Supporting Library Staff Technology Training

Keeping up with technical skills and finding time to learn new things can be a struggle, no matter your role in a library (or in any organization, for that matter).  In some academic libraries, professional development opportunities have been historically available to librarians and library faculty, and less available (or totally unavailable) for staff positions.  In this post, I argue that this disparity, where it may exist, is not only prima facie unfair, but can reduce innovation and willingness to change in the library.  If your library does not have a policy that specifically addresses training and professional development for all library staff, this post will provide some ideas on how to start crafting one.

In this post, when referring to “training and professional development,” I mostly have in mind technology training – though a training policy could cover non-technical training, such as leadership, time management, or project management training (though of course, some of those skills are closely related to technology).

Rationale

In the absence of a staff training policy or formal support for staff training, staff are likely still doing the training, but may not feel supported by the library to do so.  In ACRL TechConnect’s 2015 survey on learning programming in libraries, respondents noted disparities at their libraries between support for technical training for faculty or librarian positions and staff positions.  Respondents also noted that even though support for training was available in principle (e.g., funding was potentially available for travel or training), workloads were too high to find the time to complete training and professional development, and some respondents indicated learning on their own time was the only feasible way to train.   A policy promoting staff training and professional development should therefore explicitly allocate time and resources for training, so that training can actually be completed during work hours.

There is not a significant amount of recent research reflecting the impact of staff training on library operations.  Research in other industries has found that staff training can improve morale, reduce employee turnover and increase organizational innovation.1  In a review of characteristics of innovative companies, Choudhary (2014) found that “Not surprisingly, employees are the most important asset of an organization and the most important source of innovation.” 2  Training and workshops – particularly those that feature “lectures/talks from accomplished persons outside the organization” are especially effective in fostering happy and motivated employees 3 – and it’s happy and motivated employees that contribute most to a culture of innovation in an organization.

Key Policy Elements

Time

Your policy should outline how much time for training is available to each employee (for example, 2 hours a week or 8 hours a month).  Ensuring that staff have enough time for training while covering their existing duties is the most challenging part of implementing a training policy or plan.  For service desks in particular, scheduling adequate coverage while staff are doing professional development can be very difficult – especially as many libraries are understaffed.  To free up time, an option might be to train and promote a few student workers to do higher-level tasks to cover staff during training (you’ll need to budget to pay these students a higher wage for this work).  If your library wants to promote a culture of learning among staff, but there really is no time available to staff to do training, then the library probably needs more staff.

A training policy should be clear that training should be scheduled in advance with supervisor approval, and supervisors should be empowered to integrate professional development time into existing schedules.  Your policy may also specify that training hours can be allocated more heavily during low-traffic times in the library, such as summer, spring, and winter breaks, and that employees will likely train less during high-traffic or project-intensive times of the year.  In this way, a policy that specifies that an employee has X number of training hours per month or year might be more flexible than a policy that calls for X number of training hours per week.

Equipment and Space

Time is not enough.  Equipment, particularly mobile devices such as iPads or laptops – should also be available for staff use and checkout. These devices should be configured to enable staff to install required plugins and software for viewing webinars and training videos.   Library staff whose offices are open and vulnerable to constant interruption by patrons or student workers may find training is more effective if they have the option to check out a mobile device and head to another area – away from their desk – to focus.  Quiet spaces and webinar viewing rooms may also be required, and most libraries already have group or individual study areas.  Ensure that your policy states whether or how staff may reserve these spaces for training use.

Funding

There are tons of training materials, videos, and courses that are freely available online – but there are also lots of webinars and workshops that have a cost that are totally worth paying for.  A library that offers funding for professional development for some employees (such as librarians or those with faculty status), but not others, risks alienating staff and sending the message that staff learning is not valued by the organization.  Staff should know what the process is to apply for funding to travel, attend workshops, and view webinars.  Be sure to write up the procedures for requesting this funding either in the training policy itself or documented elsewhere but available to all employees.  Funding might be limited, but it’s vital to be transparent about travel funding request procedures.

An issue that is probably outside of the scope of a training policy, but is nonetheless very closely related, is staff pay.  If you’re asking staff to train more, know more, and do more, compensation needs to reflect this. Pay scales may not have caught up to the reality that many library staff positions now require technology skills that were not necessary in the past; some positions may need to be re-classed.  For this reason, creating a staff training policy may not be possible in a vacuum, but this process may need to be integrated with a library strategic planning and/or re-organization plan.  It’s incredibly important on this point that library leadership is on board with a potential training policy and its strategic and staffing implications.

Align Training with Organizational Goals

It likely goes without saying that training and professional development should align with organizational goals, but you should still say it in your policy – and specify where those organizational goals are documented. How those goals are set is determined by the strategic planning process at your library, but you may wish to outline in your policy that supervisors and department heads can set departmental goals and encourage staff to undertake training that aligns with these goals.  This can, in theory, get a little tricky: if we want to take a yoga class as part of our professional development, is that OK?  If your organization values mindfulness and/or wellness, it might be!

If your library wants to promote a culture of experimentation and risk-taking, consider explicitly defining and promoting those values in your policy.  This can help guide supervisors when working with staff to set training priorities.  One exciting potential outcome of implementing a training policy is to foster an environment where employees feel secure in trying out new skills, so make it clear that employees are empowered to do so.  Communication / Collaboration

Are there multiple people in your library interested in learning Ruby?  If there were, would you have any way of knowing?  Effective communication can be a massive challenge on its own (and is way beyond the scope of this post), but when setting up and documenting a training policy staff, you could include guidance for how staff should communicate their training activities with the rest of the library.  This could take the form of something totally low-tech (like a bulletin board or shared training calendar in the break room) or could take the form of an intranet blog where everyone is encouraged to write a post about their recent training and professional development experiences.  Consider planning to hold ‘share-fests’ a few times a year where staff can share new ideas and skills with others in the library to further recognize training accomplishments.

Training is in the Job Description

Training and professional development should be included in all job descriptions (a lot easier said than done, admittedly).  Employees need to know they are empowered to use work time to complete training and professional development.  There may be union, collective bargaining, and employee review implications to this – which I certainly am not qualified to speak on – but these issues should be addressed when planning to implement a training policy.  For new hires going forward, expect to have a period of ‘onboarding’ during which time the new staff member will devote a significant amount of time to training (this may already be happening informally, but I have certainly had experiences as a staff member being hired in and spending the first few weeks of my new job trying to figure out what my job is on my own!).

Closing the Loop:  Idea and Innovation Management

OK, so you’ve implemented a training policy, and now training and professional development is happening constantly in your library.  Awesome!  Not only is everyone learning new skills, but staff have great ideas for new services, or are learning about new software they want to implement.  How do you keep the momentum going?

One option might be to set up a process to track ideas and innovative projects in your library.  There’s a niche software industry around idea and innovation management that features some highly robust and specialized products (Brightidea, Spigit  and Ideascale are some examples), but you could start small and integrate idea tracking into an existing ticket system like SpiceWorks, OSTicket, or even LibAnswers.  A periodic open vote could be held to identify high-impact projects and prioritize new ideas and services.  It’s important to be transparent and accountable for this – adopting internally-generated ideas can in and of itself be a great morale-booster if handled properly, but if staff feel like their ideas are not valued, a culture of innovation will die before it gets off the ground.

Does your library have a truly awesome culture of learning and employee professional development?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments or @lpmagnuson.

Notes

  1. Sung, S. , & Choi, J. (2014). Do organizations spend wisely on employees? effects of training and development investments on learning and innovation in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior,35(3), 393-412.
  2.  Choudhary, A. (2014). Four Critical Traits of Innovative Organizations. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communication and Conflict, 18(2), 45-58.
  3. Ibid.