfamiliarity, or differing priorities, they can still impede the development of productive working relationships (see the Social Interoperability report for more on the Library as a campus partner).

Learn about your partners

Our breakout discussions were motivated by an enormously valuable resource shared by colleagues at Rutgers University-New Brunswick Libraries. Developed as part of a strategic planning initiative, the resource is a questionnaire that the Library used to structure conversations with their stakeholders across campus. The purpose of the questionnaire was to learn about the Library’s stakeholders: their goals, their challenges, their needs. Consequently, almost all of the questions focused on the stakeholder’s priorities and interests; it is only toward the end of the questionnaire that library services are mentioned. This helped elicit the context that the Library needed to align its work with the needs of stakeholders (see the Social Interoperability report for the full questionnaire) .

The first discussion placed our participants in the role of discovering information about a hypothetical campus partner, using the Rutgers questionnaire as a guide. This discussion elicited some good advice on how to approach prospective campus partners and learn about them. For example, in considering how to break the ice and learn about colleagues in campus IT, several participants suggested initiating a discussion of general IT-related topics, such as network security or new technologies. Another participant suggested that a careful review of unit web sites would help in gathering information about prospective campus partners. While the pandemic has certainly introduced challenges in connecting to colleagues around campus, it has also sometimes made it easier: as one person pointed out, more people are attending inter-departmental meetings because it is easier to join a Zoom meeting than to be physically present at a particular location on campus.

Discovering information about other units on campus is not without challenges, as many of our workshop participants shared in the discussions. For example, several participants reported that it was sometimes difficult to pinpoint who to connect with, or even to identify the hierarchy of the unit. While direct, interpersonal contact usually helped in forming relationships, campus units with high staff turnover – such as the IT unit – made this problematic. And sometimes the information you discover about another unit’s responsibilities and needs may make forming successful partnerships even more daunting – for example, when it is clear that the other unit’s priorities do not easily mesh with those of the Library. By way of illustration, some participants observed that university Communications teams often seem remote from the Library, and do not adequately relay information about the Library and its activities. But as one person noted, it is a challenge for them to communicate everything, and currently, outreach to students and COVID-related information are understandably their priorities.

But participants also told many stories of how discovering more about their colleagues around campus helped create actionable opportunities for the Library. Often, it was as simple as discovering how Library skills and capacities matched up to the needs of other units. For example, one participant described how units in the area of Academic Affairs valued input from the Library in regard to accreditation processes. Others talked about the fact that mandates aimed at promoting open science have started to have more “teeth”, with compliance receiving greater scrutiny. This creates a stronger demand for Library expertise in areas such as data management plans. Several participants mentioned that they have learned that rising interest in inter-disciplinary, “Grand Challenge” projects has created a need for project support capacities that the Library can provide. And hearing from other campus units and departments about their need to better document productivity and output creates opportunities for Library staff to initiate conversations about tools such as ORCID that help advance that goal.

What do your campus partners know about you?

In one of the breakout discussions, a participant observed that they did not know very much about what their university Communications team did. But, the participant continued, this probably means that the Communications staff probably did not know much about what the Library does!

In the second set of breakout discussions, participants once again utilized the Rutgers script as a frame as they considered what other campus units might say about how the Library and its services contribute toward their work. One participant noted that the script questions were particularly useful for bringing out misconceptions about what the library can and cannot do. In the course of the discussions, several themes emerged from participants’ experiences of how the Library is perceived across campus.

First, it was clear that campus stakeholders often do not have a clear picture of the expertise and capacities of today’s academic library. Participants noted, for example, that stakeholders often are unaware that the Library can help with every aspect of the research cycle. Much more effort is needed to raise awareness about the Library’s role in the university research enterprise. One participant observed that at their university, the Library provides good data management support, but it took a lot of work to make researchers see this expertise. Another person related a similar experience, remarking that Library participation in cross-campus projects requires a lot of energy and communication – not least because many campus stakeholders are not fully aware of what the Library can do. Or, as one participant pointed out, stakeholders may utilize Library services without realizing it is the Library that is providing them.

Another theme touched on the need to establish a clear boundary around Library services within the broader university service eco-system. One participant remarked that the Library provides many services, but some of them are also offered by other campus units. For example, if a researcher needs data storage services, should they go to campus IT, or to the Library? One participant described a circular process whereby the Library receives a technical question and passes it to the IT unit, which then passes it back to the Library for resolution. Participants also noted that as the Library takes on new, emerging roles beyond its traditional functions, there is a tendency to “step on toes” and awaken territorial instincts in other campus units. But some participants also pointed out synergies that could be leveraged. A good example is that both the Library and the IT unit face budgetary challenges. When requests are received for support that neither unit can provide, but for which there is a clear need, they can collaborate to build a case for additional resources to address the gap.

Finally, workshop participants noted a shared need to elevate the perception of the Library’s capabilities across campus. Participants shared examples they have encountered of outdated or even indifferent perceptions of the Library and its services: “important but not essential to Research Office day-to-day business”; “the Office of the Vice Provost would not think of many areas that the Library supports in the university research enterprise”; “the Library buys the books”; “seen as useful, but difficult to get them to see things the Library should take the lead on”; “not seen as thought leaders or a source for answers, but as service providers.” Several participants cautioned against the Library being seen strictly in an administrative support role in cross-unit initiatives; one person observed that the Library’s responsibility to manage article processing charges (APCs) reinforces a perception as “book keeper” or “note-taker”. Library staff are often included in projects only after funding is received, rather than being included as a partner as the project is being developed.

How to counteract these perceptions? Participants emphasized the need for a “negotiation” process to ease the tension between what is expected from libraries and what libraries can offer. In short, libraries must learn to say “No” when necessary. Other campus units often expect a great deal from libraries, and library staff must strike a difficult balance between doing as much as possible to advance the interests of other units while at the same time preserving clear goals and advocating for Library-related priorities. As one person noted, “there is SO MUCH education to be done” to dispel the notion that libraries are useful only for administrative support. Libraries must break down and re-build these expectations. To do this, library staff need to be more proactive, rather than reactive, in their cross-campus partnerships. More openness across units is also needed, and libraries can set a good example in promoting transparency. And because, as one participant put it, “our services are not always top of mind”, library staff should work with the university Communications team, as well as influential faculty and administrators, “to get our message across.”

How do you feel about cross-unit partnerships now?

We concluded the workshop by asking participants to select one word to describe their current feelings about the prospect for cross-campus partnerships at their institution, in light of what they learned over the three sessions. We were gratified to see that the top response was “optimistic”! And indeed, with careful attention to the importance and need for social interoperability, and the techniques and practices we discussed to build it in the campus environment, library staff can be optimistic that their campus partnerships will be successful, and that the full value proposition of the Library will be better understood and utilized across the university research enterprise.

Social interoperability: How do you feel about cross-campus collaboration

Special thanks to all of our workshop participants for sharing their insights through lively and enlightening discussions, and to our colleagues at LIBER for working with us to make the workshop a success (a great example of social interoperability in action!)