Turning the Tables

27 Mar

Earlier today, a very nice first year medical student came by my office and apologetically asked me if I could tell her where the offices of our Institutional Review Board people are. I don’t work in the library anymore, you might recall, and now my office sits in a maze of other offices on the 7th (top) floor of the ambulatory care center of our medical complex and medical school. It’s not a place that anyone wanders past. Mine is not an office that someone might simply pop in for a visit. It’s out of the way. And as I said to my former colleagues in the Library and my friends on Facebook, I admittedly miss such interruptions. Not all of the time, mind you, but one of the greatest joys that I knew as a librarian was simply answering someone’s question and / or helping them in some way that made their day better. The student was SO grateful when I got up and walked her around the corner to the IRB folks. She thanked me several times. It was a flashback to those days of yore … oh, 3 months ago or so.

For ten years, I spent the better part of my working days answering people’s questions. Either answering them directly, looking for the answer for them, or helping them learn how to find the answer for themselves. All day long, the overwhelming majority of sentences spoken to me ended in question marks. Librarians answer questions.

Evaluators, on the other hand, ask them. This is what I’m quickly learning. We are the ones who need the answers, thus we’re the ones who ask the questions. How well did “X” intervention work? How much time was saved by implementing “Y” into the process? What does “Z” do for you that no other letter of the alphabet ever did for you before?

But I’ve also learned that there’s a speed bump; the researchers and clinicians and other users of the resources and services that I’m evaluating … well … they typically aren’t librarians. In other words, I don’t think that they like answering questions as much as any librarian does.

“It’s a simple survey,” I claim.

“It won’t take more than 5 minutes of your time.”

“The results will help us help YOU!”

“I’d be ever so grateful,” said Babe the Pig. (If you miss the reference, check out the movie.)

And still, getting people to answer questions is way harder than I ever imagined. I’m actually very good at talking to people, and usually pretty good at getting people to talk to me. It was one of the skills and characteristics that I honed as a librarian / informationist that I figured would be easily transferable to my new role. Not so much. At least not yet.

It could be the method – the dreaded survey. People don’t like them. Heck, I don’t like them. But in some cases it is the most appropriate and most efficient method for getting the data (answers) you need for the evaluation. I read and studied and asked about writing good questions. I worked with seasoned researchers to put my survey together. I piloted it with different groups and made all of the necessary tweaks based on the feedback I received. I picked my target audience carefully. And once I felt confident about the whole thing, I let it loose.

And then … I waited.

And waited.

And sent out a couple of reminders.

And broadened my audience.

And worked some different angles to reach people.

And waited some more.

I’m still waiting; waiting for the responses to grow to some level that will afford me some information needed to present my findings to a couple of different groups. It’s coming along, but golly it’s slow. And such a cumbersome process. Ask me a question and I’ll happily answer for you, straightaway. But waiting for others to answer me … well, the tables have turned, my friends.

A turning table playing a different tune!

A turning table playing a different tune!

Stay Put!

6 Mar
Sit, Eliza. Stay.  Our puppy on her first day home, Aug 2013.

Sit, Eliza. Stay.
Our puppy on her first day home, Aug 2013.

I read a couple of good blog posts this morning, over on the Medical Library Association’s blog, “Full Speed Ahead.” The first was by MLA President, Linda Walton, called, “The Time for Change is Now.” It offers a nice summary of the organization’s new strategic goals, each of which contains some level of a call for action. Like many professional organizations, MLA is challenged to find its purpose and goals in the ever-changing world of libraries, health care, and information. The second post is by MLA’s new Executive Director, Kevin Baliozian. “Words I Can Do Without” lays the foundation for what became the very strategic plan outlined in Linda’s post. Wondering what Kevin’s “no say” words are? SPOILER ALERT: They are “try” and “continue.” Again, you can see that MLA and it’s leadership are focused on moving forward, shedding the “same old, same old,” and making the organization as relevant and important to health sciences librarians and information professionals as its storied history shows it to be in the past. 

I serve on the Executive Board of my regional chapter of MLA and we are engaged in much the same type of work. What do we continue doing? What do we cast aside? Who do we reach out to? What defines us and makes us different, unique, worthy of a colleague’s membership dues and energy? Important questions, all.

I’ve got nothing against change. I think it’s important to take stock on a regular basis and adjust accordingly. In my new job as an evaluator, that’s one of the main focuses (foci?) of my work. More, it’s one of the main reasons for my work. I evaluate the research cores and programs of the UMCCTS to track their progress and to make corrections; to identify where changes need to happen. 

But all of this said, I do have one cautionary note about change: Change for the sake of change is no change at all.

I once counted the number of times that I moved between the ages of 20 and 30. I don’t remember the exact number today, but it was around 18. Eighteen moves in 10 years. I also had a number of jobs during that time. I changed all of the time, BUT I went nowhere. I never stayed in any one place long enough for it to feel like home and I never stayed in any job long enough to become very good at it. And it’s the latter that I sometimes fear when it comes to the bigger picture of organizational and/or professional change.

The other day, someone called me to ask for some “librarian expertise.” I told him that I no longer worked in the library, but I could still certainly help him because I still have librarian expertise. I have it because I stayed in a job for 10 years. My job in the library did not stay the same for 10 years, but I stayed true to a certain core ideal – to help the students, clinicians, and researchers of the Medical School with their information needs, whatever those needs might be. Whether I was building consumer health websites, answering reference questions, teaching how to better search PubMed, or building data dictionaries for research teams, in each I was staying true to that ideal. 

As we search and investigate and try on new roles as librarians – at the individual, institutional, and professional organization level – I hope that we stay true to our ideals. It’s a big challenge, but not impossible. It doesn’t mean we don’t change, but that we purposefully change. Change is expensive. It costs time to learn new things and time to become an expert. It costs time to raise the awarenesses of the people we serve regarding the things we now do. It costs people jobs, when roles and tasks disappear. It costs people their identity, when they’re tied closely to one in particular. 

In the past 2 months, I have changed jobs, moved offices twice, watched my mother-in-law pass away, and (just about – almost ready to sign the papers) bought a house. I seem to be forgetting another big thing, but that’s probably an innate defense mechanism, because let me tell you … all of this change has been exhausting. It takes a toll on a person physically, mentally, and emotionally. We all know this. So it’s all the more important to make sure that we undertake change that’s worth the expense.

I’m enjoying my new job, though it’s stressful to not be an expert anymore and I’d be lying if I said that I don’t miss the library. I’m going to love our new house, something that I’ve never had before in my life. And I do so love having an office for the first time, even if it’s across the campus from all of my old colleagues. All good changes. All worth it.

In the same way, I think that many of the changes that we’re talking about and making in the world of health sciences libraries and beyond are great – necessary and worth the cost. But I do wonder about some and I question their true connection to our ideals. Are we scrambling to change because we don’t know what else to do? Are we forced to change for reasons that have nothing to do with our work, e.g. budgets, space, etc. All very real forces of change, but I worry that sometimes the changes that they force aren’t necessarily in our best interest.

Change is difficult. Change is inevitable. And perhaps most importantly, change requires good leadership – whether you’re leading an organization or just trying to lead yourself in the right direction. In that respect, I feel pretty good about my professional organization. I paid my dues for another year. :)

 

Politics is an Eight-Letter Word

26 Feb

A number of years ago, the librarians at Lamar Soutter Library, UMass Medical School, received the directive, “Get Out!” Our Library Director wanted us out of our cubicles and away from our desks. She wanted us to go to the people that we served. If people didn’t need to come to the Library anymore, the Library needed to go to them. And thus was born our embedded librarian program.

One of the very first lessons that I learned when I started getting out of the Library was that I needed to learn about politics. I remember going to my Library Director and asking if she could give us a lesson on the topic during one of our professional development meetings. Fortunately, she understood where I was coming from and from that point on, was open and willing to answering any questions any of us had regarding who was who and how things worked, politically, at the Medical School.

Our political system has become so broken the past few decades, it’s easy to think of politics as a dirty word. We think of corruption and conniving and backstabbing and the like. But the truth of the matter is that most, if not all, organizations and institutions exist in some sort of political atmosphere. If we’re lucky, it’s NOT a destructive framework, but it is an existing structure all the same.

Reframing 5th coverWhen I was earning my library science degree from Syracuse, I had to take a course on management and one of the required textbooks was Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal’s book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. The “Political Frame” is one of four organizational frameworks that they present and they describe it as follows:

The political frame views organizations as alive and screaming political arenas that host a complex web of individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:

  1. Organizations are coalitions of various individuals and interest groups.
  2. There are enduring differences among coalition members in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.
  3. Most important decisions involve the allocation of scarce resources – who gets what.
  4. Scarce resources and enduring differences give conflict a central role in organizational dynamics and make power the most important resource.
  5. Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among different stakeholders.

(Bolman & Deal, Reframing Organizations, 2nd ed., p. 163)

Now that I work in a different environment than the Library, I’m learning a different political landscape. Different people, different personalities, different programs, different priorities. I’m still in the same institution, so I have a slight head start, in that I at least know the people; by name and position, if nothing else. I also know, thanks to my years in the Library, that walking into situations without respecting the politics is not only naive, but can be downright disastrous to any efforts you’re attempting. It’s a really important lesson and a skill set that’s not necessarily taught in graduate school or in continuing education classes. That’s a shame, because when we pretend that politics doesn’t matter or that it’s a dirty game that we want to avoid, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. Politics is an eight letter word. There’s no need to not talk about it.

In the Bleak Midwinter

12 Feb

As I write this, it’s snowing here in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you’re not up-to-speed on the “Golden Snow Globe National Snow Contest Snowiest U.S. Cities” rankings, you’ve missed out on the story about my snowy city’s great claim to fame this season… We’re Number 1! 92+ inches and counting. Many folks are tired of it, but not me. I love the snow. I love winter. And I’m loving being in first place! Midwinter

Perhaps the thing that I love best about a snowy winter is that it forces upon us the time to sit still. Stay home. Be quiet. When I’m stuck at home during a blizzard, once I get past the elation that the Medical School is closed for the day and I don’t have to go to work, I hunker in on the couch with a blanket, my dog, something to drink, and either a good movie or a good book, and I revel in the fact that I have nothing to do but enjoy myself. I get this strange feeling that in another life, I must have been some woodland animal; not the kind that hibernates, but the kind that just knows how to hunker in for a day or two. I can do it, no problem at all. 

 For the record, in my 10+ years working at UMass Medical School, this is the first and only time that the school has closed. Twice now. I’m telling you, we’ve had some snow!

I remember reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir, The Good Life, years ago and being struck by their choice of living. In spring, they planted. In summer, they tended to all of the many chores around the homestead. In fall, they harvested and prepared for the winter. And in the winter, they rested. They read and they wrote and they studied. It was the quiet time of year to do those very things.

Funny thing, though, is that while I love hunkering in at home on a snow day, I struggle with it at work on a work day. 

One thing about a new job is the requirement that it can put upon you to be quiet, to pay attention, and to read to learn a lot of new stuff. You know the joke about how librarians do nothing but read all day? Well, I’ve read more in my new role as an evaluator in two months than I likely read as a librarian in the past two years! And the strangest thing about that is how I’ve noticed I have to fight the urge to think that I’m not doing anything. Not being busy attending meetings and troubleshooting problems and answering questions and teaching classes and bouncing from thing to thing to thing … well, sometimes I feel downright guilty just sitting here in my office reading! Reading and planning – two things that I never had enough time to do in my previous job. Never. And now that I have the luxury to do so, I feel a little off my game.

But maybe that’s it. Maybe the fact that it’s ingrained into our workaday mindset and values that busy-ness means a jam-packed schedule is why I feel off. We measure productivity more by a full calendar than anything else. We measure our value in accomplishing stuff. Replying, “I’m free all day on Thursday and Friday,” meaning I don’t have any meetings on Thursday and Friday, makes me feel weird. Lazy. Guilty! I’ve realized that it really is a luxury, in this day and age, to sit and think and read and plan. On work time. 

Now that I’ve begun to plan out some projects, to schedule some meetings, to get out and DO something, I’m feeling better. More balanced.

And the fact that I’ve been doing just what I needed to do until now … that’s buried in the snow. 

The Lost Art of Being Frugal

29 Jan

Worcester, Massachusetts got slammed by a blizzard this week, bringing out the hearty nature in all of us New Englanders. What’s a little (34″) snow to dampen our spirits? I made a big pot of chili, watched a couple of movies, read a little, and hung out with my pets while the snow flew. Then yesterday, I joined everyone else in the neighborhood in the first great dig out of the winter. It’s what you do when you live here. No complaining needed. Born out of the spirit of the Puritans that settled here, New Englanders have a reputation for hard work and frugality. Granted, it’s been some time since the days of the Pilgrims, and regional distinctions fade as we’ve become a much more migratory society over the centuries, but we still think of Southern hospitality, Midwestern friendliness, Western pioneers, and hearty New Englanders. And yesterday, we hearty folks were shoveling. 

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While we praise hard work and frugality, these traits also run counter to much that Americans dream to achieve today. Retiring early, becoming a millionaire overnight, achieving fame and fortune by winning a talent contest … these are the ideas behind bestsellers and top rated television programs. We talk the talk of hard work, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, scraping and scrapping and saving for our dreams; these are the bedrocks upon which America was built and, thus, they remain a part of our societal DNA. As one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said, “The way to wealth depends on just two words, industry and frugality.” In theory. But in reality, for more reasons than we can count, they are less and less the walk of America. 

Economists speak of “frugality fatigue” as a driving force behind folks living in debt. As a species, we aren’t always very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want now and we’ve built a society that feeds this human habit in so many ways. Thus, when we also hear the popular mantra “do more with less” in our workplaces and business, it’s not something that we necessarily want to hear. It becomes a very negative thing. It wears us out, after awhile. We get stretched too thin. We simply cannot do more and more with less and less. In this sense, frugality becomes our enemy.

But is it? Was Mr. Franklin wrong? Or is there a way to look at “do more with less” that prompts something beyond stress?

According to Navi Radjou, an innovation strategist in Silicon Valley, the answer to that question is yes. In his thought-provoking TED Talk, Creative Problem-Solving in the Face of Extreme Limits, he outlines his theory of frugal innovation. In this brief talk, he gives lots of examples of people living in conditions where resources are often extremely limited, yet rather than limiting their ability to solve problems, the situation actually enhances their creativity and results in solutions that they would likely never come up with in a land of plenty. 

They can magically transform adversity into opportunity, and turn something of less value into something of high value. In other words, they mastered the art of doing more with less, which is the essence of frugal innovation.

~ Navi Radjou

We hardly need to live in abject poverty to take advantage of this idea. Librarianship, and any profession struggling with finding its footing and value in tough times, can tap into the one resource that’s common in most every situation, human ingenuity. Radjou calls it our most abundant resource. We need to find ways and create situations that foster our ingenuity. Maybe, the pressure cooker of a “do more and more with less and less” work setting can be the impetus for this. Maybe not knowing what’s coming next, not knowing where we belong, not knowing how to define and/or redefine ourselves is just the environment we need to push us towards creative solutions.

In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve entered my new role as an evaluator without a lot of traditional knowledge and background in the subject. Yes, I’ve been reading and studying up on the basics, but lacking the resource of years of experience and know-how, I find that I’m able to come up with some different thoughts and ideas and solutions that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. It’s like the team that enters the big game for the first time. They don’t know enough to know to lose.

One of the great things about evaluating the impact of clinical and translational research is that nobody really knows exactly how to do it yet. This is what I tell myself. It helps me put aside any anxiety of knowing that I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, and sets me free to try all sorts of things in doing my job. It’s my way of making the most out of my limited resources and thus practicing frugal innovation. And that can be downright exciting. 

 

 

Making Mistakes

15 Jan

The button has been pushed and our proposal for a Clinical Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health is out of our hands. Let the review process begin! 

My part of the writing and work has been done for a few days now, so I’ve been spending much of the past week doing many things that I likely would have done when I started this new job, if only I hadn’t jumped into the grant writing fire. I’ve read all of the Center’s newsletters for the past few years, I’ve taken lots of notes and done a bunch of documentation related to who’s who for each of our core components. I’d drawn a lot of pictures and graphs and maps to help me understand the landscape. My informationist role in the Library prepared me well for these latter tasks, as I’d been embedded in projects and made it my job to know what was going on around the University. Still, it’s a lot of putting names to faces to departments to projects. It’s a lot to learn.

I also need to learn a lot about the role of an evaluator. I knew enough to get the job, but now that I have it, I know that I need to learn a great deal more before I’m proficient in the task(s). I’ve been reading a lot of articles from evaluation journals. I tracked down several good books on program evaluation, and a couple on evaluating biomedical and health research, in particular. I’ve subscribed to professional listservs, been reading daily blog posts by evaluators, and joined a professional organization to have access to needed resources. Lastly, I’ve been working through a few self-guided mini-courses to make sure I’ve got the basics down pat and that I understand the terminology that I’m reading elsewhere. So far, so good.

And I’m planning. It’s true that I worked with the section writers and leadership of the CCTS to develop evaluation plans for the different components of our proposal. In other words, I’ve already written a whole bunch of plans stating what I’m going to do over the next few years. That said though, there’s planning and then there’s PLANNING. The all-caps version is where I am now. I have plans to collect and track certain metrics to answer certain evaluation questions, but now I really need to plan out how I’m going to do all of that. The logistics. It’s a great challenge. It’s interesting and I’m learning a lot. I cannot complain.

A torn page from a book. I found this on the sidewalk one day during a walk. It's hung over my desk ever since.

A torn page from a book. I found this on the sidewalk one day during a walk. It’s hung over my desk ever since.

One clear thing that I’ve read – and thus learned – over and over in my study ’til now is that the practices of measuring and evaluating are continuous. You need to plan for them from the beginning and, depending upon your goal, assess at different points along the way. It’s pretty much like life in general. If you make that New Year’s Resolution to lose weight, you need to make a plan and part of that plan involves devising a means to track your progress along the way. If you want to go on a trip to Europe, you need a plan to save the money and a way to keep track of what you’ve saved, so you’ll know when you’re ready to pack your bags. 

I am a reflective person by nature. I majored in philosophy during my first time through college. I went to seminary where you hone your spiritual reflection skills well. I’ve spent time with therapists, here and there in life. I’ve been writing this blog for the past few years as a way to reflect upon and keep track of my changing roles as a librarian. For me, it’s a really helpful practice because it keeps my awareness of where I am and what I’m doing and what I’m learning at the forefront. Annual evaluations (and/or quarterly reports) don’t work for me without keeping track of things along the way. This blog helps with that.

I recently re-read something that I wrote last fall for a different blog, Hack Library School. I was interviewed, along with several other medical librarians, about our work. One of the questions asked was what advice I’d give to current students studying library science and my answer, in part, was:

Sell yourself! One of the things that I see happening in settings like mine (an academic medical school and research center) is that there is never a shortage of work for a person who can match his/her skill set to existing needs. And there are LOTS of existing needs. The key is to really know what you know how to do, know what you need to learn how to do (and learn it – ESPECIALLY if you’re weak in the sciences), and then know how to show people that what you bring is uniquely useful to them. I don’t necessarily think that this means you wait around and look for job openings in medical libraries, but that you also keep your eye on other parts of the health care system or biomedical research where what you can do fits. People looking for help often don’t think of a librarian as one who could do the job for them, but I think that’s mostly because we haven’t done the best job of selling ourselves. Know yourself, have confidence (even if you have to fake it at first), and put yourself in places that offer you opportunity.

One thing I could add to this is that developing a practice of self-reflection, evaluation, and/or tracking yourself – however you do it – will put you in a much better position to sell yourself and/or match your abilities to opportunities as they arrive. This is exactly what happened to me last November and it landed me in a great new role. My CV didn’t say a thing about being an evaluator, but I was able to map pretty much every aspect of it to the qualifications needed for the person in this post. The discipline of weekly reflection via this blog made that task easy.

We always encounter times in our lives where evaluation is forced upon us, whether it’s that mandatory annual review or a major life event. My mother-in-law is in hospice care now and nearing the end of her life. It’s a time of reflection for her and everyone in the family. “Did I live a good life?” is likely the ultimate evaluation question. You hope for the answer, “Yes” and you hope for lots of reasons to be sure of your answer, since it’s basically too late to change much. Driving home last night after visiting with her, I thought a lot about how all of these things fit together. There’s no need to wait until the program is over, until a career is over, or until a life is over to ask, “Did I do a good job?” When we plan to track, measure, reflect, and evaluate along the way, I’m fairly certain we’re better off in the end. 

January 9th – ALREADY?!

9 Jan

It’s a good thing that I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions related to my personal writing, because I’d have to report a failure already. That said, the CTSA grant proposal that everyone has been working ’round the clock on for weeks now is very close … oh so very close … to being put to bed, which in this case means submitted. And then I’ll be able to start focusing on how to approach doing the new job that I’ve been hired to do. Up until now, I’ve only been writing what I’ll do. Next stop, figure out how to do what I said I’d do. I’ve already joined the American Evaluation Association and signed up for one of their upcoming coffee break webcasts.

An aside… I think the idea of coffee break webcasts – 30-minute weekly sessions that focus on a particular topic, led by different members of the organization – is a TERRIFIC idea. I know that I belong to a few organizations that are struggling to define and/or create the real benefits of membership and such a simple thing as a regular, free, short-and-sweet-yet-interesting webcast is just that sort of thing.

For today, I at least wanted to send up a post with a few fun things I’ve come across over the past couple days/weeks – some delayed candy canes, if you will:

  • The Spudd – it’s The Onion of medical and pharma news. Hilarious. I discovered it just this very morning, thanks to a hilarious post shared on Twitter by my friend, Dean Hendrix. 
  • How Reddit Created the World’s Largest Dialogue between Scientists and the General Public is a very good blog post by Simon Owens. I’m fascinated with scientific communication and, in particular, efforts to bring the scientific community together with the general public. We are a scientifically illiterate culture at our own peril. I love what’s happening on this online community and so I’ve set up a Reddit account and plan to follow along for awhile. 
  • Finally, for anyone curious about public health and/or epidemiology and NOT interested in returning to school ever again <hand raised>, I came across an on-demand course from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I confess that I’ve signed-up and failed at several MOOC’s, mostly because of timing. I’m really happy to find a relevant, on-demand one and hope to work through it soon. I have a feeling that doing a course on my own, at my own pace, and at my own convenience will work well for me, especially now as I juggle all of the new tasks of a new job.

Back to the grindstone here. Happy New Year to all of my readers and followers! You make blogging fun.

My 3 New Year's Resolutions for 2015. No progress yet!

My 3 New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. No progress yet!

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