Service Teams Strategy to Build Library Capacity and Impact
Portland Public Library, Maine
In 2009, Portland Public Library began to create a new organizational structure using Service Teams to take leadership for services to our primary constituencies in the community, to account for the best user experience, to build infrastructure and absorb overhead, and to govern itself for sustainability and best practice.
The PPL system was experiencing financial and structural pressures that called for a new and transformative approach to move the organization in a strategic, intentional, and mission-focused way. The organizational structure was struggling to provide active engagement and aggressive delivery to our users and to attract and participate in many opportunities associated with the changing needs of our community. We needed a well-planned response that transcended the limitations of location and used our personnel and resources wisely to understand and meet the needs of identified constituencies where they are and with what they need to thrive. Our new Service Team strategy was designed to create a user-driven culture of service and collaboration that had specific focus, was sustainable with dedicated resources, and could adapt to changing information needs and approaches. Some factors that drove the need for transformation: • Shifts in information-seeking approaches and tools towards immediacy, convenience, and engagement, fueled by digital access and social networking; • Funding conditions that forced significant reductions in staff and locations; • A chaotic but evolving environment for publishers, information providers and aggregators that challenges traditional library relationships and workflows; • A new main library design that brought tremendous community good will and new opportunities for collaboration and funding; and • An evolving city demographic that is multicultural and complex for education, business, civic engagement and literacy.
To move forward we needed a structure that recognized, valued, and improved upon what we do best, was aligned with our institutional priorities, and positioned us to maximize our potential. First, we developed eight Constituency Teams focused on critical user groups in our community (Business/Government, Children, City of Readers, Cultural Center, Health, Portland History, Science/Technology, and Teens). Each Team is led by a Team Leader, overseen by a Coordinator, and filled out by allied staff members or individuals from partner organizations. Each Team sets goals; develops workplans to accomplish these goals; manages budgets for materials, programs, staff development, and promotion; and measures outcomes. The underlying expectations and elements for each Team are similar -- emphasizing services, collections, programs, collaboration opportunities, and communication (internal and external). We developed three Service Center Teams to focus on the user experience in each of our service environments – Walk-In, Connect-In, and Portable Library (bookmobile and offsite collections). We also developed six Infrastructure Teams to build platforms, absorb overhead, develop strategic directions, and find needed resources. Migrating from a traditional departmental structure to this Team strategy that emphasizes broad leadership, relative independence, and area accountability requires staff development, candid conversation, and new staffing logic which are still in development. With an emphasis on tapping the creativity and unique skills of staff beyond the “professional” classifications and “desk time” commitments, we recognized that focused work, creative expression, advancement of individual skills, and job enjoyment are tremendous incentives, and we continue to pursue ways to fund the broadest staff participation in our Teams.
Organizational cultural shift takes time and is organic and evolutionary – we are four years into the process and not done yet. Still, we have learned that the benefits of this strategy are significant and we are committed to pursue the path. Already we see signs that our circulation, attendance at our learning and cultural events, visits, social media contacts, and level of engagement with a widening circle of community partners and initiatives are on a steady rise, and the commitment of funders demonstrates we are headed in a very successful direction. Over the last year, in the context of this structure, we have been able to reestablish our bookmobile service, launch several new initiatives, and implement new technology platforms (e.g., BiblioCommons and Digital Commons). This Team structure has given us focus and self-awareness so we can better communicate what the Library does, whom we serve, the experiences and expectations we offer, the challenges to our infrastructure, the principles and priorities we champion, and who are our best partners. We now know who takes leadership to pursue each conversation, and it has led us to develop more constructive ways to communicate amongst ourselves that adds to our productivity and unity. This must be a flexible, dynamic, and constantly evolving strategy that responds to our constituencies’ needs first and foremost. As the Service Teams express their expertise and connect more fully, we see ourselves contributing the greatest value and relevance as a transformational force throughout our City and region.