Lightweight Project Management Tools in the Real World

My life got extra complicated in the last few months. I gave birth to my first child in January, and in between the stress of a new baby, unexpected hospital visits, and the worst winter in 35 years, it was a trying time. While I was able to step back from many commitments during my 8 week maternity leave, I didn’t want to be completely out the loop, and since I would come back to three conferences back to back, I needed to be able to jump back in and monitor collaborative projects from wherever. All of us have times in our lives that are this hectic or even more so, but even in the regular busy thrum of our professional lives it’s too easy to let ongoing commitments like committee work completely disappear from our mental landscapes other than the nagging feeling that you are missing something.

There are various methods and tools to enhance productivity, which we’ve looked at before. Some basic collaboration tools such as Google Docs are always good to have any time you are working on a group project that builds into something like a presentation or report. But for committee work or every day work in a department, something more specialized can be even better. I want to look at some real-life examples of using lightweight project management tools to keep projects that you work on with others going strong—or not so strong, depending on how they are used. Over the past 4-5 months I’ve gotten experience using Trello for committee work and Asana for work projects. Both of them have some great features, but as always the implementation doesn’t depend entirely on the software’s functionality. Beyond my experience with these two implementations I’ll address a few other tools and my experience with effective usage of them.

Asana

I have the great fortune of having an entire wall of my office painted with white board paint, Asana Screenshotand use it to sketch out ideas and projects. For that to be useful, I need to be physically be in the office. So before I went on maternity leave, I knew I needed to get all my projects at work organized in a way that I could give tasks I would normally do to others, as well as monitor what was happening on large on-going projects. I had used Asana before in another context, so I decided to give it a try for this purpose. Asana has projects, tasks, and due dates that anyone in a workspace can follow and assign. It’s a pretty flexible system–the screenshot shows one potential way of setting it up, but we use different models for different projects, and there are many ideas out there. My favorite feature is project templates, which I use in another workspace that I share with my graduate assistant. This allows you to create a new project based on a standard series of steps, which means that she could create new projects while I was away based on the normal workflow we follow and I could work on them when I returned. All of this requires a very strict attention to keeping projects organized, however, and if you don’t have an agreed upon system for naming and organizing tasks they can get out of hand very quickly.

We also use Asana as part of our help request system. We wanted to set up a system to track requests from all the library staff not only for my maternity leave but in general. I looked at many different systems, but they were almost all too heavy-duty for what we needed. I made our own very lightweight system using the Webform module in Drupal on our intranet. Staff submits requests through that form, which sends an email using a departmental email address to our Issue Tracking queue in Asana. Once the task is completed we explain the problem in an Asana comment (or just mark completed if it’s a normal request such as new user account), and then send a reply to the requestor through the intranet. They can see all the requests they’ve made plus the replies through that system. The nice thing about doing it this way is that everything is in one place–trouble tickets become projects with tasks very easily.

Trello

Trello screenshotTrello is designed to mimic the experience of using index cards or sticky notes on a wall to track ideas and figure out what is going on at a glance. This is particularly useful for ongoing work where you have multiple projects in a set of pipelines divvied up among various people. You can easily see how many ideas you have in the inception stage and how many are closer to completion, which can be a good motivator to move items along. Another use is to store detailed project ideas and notes and then sort them into lists once you figure out a structure.

Trello starts with a virtual board, which is divided into lists of cards. Trello cards can be assigned to specific people, and anyone can follow a card to get notifications. Clicking on a card brings up a whole set of additional options, including who is working on the project, attachments, due dates, color coding, and anything else you might want. The screenshot shows how the LITA Education Committee uses Trello to plan educational offerings. The white areas with small boxes indicate cards (we use one card per program/potential idea) that are active and assigned, the gray areas indicate cards which haven’t been touched in a while and so probably need followup. Not surprisingly, there are many more cards, many of which are inactive, at the beginning of the pipeline than at the end with programs already set up. This is a good visual reminder that we need to keep things moving along.

In this case I didn’t set up Trello, and I am not always the best user of it. Using this for committee work has been useful, but there are a few items to keep in mind for it to actually work to keep projects going. First, and this goes for everything, including analog cards or sticky notes, all the people working on the project need to check into it on a regular basis and use it consistently. One thing that I found was important to do to get it into a regular workflow was turn on email notifications. While it would be nice to stay out of email more, most of us are used to finding work show up there, and if you have a sane relationship to your inbox (i.e. you don’t use it to store work in progress), it can be helpful to know to log in to work on something. I haven’t used the mobile app yet, but that is another option for notifications.

Other Tools

While I have started using Asana and Trello more heavily recently, there are a number of other tools out there that you may need to use in your job or professional life. Here are a few:

Box

Many institutions have some sort of “cloud” file system now such as Box or Google Drive. My work uses Box, and I find it very useful for parts of projects where I need many people (but a slightly different set each time) to collaborate on completing a single task. I upload a spreadsheet that I need everyone to look at, use the information to do something, and then add additional information to the spreadsheet. This is a very common scenario that organizations often use a shared drive to accomplish, but there are a number of problems with that approach. If you’ve ever been confronted with the filename “Spring2014_report-Copy-Copy-DRAFT.xlsx” or not been able to open a file because someone else left it open on her desktop and went to lunch, you know what I mean. Instead of that, I upload the file to Box, and assign a task to the usernames of all the people I need to look at the document. They can use a tool called Box Edit to open the file in Excel and any changes they make are immediately saved back to the shared document, just as a Google Doc would do. They can then mark the task complete, and the system only sends email reminders to people who haven’t yet finished the task.

ALA Connect

This section is only relevant to people working on projects with an American Library Association group, whether a committee or interest group. Since this happens to most people working in academic libraries at some point, I think it’s worth considering. But if not,  skip to the conclusion. ALA Connect is the central repository for institutional memory and documents for work around ALA, including committees and interest groups. It can also be a good place to work on project collaboratively, but it takes some setup. As a committee chair, I freely admit that I need to organize my own ALA Connect page much better. My normal approach was to use an online document (so something editable by everyone) for each project and file each document under a subcommittee heading, but in practice I find it way too hard to find the right document to see what each subcommittee is working on. I am going to experiment with a new approach. I will create “groups” for each project, and use the Group Headings sidebar to organize these. If you’re on a committee and not the chair, you don’t have access to reorganize the sidebar or posts, but suggest this approach to your chair if you can’t find anything in “General News & Discussions”. Also, try to document the approach you’ve taken so future chairs will know what you did, and let other chairs know what works for your committee.

You also need to make a firm commitment as a chair to hold certain types of discussions on your committee mailing list, and certain discussions on ALA Connect, and then to document any pertinent mailing list discussions on ALA Connect. That way you won’t be unable to figure out where you are on the project because half your work is in email and half on ALA Connect. (This obviously goes for any other tool other than email as well).

 Conclusion

With all the tools above, you really have no excuse to be running projects through email, which is not very effective unless everyone you are working with is very strict with their email filing and reply times. (Hint: they aren’t—see above about a sane relationship with your inbox.) But any tool requires a good plan to understand how its strengths mesh with work you have to accomplish. If your project is to complete a document by a certain date, a combination of Google Docs or Box (or ALA Connect for ALA work) and automated reminders might be best. If you want to throw a lot of ideas around and then organize them, Trello or Asana might work. Since these are all free to try, explore a few tools before starting a big project to see what works for you and your collaborators. Once you pick one, dedicate a bit of time on a weekly or monthly basis to keeping your virtual workspace organized. If you find it’s no longer working, figure out why. Did the scope of your project change over time, and a different tool is now more effective? This can happen when you are planning to implement something and switch over from the implementation to ongoing work using the new system. Or maybe people have gotten complacent about checking in on work to do. Explore different types of notifications or mobile apps to reinvigorate your team.

I would love to hear about your own approach to lightweight project management with these tools or others in the comments.

 

Workflow Automation in Technical Services: Part 2

Note: This is part two of a two part series on workflow automation in Technical Services. Part one covered the what and process of workflow automation and an example of an item level workflow automation process. Part two will discuss batch level workflow automation and resources/tools for workflow automation.

Last time, we discussed the basics of workflow automation and some examples of item-level automation in cataloging and acquisitions workflows. Automating workflows on an item-to-item basis provides greater consistency and efficiency in daily tasks done by staff, allowing them to spend more time on more complex workflows and tasks that may not be so readily automated. Item level workflow automation can be a low barrier investment in creating a more efficient operation.

Then you have the electronic journals, ebooks, and databases. You have large record files that are tied to physical resources – for example, record downloads from WorldCat Cataloging Partners. And then there are all those records in the system – MARC, XML, whatnot – that have missing or incorrect information (the infamous “dirty data”). Why can’t we just stick with item-level processing for everything?

Item level automation or batch automation?

For item level automation, you have a very granular level of control over the process, dealing with items one at a time. If the items are very similar in nature or have only a couple differences in how each item will be processed, though, then going through each item individually probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the other hand, batch processing allows you to go through many items at once, which makes adding or maintaining resources a quicker job than going through item by item. You do give up a certain level of control over details with batch processing, however, which leaves you to decide where the “good enough” marker should go in terms of data quality.

Overall, you want to avoid sub-optimizing your workflow. Sub-optimization happens when a part of an organization focuses the success of its own area instead of the entire organization’s success [1]. Going through each resource record individually might give you the greatest control over the record, but if you’re going through a file containing 10,000+ records individually, even with an item level automated workflow, the turnaround time for creating access for all those resources will be much higher than if the file was processed at once. However, with the right tools, you can deal with record batches with speed and a good level of control over the data.

MarcEdit is your friend

Many people have at least heard about MarcEdit, or have colleagues who have used it extensively. MarcEdit is a freely available program (for Windows) created by Terry Reese that works with MARC records in a variety of ways. You can add, delete, or modify fields in records, create MARC records from data in spreadsheets, crosswalk to and from the MARC format, split files, join files, generate call numbers, de-duplicate records – and that’s only part of what you can do with MarcEdit. Also, if you find yourself going through the same batch workflow for the same files on a regular basis, MarcEdit’s Script Wizard helps with automating routine batch processing workflows.

Example: Missing 041 1_ subfield h, or, this item is a translation, not in two languages!

Many of you may have moved your older library catalogs to a newer discovery layer; I’ve survived one move at my previous place of work and will probably have another move under my belt soon. One consequence of moving to a new discovery layer is that data previously ignored by the previous layer sticks out like a sore thumb in the new layer. This example is one of those dirty data discoveries: a particular MARC variable field incorrectly indicated that an item is in two or more languages instead of a translation. Not only you have unhappy library users who thought you had a copy of The Little Prince in both French and English, but this error exists in a few thousand records, finding yourself with a potentially resource intensive cleanup project.

If you can isolate and export those records in one (or a couple of) files from your database, then you can use MarcEdit to clean up the field in a relatively short time. Open the file in MarcEdit’s MarcEditor, and make your way to the “Edit Subfield” under the tools menu. Let’s say that there are a lot of records that have engfre in the 041 field and you want to change all the records with that entry at once. Replace the engfre field data with eng$hfre and you’ve taken care of all those records in one pass.

Since you probably have more than engfre in your file, you can use regular expressions in MarcEdit to change multiple fields at once regardless of language code. Using the Find/Replace tool, search for the 041 field subfield a, but this time add your regular expression and mark the “Use regular expression” box. The following expression is assuming that the 041 field has two language codes that are three letters in length, so you will have to do a little cleanup after running this replace command to catch the three or more language codes as well as two letter language codes. (h/t to zemkat for the regular expression!)

Libraries and modules and packages, oh my!

What if you’ve been learning some code, or are looking for an excuse to learn? You’re in luck! Some of the common programming languages have tools to deal with MARC data. Rolling your own batch automation scripts and applications allows you the most flexibility in working with other library data formats as well. However, if you haven’t programmed before, choose smaller projects to start. In addition, if the script or application doesn’t work, you’re your own tech support.

Example: Creating order records for patron driven acquisition (PDA) items triggered for purchase

Patron driven acquisition usually involves the ingestion of several hundred to thousands of records into the local database for items that are not technically owned by the library at that point in time. Depending on the PDA vendor one uses, the item is triggered for purchase after it reaches a use threshold (for example, 10 page views). The library will receive an invoice with these purchases, but we will still need to create order records in the system to show that these items have been bought. Considering that on a given week,  the number of purchases can range from single digits to higher double digits, that’s a lot of order records to manually key in.

After dabbling with pymarc at code4lib 2010, I thought this would be a good project to learn more about pymarc and python overall. Here is an outline of the script actions:

  1. In the trigger report spreadsheet, extract the local control numbers for the items triggered for purchase.
  2. Execute a SQL query against the local database for our locally developed next generation catalog, matching the local control number and extracting the MARC records from database.
  3. In each MARC record:
  • add a 590 and 790 field for donor/fund information
  • add a 949 field containing bibliographic record overlay and the order record creation information for the system, including cost of the item extracted from the spreadsheet.
  • change the 947 field data to indicate that the item has been purchased (for statistical reporting later on)
  1. Write the MARC records to a file for import into the ILS.

The output file is then uploaded into the ILS manually, which gives staff the chance to address any issues with the records that the system might have before import. Overall, the process from downloading the trigger report spreadsheet to uploading the record file into the ILS takes a few minutes, depending on the size of the file.

Which automation tools and resources to use?

There are a multitude of other automation tools and resources that cannot be fully covered in two blog posts. Your mileage may vary with these tools; you might find Macro Express to be a better fit for your organization than AutoIt, or you find that working with ruby-marc is easier for you than MarcEdit (resource links listed below). The best way to figure out what’s right for you is to play around with various tools and get a feel for them. More often than not, you’ll end up using multiple tools for different levels and types of workflow automation.

Don’t forget about the built-in tools in existing applications as well! Sometimes the best tools for the job are already there for you to take advantage of them.

For your convenience, here are the tools mentioned in the two blog posts, including a few others:


[1] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/business-english/sub-optimization

Workflow Automation in Technical Services: Part 1

Note: This is part one of a two part series on workflow automation in Technical Services. Part one will cover the what and process of workflow automation and an example of an item level workflow automation process. Part two will discuss batch level workflow automation and resources/tools for workflow automation.

The mysterious door at the library

Door leading into Technical Services
Photo by author

A majority of you might have passed by this door many times in your library lives. Sometimes it isn’t even a door; maybe a room divider, or an invisible line that runs across the room. In any case, you may have ventured into the space called “Technical Services” (or a similar name), but do you know what goes on there? For most libraries, Technical Services staff acquire, create, and maintain access to library materials, spanning from books and a box of rocks to various electronic databases and digitized local collections. Without them, it would be hard for a library to serve its users: no physical items to borrow, no electronic journals to search for articles, and no metadata in the library discovery layer for users and staff to search for those resources. With the variety of items come a variety of workflows to process those items, many of which are repeated at various intervals: some once a week while others repeated multiple times a day. Staff time and resources are spoken for every time a workflow is repeated. Every time a workflow is manually repeated, less time and resources can be spent on other projects or on new projects that would add value to existing collections or add new collections for library users to use. Technology provides a variety of strategies for workflow automation that reduce time spent on repetitive workflows.

What is workflow automation?

The oversimplified answer to this question is that workflow automation is the process where you have the computer do the things that it can be programmed to do, thereby reducing repetitive manual actions by the staff member.

There are two types of automation to consider when you look at your workflows:

  1. Data Entry: This type of automation is fairly straight forward, and you’ve probably already done this type of automation already without realizing it. For example, the automation script completes a form with data that remains the same for each form or types out standard text in an email being sent to a vendor. Useful for automating repetitive keystrokes, be it system codes, text, or even creating new documents in certain applications, such as an item recor. The automation script is hard-coded, meaning that the output of that script will be the same every time you run it.
  2. Decision Making: This type of automation makes all the decisions for you! Okay, while it won’t make every decision for you, several automation languages and programs can handle fairly complex decision making flowcharts using standard conditionals. For example, if bibliographic record “A” has field “B”, then do action ”C”; else do action “D”. As you probably already guessed, this type of automation resembles coding to a certain extent. The automation script that is designed to deal with several possible outcomes is not hard-coded like the data entry script described above.

What can be automated?

Most Technical Services departments acquire, create, and maintain access to a variety of different formats, from physical to electronic formats. Traditionally, workflows focus on the individual item going through the department and its various teams: acquisitions, cataloging, and processing, for example. With the changeover to electronic formats, workflows are going more towards a batch approach, processing and/or cataloging multiple items (for example, a collection of ebooks) at once.

In addition to adding materials to library collections, a library’s Technical Services staff do a fair amount of database maintenance for the library’s ILS (Integrated Library System). The term “dirty data” is thrown around the TS departments, covering database projects dealing with misspellings, outdated codes, or incorrect codes – anything that could inhibit a library user’s access to the resource.

Why should I automate my workflows?

  • Better quality control of workflow and data. Any time you let a human near a workflow, errors can be introduced into a workflow: incorrect codes, mistyped text, or mishandled items. Having an automated workflow cuts down on the workflow’s fail points and allow for better overall consistency and accuracy.
  • Save staff time.  You and your staff spend a good amount of time with repetitive keystrokes and decisions. Even small repetitive actions add up during the work day, resulting in hours of valuable staff time and resources. By automating the repetitive actions, you free up staff time to work on more complex workflows which are not as easily automated.

How do you decide what workflows to automate?

  • Flowchart your workflow.  A simple flowchart from the beginning of the workflow to the end might reveal several places where current manual decision making can be relegated to a script. If a person is currently looking for a code in the order record to figure out what location code they should enter in the item record, the script could be set to do the same.
  • What are the patterns? In each step, what data remains constant throughout all items? What codes, phrases, or fields do you insert every time you go through the workflow? Is there a pattern of going from one application to another at the same point in every workflow? One record to another?
  • How will the script access the data? Working with a file of MARC records will be different than working with a bibliographic record that is open in your ILS. Having a file of data is easier, but if you’re automating an item-level workflow, you will be dealing with windows that you have to work with. Getting data from a window can be tricky; sometimes you are able to access the data directly, and other times you will have to scrape the screen to get to the data that you want to work on with the script.

Example: Receipt Cataloging

At my former place of work, Technical Services had three levels of cataloging: receipt cataloging, copy cataloging, and original cataloging. All monographs would go through the receipt cataloging process, with items being bumped to the two higher levels of cataloging. The majority of items that go through receipt cataloging, having met a list of 40+ criteria, are fast-tracked to physical processing, shortening the time between the item arriving at the library to being placed on the shelf, which is the overreaching goal of receipt cataloging. The criteria range from determining if the record is DLC (Library of Congress) to determining if the 008, 050, and 260 ‡c dates match in the bibliographic record (if not a conference publication).

Given that the criteria and the decision making flowchart are fairly standard and straightforward, this workflow was built with automation in mind. My predecessor used Macro Express (ME) for the first version of the receipt cataloging macros. When we got to the point where we were bumping up against ME’s limits, I migrated the macros to AutoIt, where I was able to include many more quality control checks on the bibliographic and item records.

Below is a screencast where I walk through the receipt cataloging process. If I wasn’t explaining what was happening, the whole process would have taken a minute and 10 seconds to complete, a couple of seconds more if the item was bumped to another team in the department. Compared to a five minute turnaround time if our staff manually checked every criteria, the macros allows the department to go through more items during the day with better quality control.

Bonus Example: Ordering from GOBI

Another workflow at my former place of work involved ordering monographs from GOBI. The workflow, unlike receipt cataloging, have a lot more complex decision making flowchart and more exceptions. While I could not automate on the level of receipt cataloging, there were still patterns and routines that I could automate, such as searching the library catalog with information supplied by GOBI, and determining which codes to enter in the 949 field in the OCLC record (for exporting into our database).

Below is a screencast that shows a part of the notification ordering automation script set.

Preview for Part 2

In this post, I covered more of the item level workflow automation possibilities. More of Technical Services workflows, however, are changing towards dealing with many items at once. In part 2, I will discuss some examples of batch process automation and several tools (including those mentioned in this post) that can assist in making life easier in Technical Services.