Process Review Blog

Archive for March, 2011

Logical, yes; but is it Culturally feasible?

Reverse_ambulance_with_Star_of_Life In 1992 there occurred one of the most high profile IT disasters in the history of computing. The London Ambulance Service attempted to introduce a computerised despatch system. There were many problems and it appears likely that a few tens of lives were lost, pretty much as a direct result. There was a public enquiry and there have been many analyses published since. These differ in their emphasis, but one thing is clear: this was not simply a technical failure. Indeed the public enquiry concluded:

“…Management clearly underestimated the difficulties involved in changing the deeply ingrained culture of LAS and misjudged the industrial relations climate so that staff were alienated to the changes rather than brought on board…” [emphasis mine]

Societies have cultural norms that are so deeply ingrained as to be almost invisible to members of that society: for example in the UK it would be considered normal to paint a car bright gloss red and the walls of a bedroom in eggshell magnolia: but very odd to paint the car magnolia and the room bright red. There is no very strong reason why this should be so: it is just what we regard as “normal”. There are a host of cultural norms of this kind governing everything from dress (“…should I wear a tie or not…”) to food (lamb may be served with mint sauce, but not sausages with chocolate sauce).

The same kind of assumptions about what is “normal” or “acceptable” occur in organisations or even organisational sub groups like departments. Process change which cuts across these assumptions without recognising and addressing them is likely to run into trouble.

The 1992 London Ambulance Service fiasco was followed in 1996 by a very successful implementation that substantially improved the effectiveness of the service. The 1996 system was more robust technically, but it is clear that much of the success of the 1996 system related to efforts to address soft issues so that staff were enthusiastic rather than “…alienated…”

The conclusion for us is that process improvement (whether or not it involves technology) cannot be driven solely by cold logic. A change may be logically desirable, but if it isn’t also culturally feasible then it may be best not to make it.

Think in large enough wholes…

History is full of examples of people who took too narrow a view of a problem they faced. The French defensive Maginot Line along the border with Hitler’s Germany was bypassed when the German army swept through Belgium.



Another example: the 2000 Millennium exhibition was doomed to financial failure before it opened by the design of the Dome (in contrast to the Great Exhibition of 1851, guaranteed a profit before it opened, in part due to the cunning design of its central building – the Crystal Palace).


On a far more modest scale it is important to think in large enough wholes when considering library processes. An obvious example in a public library context is local demographics where an area with a large young immigrant population has needs and communication preferences that are different from an area of mostly older people.

2010_11_23_ILL There are more subtle traps though. For example, concerns about Interloan (ILL) processing have arisen on a number of occasions in Process Reviews that we have supported. ILLs are just one way of fulfilling a request from a borrower. This request might indeed be met by an ILL, but a suitable item might alternatively be found in the local catalogue, or specially purchased.

ILL processing should not therefore be thought of merely as a self-contained process. The wider context of borrower needs and acquisition handling need to be considered too. Even if you are not in a position to think big, at least you can think broad.

Process Review Webinar

We ran a webinar yesterday for anyone with an interest in the new Talis Process Review service. In the course of this we assembled a number of links which we sent to attendees. It seems that these might be helpful more widely, even though they are all available on this site, so I’ve reproduced them below:

The next Process Review Webinar is scheduled for 24 May 2011, 10.00am. This is a free event and is open to staff from any library regardless of LMS supplier.