Finding the Fit: Matching Aspirations and Resources

By Mike Furlough posted

Based on the discussions in the hallways and attendance in sessions at the most recent DLF Forum in Denver, it’s clear that many of us are thinking deeply about planning and developing support services for “digital scholarship.” This is not an easy phrase to define. However, one useful definition comes from Abby Smith Rumsey: “Digital scholarship is the use of digital evidence and method, digital authoring, digital publishing, digital curation and preservation, and digital use and reuse of scholarship.”

Each of us may emphasize certain aspects of this activity over others, creating services that in some way take us beyond our traditional boundaries. We have heard much about three broad types of services for digital scholarship:

—Publishing services, beginning with institutional repositories and extending through adoption of tools such as Open Journal Systems.

—Research data management and curation services, including consultation in drafting data management plans for NSF, holding workshops, and offering repository services to researchers.

—Supporting the “digital humanities,” which may include anything from the Scholars Lab at UVA or graduate student training, to support for complex web-based projects using primary resources.

All of us who have attempted to launch services in these areas are quickly confronted by questions about scope, scale, capacity, and most importantly: who cares? Do we know that anyone will actually use these services we’re contemplating? The opportunities we have to respond to changes in scholarly communications and research practices come with risks, especially if we are acting with limited knowledge of the costs of developing and sustaining new services.

For the past year, I have been working with several colleagues on a project that recommends methods for effective business planning in research libraries, and we have recently published some of our work as Fit for Purpose: Developing Business Cases for New Services in Research Libraries. We present a structured, disciplined approach for making decisions about creating and maintaining new services in research libraries. We have been very fortunate to have sponsorship from CLIR and the Digital Library Federation to support our work, and to have our work published by MediaCommons Press. The rest of the team includes Ted Fons (OCLC), Elizabeth Kirk (Dartmouth), Michele Reid (North Dakota State), and Carol Hunter (University of North Carolina). Noted consultant Judy Luther serves as an advisor to the project.

The concept “Fit for Purpose” evolved out of our desire to put entrepreneurial services into a framework that encourages us to challenge our basic assumptions. In that spirit, our recommendations encourage you to rigorously review the suitability of a proposed service first in terms of alignment with institutional mission and sustainability: in short, to examine whether a proposed new service is fit for purpose within its context.

Talking about “business planning” in libraries might turn some of you off. The issue, as we see it, is not that we must charge fees to generate revenue from our services. Some of us do offer services with cost-recovery fees, but most of us would consider it contrary to our mission. It may be useful to think about our services in the framework of “social entrepreneurship.” What are the transformational ways we can achieve our missions? How can we make the case for resources that will allow us to undertake creative, challenging, and mission-expanding initiatives? 

John C. Brinckerhoff’s Social Entrepreneurship: The Art of Mission Based Venture Development (Wiley, 2000) provides both a nice conceptual discussion of “social entrepreneurship” and the methods of planning that can be employed within the framework. As the title suggests, he is focused on the idea of a “return to the mission” not a “return on investment.” Business case development, on the other hand, is about project management. It provides the scaffold that enables us to build a service. In the context of libraries, it is neutral on the sources of revenue—fees, donor funds, central allocations—it’s about discipline in decision making. If social entrepreneurship emphasizes why, business planning offers tools to understand how. Taking this dual approach to planning can help us better match resources to our aspirations.

We could all benefit from more time to experiment in big and small ways. All of us should have a sandbox of some sort. But when you think you’ve found something with potential, whether it’s an idea, a tool, or a fully articulated service, then it’s time to be more serious. The more resource-intensive the idea, the more time you’ll need to spend thinking business planning.

We have four broad recommendations:

First, determine your organization’s readiness to launch new services. Undertaking a self-assessment can be a useful exercise. How tolerant of change, or how risk-averse, are you and the culture of your workplace?

Second, develop the business case for your activity. A business case is a structure for understanding and anticipating the outcomes of a particular course of action. You will want to generate multiple options to consider. Ultimately, you will have to gather some data on costs, benefits, and viability for the service you want to develop.

Third, define a pilot project that will allow you test the waters. Pilots can help you identify issues you hadn’t previously considered and can be used to justify a full-scale implementation. But unless the resources dedicated to the pilot are shielded from interference and competing priorities, you may not be able to evaluate your success accurately.

Finally, do it again. Each of the preceding recommendations comprises part of an iterative cycle. All of our services should be continually assessed, evaluated for the value they provide, adjusted, and maybe even closed. These activities require the same kind of rigor and analysis that a launch would.

We are now conducting several case studies that explore how various projects and programs have undertaken business planning, and how they have navigated issues such as risk and uncertainty, needs analysis, and organizational culture. We expect to highlight models and practices that might prove useful to others. These investigations may challenge some of our assumptions, and we intend to finish our work with some additional or modified recommendations.

Our case studies, as well as our recommendations and an extensive review of business planning literature in the for-profit and not-for-profit areas, can be found at the Fit For Purpose website. MediaCommons Press’s platform allows you to comment extensively any aspect of these recommendations. We invite you to visit, ask questions, and challenge us. We want this work to be useful to you and we need your help. 

Mike Furlough is Associate Dean for Research and Scholarly Communications at the Pennsylvania State University.