Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Retrofit 5: The Competency Trap

This is my fifth “thinking out loud” installment in preparation for the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

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I need to reexamine an earlier piece to this mental puzzle, a piece picked up and pondered in my first installment: the issue of competencies. In that post I made the following statement:

…we should deal with the real [professional] image, or at least the one we talk about in terms of professional competencies. It is here that we need to begin, to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and see if we like the reflection. With any luck, and perhaps with a bit of skill and guidance from others wiser than ourselves, we’ll see (or are in the process of seeing) “a professional who gradually achieves such general proficiency over the course of his/her career” and “a sense of community and common identity among special collections professionals” that at the same time helps “others to understand our work.”

I referred to the RBMS “Guidelines: Competencies for Special Collections Professionals” as a proper starting point for an examination of our professional future, a mirror for self-examination and reflection.

In my second post I admitted to some difficulty with this approach. A look in the mirror tells us who we are, “the reality of the work we do.” Our reflection might spark memories of a professional vision—our dreams—when we entered the field. If we’re lucky, the looking glass might even offer hints to future directions, as we compare our present reality with what the Guidelines ask us to be, or to become. But it is not a magic mirror. It cannot tell us the future. It is not something we can step through, like Alice, into an alternative universe.

Or can we? Perhaps we need a different approach, or a different perspective. Looking in the mirror—reflecting on our present status—can bring other thoughts to mind or bend us to other realities. If it doesn’t take us into Looking-Glass Land, it does something else: it suggests another answer, or another piece to the puzzle. We might find that the answer—or an alternate solution—was staring us in the face all the time.

I’m not suggesting any solution to this seminar riddle, merely another piece to ponder. In my case, the piece surfaced on Twitter. (Which makes me wonder, if only for a moment, and with tongue in cheek: is Twitter—or any social media for that matter—a magic mirror?) What suddenly appeared before my eyes was a string of tweets from the 11th Columbia Library Symposium, specifically those related to a talk by Elliott Shore, Executive Director of the Association of Research Libraries. It was the title of his talk that caught my eye, especially the last four words: “Fostering Leadership Across the Academic Library Organization: Avoiding the Competency Trap.” (emphasis mine)

The symposium tweets tantalized me. Obviously, I was not present at Shore’s talk; I experienced it via the Twitterverse. But I felt led in or around the mirror: here was another perspective worth examining. With not too much digging, I found Shore’s presentation slides on the Columbia web site. While it was not the same as being there, hearing his comments in person, the slides still gave me a sense of what he said, of the argument he made. Let me try to encapsulate those thoughts. The program description of Shore’s talk is a helpful starting point.

There are all kinds of reasons for doing things in the future more or less as we have done them in the past, especially as one moves up in an organization — after all, one has succeeded so far, why change? The notion of the competency trap, applied to organizations since the 1980s, can be applied to us as individuals — and can blunt the possibilities for change. In this keynote, Elliott Shore…will recount what he has learned about suspending disbelief and share thoughts about building an environment that questions unexamined assumptions.

First, Shore provided a definition of the competency trap offered by Levitt and March in 1988, refined by Becker in 2004: “The position of an organization which uses a suboptimal procedure because it is good enough in the short run and so does not switch to a better one.” This raises a number of questions that I’ll ask here, but offer no answers—placeholders for further discussion: are the RBMS Competencies a trap? Are they suboptimal? If so, in what ways? In the same manner, are there flaws with institutional procedures, e.g. annual performance reviews, workflows, or supervision, that blunt possibilities for change?

Shore offered an example of a competency trap: the threat (economic and otherwise) felt by 19th century sailing vessels to the new technology of steam. Sail’s response was to add more masts, more sail, more waterline—all suboptimal procedures. Steam continued to threaten. Sail’s addition of more hull, masts, and canvas—what Levitt and March noted as a “favorable performance with an inferior procedure” led sail “to accumulate more experience with it, thus keeping experience with a superior procedure [i.e. steam] inadequate to make it rewarding to use.” By the early 20th century, sail had foundered; steam took over. Shore concluded that “incremental change lands you on the rocks” and that sail’s response to steam was an act of hubris.

Shore, as I interpret his slides, is looking for another path forward, something different than incremental movement. Borrowing from the work of John Seely Brown, Shore posits the belief that a) “the challenges we face are both fundamental and substantial,” b) our new normal is a state of “constant dis-equilibrium,” and c) “our ways of working, ways of creating value, and ways of innovating must be reframed.” Shore finds the path forward in the concepts of “disagreement deficit” and “being wrong” developed by Kathryn Schulz in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

Disagreement deficit, as defined by Schulz and expounded by Shore, is a condition in which “people are naturally hesitant to disagree with those around them.” This condition goes further: “We not only believe what those around us believe, but we even see things as those around us see them.” In this deficit condition “our communities expose us to disproportionate support for our own ideas, shield us from the disagreement of outsiders, cause us to disregard whatever outside disagreement we do encounter, and quash the development of disagreement from within.” To be wrong is to wander. According to Schulz,

To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.

Shore, taking his cue from Schulz, is saying it is all right to disagree, to be wrong. It is an adventure. Part of the adventure, within an organization, is to protect those who disagree and to allow the uncomfortable questions to surface: “Why can’t we do it this way?” “What is the worst thing that could happen if we try this?” “Our scholars learn from experiments—often more from unsuccessful ones—can we experiment with this idea?”

My takeaway from this reexamination of competencies is this: As we look at retrofitting expectations or redefining the reality of special collections professionals, we need to look and listen to those who disagree with us, to ask uncomfortable questions, be comfortable in our wrongness, and not be afraid of the journey. Where do we disagree? What experiments have we cooked up or are in play? Have we really spent enough time examining and learning from our failures? These, and others, are difficult questions to ask, especially when other entities are asking—on any number of fronts—for accountability or efficiency. Have we got the guts to do the hard things, to take the risk, to wander, be disagreeable or wrong? Do we have eyes and ears attuned to what we might not want to see or hear?

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