Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Teaching Customer Service

Is customer service teachable?  As I posed this question to a coworker, she used a great word that I felt applied to customer service in the way that training or teaching doesn't.   The words training and teaching often have the implication of a one-time class.  While there may be follow up to a one-time class, an end to the training itself is usually very clear.  For most topics, by the end of the training period, learners should be able to perform the task.  But customer service is skill that is developed over time and is different for every individual.  Because customer service expectations are different for every individual and organization, teaching customer service may require a career-long effort.  My coworker, who has been in the profession for over 25 years, understands customer service and applied the more far-reaching term of coaching*  to this training topic.

It stands to reason that customer service may come more naturally to some than others - but that doesn't mean that expectations should be different for every employee.  There are a multitude of customer service faux pas (including apathy, laziness, etc.) but the most complex customer situations usually involve gray areas.  Any of these customer service situations can be resolved through positive coaching strategies throughout an employee's career.  The following is what I consider to be absolutely necessary in order to create a customer oriented environment.

Google defines customer service as the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.  It should go without saying that most organizations strive for good customer service outcomes in order to yield customer loyalty.  Libraries, too, have jumped on the customer service bandwagon, and for good reason - consumers go where they are treated well.  But customer service expectations and beliefs on how to achieve good customer service outcomes vary from organization to organization.  No organization is exempt from having bad days, but I suspect that there is a common reason why these companies are frequently reported as having the best customer service with an average of only 3.6% of negative feedback.

If you've been a customer of one of these companies, then you may be able to pinpoint their best qualities.  It's easy to make broad generalizations about giving good customer service, but I find that if you don't explain what your expectation of good customer service is, then the results will vary by employee.

Chik-fil-a has certainly had its share of bad publicity, but it consistently ranks high in customer service.  According to a former employee, their customer service standards are high and their expectations are very specific.  If you've ever visited one of these fast food restaurants, you may have noticed the "my pleasure" after every "thank you" or that employees come outside the building to work the drive-thru on busy days.  These specifics are what keep customer loyalty high.

But cookie cutter responses like "my pleasure" may not be your cup of tea.  Call centers have realized that, when it comes to good customer service, finding a common thread with the customer will increase the likelihood that the transaction goes smoothly.  Finding the common thread is what separates the good companies from the bad ones.  You know the bad ones; the call centers that stick to a script and get flustered when you ask a question that cannot be answered without veering from the routine.  If you've ever used a call center and heard "this call may be monitored for quality control," then there is a chance that your transaction is being used as a learning experience - a coaching experience, actually.

So where do libraries fall in all this?  It all depends on your library, the community standards, and the needs of the customers.  A customer service policy that works in one library may not work in another - but there should be a customer service policy that clearly defines the expectations of each staff member to ensure quality outcomes for each customer.

With customer service, you may choose to coach your staff throughout their career instead of training them once and expecting the best.  Here are some steps to follow to aid you in customer service coaching:

1.  Before you begin, make sure that you are a good role model.  If your customer service skills are lacking, then your employees will follow suit.  "Do as I say, not as I do" is never a good philosophy - ever.

2.  Make sure that no one is exempt from customer service coaching.  Those that give exemplary service may have some tips and tricks to share.  They may also enjoy learning something as well.

3.   Coaching can be done one-on-one (tailored to meet the needs of the individual staff member) or as a group.  If group coaching is not successful for some, work in one-on-one coaching sessions into quarterly meetings. If you are not currently meeting with your staff just to have a conversation with them once in a while, then now is a good time to start.

4.   Role playing is not really a good idea.  It is a false environment that generates fear when a learning environment should be safe.  Discussions are usually a good way to go.  You can use scenarios to trigger responses from the group and use the information to shape their ideas of how customer service should be.

5.  Rinse and Repeat.  A good manager will know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff and should be able to develop discussion topics and form appropriate groups to maximize a learning environment.

Quality customer service is a skill that one acquires through practice.  Occasionally, staff members may suffer from customer service fatigue and may become jaded.  The moment we stop thinking of our customers in a positive manner is the instant we begin to give poor customer service.  Coaching may be an opportunity to prevent that breaking point.

*I should mention that this coworker frowns upon overusing the word coaching due to the negative connotation that can be derived from repeated use.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Before Leaving Fort Reference

I recently viewed a webinar about embedded librarianship in the community titled Leaving Fort Reference.  As interesting as the webinar was, the content covered in the course is not what inspired this particular post - it was the title.  The original webinar presented by the director and managers of the Douglas County Library System in Colorado, featured information on how to bring librarians to the community when the community may or may not be coming to the library.  But, as the title implies, librarians are not just leaving their reference desk - they are leaving their brick and mortar buildings behind.  As I began to think about the comfort levels of library staff in general, it occurred to me that some staff members are frightened to leave the reference desk, let alone the building.  Before embedded librarianship can begin in the community, it should start with embedded librarianship within the building as a step toward excellent customer service. I will call it planted librarianship.


The concept of roving reference is not a new one, and that is not specifically what I am talking about with planted librarianship.  Roving reference suggests that there is a reference desk and librarians will occasionally step out from behind it and rove the stacks to find customers in need.  At best, this librarian is equipped with an iPad to help answer questions without having to travel to the nearest computer.  I have encountered numerous librarian social networks where a single librarian is looking to enhance the roving reference experience and the response, by an overwhelming majority of librarians, is to go out into the stacks with iPads.  iPads are nifty little tools that are valuable for many things, but they are just a bandaid to a problem - not a solution.

In my experience, libraries usually fall under several of these desk categories:
  • One information desk per floor.
  • Or, if only one floor, one information desk for adult and one information desk for children.
  • Or, only one floor with one desk for all departments.
There is a fourth category that only a fraction of libraries fall into that includes abandoning the desk all together.  It is this fourth category that I call planted librarianship.

You might be asking yourself this question if you are a proponent of roving the stacks to seek out customers in need.  But take a good, long look at how roving reference is being accomplished and when it is being accomplished.  Chances are, no matter how many reference desks your library has, it is in the same boat as mine when it comes to staffing.  The economic depression and budget cuts at a time when the library was seeing its highest number of visitors severely cut into the library's ability to staff appropriately.  With just one desk to service all the library branch's customers, and having difficulty staffing the one desk, it stands to reason that staffing a roving librarian would be nearly impossible.  The times when a library could staff someone to rove the stacks would be at times when this service is unneeded.

Considering funding situations have improved for many libraries, your position on roving reference may be unmoved based on what I've described above.  Therefore, I implore you to consider the following argument as well.  People fear the desk and, depending upon its location, don't want to be bothered by walking the humiliating distance to ask a question.  I use the word humiliating because, for some, it is.  These customers would rather walk out with nothing than have to ask where something is located. Worst of all, this customer type will blame the organization instead of herself for being unable to find what she was looking for.   I know this because I'm one of those customers.  If you can not do roving reference all the time, then these customers are slipping through the cracks.

Currently, I can list on one hand what I actually need at my reference desk: computer, library cards, paper and pencils (possibly a telephone, but that's debatable.)  Everything else is just clutter.  With this in mind, there is no reason why I can't move my reference desk into the stacks.  One could set up a little station, much like the ones in Ikea, to meet the customers where they are browsing.  Instead of having a bulky piece of furniture for a staff of four stationed at the forefront of the adult section, consider freeing up some of that space for a single work kiosk to accommodate one person and several other work stations strategically positioned throughout the collection.

By planting librarians throughout the stacks, it makes asking a reference question a lot less daunting and enables the librarian to quickly see a customer who needs help .  Moreover, it means continual roving of the stacks as it divides the area among staff and allows them to easily monitor a smaller section of the library.  More visible presence of library staff throughout the building in this manner means that the likelihood of teens fooling around in those remote areas of your collection will diminish.

This method may even be advantageous for the children's section as well.  No matter how child friendly the desk is, most children are afraid to ask questions for fear of disturbing adults.  Planted librarianship in the children's section will allow a more proactive measure to helping children.  Asking a child if they would like assistance is more likely to yield a plethora of questions.  From that moment, you've broken down a barrier and the child will be more likely to seek out help in the future.

I'm certainly not the first to call for a change in the reference desk, nor will I be the last.  But there is a reason why so few libraries have changed their reference desk model.  As Sarah Watstein put it, "the reference desk is a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service."  While I would debate the essentials of a traditional reference desk, I must admit it has symbolic significance which keeps libraries from changing the model.  But, as Steven Bell wrote in debate, "getting rid of the [reference] desk does not mean getting rid of the service."

As with any major shift, there will always be pros and cons.  Unless you are willing to give it a chance, you may never know if your reference services could be better.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Resumes, Cover Letters, and Interviews . . . Oh My!

I've had lots to say on the subject of interviews, but not much on writing resumes and cover letters.  That is, not until now.  After taking this fantastic webinar presented by LLAMA (Library Leadership & Management Association) and taught by Sharon Holderman, I finally have the confidence to share with you some crucial information about writing your resume and cover letter.  I strongly suggest that you view this webinar in its entirety but, if that's not possible, I have summarized the highlights for you here:

It shouldn't surprise you that assumptions are made about you based on what you say in your cover letter and resume.  As a result, it's important to package yourself nicely using these two documents.  Whether you have never written a cover letter or would like to just freshen up your resume, it's important to remember that these career summations should be professional in nature, use formal language, and should describe the work you have done using concrete language instead of abstract concepts.  Holderman describes this language as "Show, Don't Tell," meaning that it is better to write about specific accomplishments rather than listing vague job responsibilities.  Using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, your cover letter and resume should improve by leaps and bounds.

The important thing to remember about the cover letter is that it is supplementary information to the resume, which is the meat of the application.  The cover letter is meant to explain your interest in the position and to highlight several accomplishments, making your case as to why you are an outstanding candidate.  Using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, you will give specific examples of your work achievements and make connections between work you've done in previous jobs to the job description of the position you are applying for.  For example, it does no good to tell a potential employer that you were a staff trainer.  Instead, you want to show that potential employer exactly what it meant to be a staff trainer. Compare these two sentences:

  • I have 7 years experience as a staff trainer.
  • As a trainer for staff in branch of 20 employees, I successfully developed and executed training programs covering topics such as customer service and technology.
There is a sizable difference between these two sentences and it should be obvious which one an employer will prefer.  Additionally, the latter of the two sentences is more specific and will help a future employer draw similarities between your past position and this one.

Of course, being specific to the job description means writing a different cover letter for each job you apply.  While this can be a little time consuming, it puts you ahead of many candidates who write generic cover letters that could be mass produced for multiple jobs.  And, it should go without saying, never send a cover letter addressed to the wrong person or organization!  That is a sure fire way to get yourself put in the "No" pile.

The most important content of your application can be found in the resume.  Still using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, here are a few resume FAQs (view the webinar for a more in-depth coverage:)
  1. Should my resume be 1 page or more? You should have quality content in your resume.  If that means you only have one page worth of stuff to say about yourself, then 1 page is fine.  If you go past 1 page, however, all subsequent pages should be filled to maintain an appropriate white/black space ratio.  No resume should be 1 1/2 pages.
  2. In what order should I place everything?  There is no cut and dry answer to this question because it varies depending on the importance you place on different subject areas.  The top of your resume is prime real estate, so put the things you want to stand out toward the top.  This means deleting that "objective" section at the top of your resume.
  3. Is it okay to use color and/or graphics on my resume? We all want our resumes to stand out, but you definitely don't want it to stand out for the wrong reasons.  Depending on how you use the color and/or graphics, the result could be hit or miss.  Whatever you use, your resume should look good if printed in black and white.
  4. Should I include references? Whether you include references or not does not necessarily matter but placing the phrase "references available upon request" is a no-no.  If Human Resources wants references they are going to get them - and not because you told them to ask.  It is typical to include 3-4 references who can speak on behalf of your work history.  This means that family members, unless they have employed you, are not a good option for references.
Now that you've got your resume and cover letter together, you are ready to apply for jobs.  Unfortunately, the good old days of mailing in your documents are over and online application systems reign supreme.  Whether you love them or hate them, application systems certainly make the job of Human Resources a little easier by allowing the online system to sort through applications based on minimum qualifications and level out the playing field for candidates.  For best results, be sure that everything on the application and resume match and never write "see resume" in an application field.   While an application may seem tedious and redundant to your resume, most organizations require it and consider it to be as much a part of the initial impression as the resume and cover letter.  The good thing about application systems, however, is that you only need to fill the information in once and the system will remember you for subsequent positions you may apply for.

Once you've applied and an interview is scheduled, be sure to brush up on those skills and land the dream job you want!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Part-Time Training

I absolutely love getting new employees.  Not only is it an opportunity to meet someone new, but it is a fresh start at teaching new skills, techniques, concepts, and ideas.  That first week on the job is usually euphoric for new staff as they get acquainted with their surroundings.  For a full-time employee, the on-board procedures are relatively routine; chances are you have a couple meetings planned over the course of their first week with some hands-on training here and there.  With part-time employees, those who work 20 hours or less, training can be a little more difficult.

This past month, I received three new hires (all part-time positions) in two different positions and I have been in training mode, to say the least.  Here are some ideas that I've learned over the past month that may help you should you find yourself in a similar position:

Obviously, the biggest hurdle of part-time employees is time constraints.  Unlike your full-time employees (FTE) who can work Monday through Friday for 8 hours, your part-time employees (PTE) are restricted to 20 hours or less and are expected to learn all the same material and at the same rate.  Therefore, successful PTEs are the result of excellent time management skills on the part of the supervisors.

Part-time employees are great for scheduling because they are superheroes who fill in the gaps during short-staffed hours.  For the first several weeks, however, it is critical to schedule your new PTE during well-staffed periods.  Until they have demonstrated or articulated their confidence in being left unattended at the reference desk, you may be doing them a disservice by asking them to swim before they can even tread water.  If nights are busy, for example, then that may not be the best time for learning.  But what if nights are the busiest time and that is the only time the PTE can be scheduled?  Seems like a tough question, but the answer is quite simple: have more people work nights, at least for a few weeks.  It will be a trade off with your staff.  Ask them to work an extra night each week so the new hire can be trained properly.  A well trained staff member will be invaluable after the initial learning period whereas, without a proper learning environment, the new staff member may do more harm than good later on.

Additionally, new staff should be scheduled consecutive days to increase retention rates.  Your new PTE will not learn much if the very first week consists of multiple days off.  For example, if the new staff member works 20 hours in one week, the ideal schedule for the first week will consist of five 4-hour shifts instead of two 7-hour and one 6-hour shift.

Having a routine schedule in place for the first several weeks will certainly help your new staff member get acquainted with the new atmosphere, but it is only the beginning.  Before the first day, there must be a plan.  Ask yourself both of these important questions:

Who is responsible for training? - This is a much more difficult question to answer than meets the eye.  For most organizations, it is not just one person who will be training an individual.  A training manager, a supervisor, and possibly coworkers will have a hand in what the new person learns.  The newest staff member should have a clear idea of who is her "trainer."  Because there is more than one way to skin a cat, having trainers who skin the cat the same way is ideal.  Fleshing out these details before the start date, will give all parties involved a sense of structure to the training.

What does the new employee need to learn? - It is difficult to train if you do not have a clear understanding of the direction you are taking.  Before the start date, every person involved should help build a training timeline set with clear expectations of performance levels.  What will the employee learn the first week on the job? the second?  after the first month?  Thinking about the employee's job description and duties performed by staff in the same position, you should be able to create a training checklist for guidance.

Training plans provide the building blocks for a new employee and ensures that the information builds upon itself without leaving any gaps.  A piecemeal training plan will result in an overwhelmed employee who is unable to meet expectations.

There should never be an end to training but, at some point, the new employee will know enough to fly solo.  After a solid two weeks of consistent training, the newest staff member should be equipped with just enough to be on his own.  Depending on the job, a two week time frame may be too long or too short.  For this reason, communication is everything.  Those involved with the training should consistently be seeking feedback on the PTE's progress.

Progress can be measured in several different ways: quantitatively and qualitatively from the perspective of the supervisor and the perspective of the employee.  When all three of these measurements reflect positive progress, the employee should be ready to take on more responsibility.  None of this can be achieved, however, without communication and consistent follow-up with your new employee.

As with any training, the follow- up is key to their success.  It is an opportunity to ask questions and receive additional help without the pressure.  If you have multiple new hires within the past six months, you may want to host an informal follow-up meeting to give the new staff members a safe place to ask questions and comment on things they've noticed on the job (see ALA Days 3&4, Notre Dame University.)  Those new to an environment are seeing with fresh eyes and may be able to give an outside perspective which
can lead to positive change.

If you can't do everything as described above, the least you can do is let your new PTE know they are welcome.  Provide them support and be a mentor and those small gestures will impact their performance greatly.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why'd They Do That: Questions From Staff #3

I've actually had someone throw a book at me? Why would they do that?

You've probably noticed that people often get mad when things don't go their way.  How we deal with our anger is dependent on a lot of things including, but not limited to, family, friends, hormones, and past experiences.  You just never know what is going on in someone's life.  In fact, it's pretty safe to assume that anyone who gets that upset is living a pretty unhappy existence.  As librarians, we do small things every day to turn someone's life around but, in the case of this customer type, chances are you will not be making much of an impact.  For the average serial angry customer, know that it's not personal and handle the transaction like any other.  After your encounter with this person, just be thankful that you are you and not them.

Book throwing, irate customers are usually a rare find.  Most people restrict their anger to loud voices but, every once in a while, you may get a slew of profanity and some objects being flung around. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!  Although our jobs as librarians require us to help everyone without judgement, that mandate stops short at being abused.  You should always feel empowered to end a transaction that has taken a turn for the worse.  Use language that shows you are willing to help, but only if their behavior improves: "I want to help you but I cannot if you continue to use that language."

When you show your authority, one of two things will happen.  Either the person will back down, having realized that they cannot run you over, or they will continue to inflict abuse.  You've given a warning and that's all you need.  When someone takes it upon themselves to ignore your warning and continue their abuse, you reserve the right to cease conversation immediately and tell them to leave.  The important thing in any situation like this is to keep your calm, be firm and polite, and do not allow the customer to drag you down to their level - and they will try.  If you haven't read Black Belt Librarian by Warren Graham, then I suggest this as a great jumping off point. I also suggest looking into your library's rules for customer behavior.  Having policies which cover the expectations of customer behavior can be helpful when you encounter a situation like this as it provides support for your actions.

Why do customers try to pull one over on us and get another library card when they already have an account with an outstanding balance?

In my experience, the best customer service comes from those who think the best of people.  When we assume that customers are "trying to pull one over on us" then we automatically begin to use defensive behavior.  This doesn't mean that thinking the best of people means you have to be naive - it only means you take an offensive approach.

In my experience, it's a 50/50 chance that the person making a library card remembers there account history. These customers are not the average every-couple-of-months visitor.  Instead, these customers are a once-every-couple-of-years visitor.  I'm not sure about you, but I don't have much recollection of what I did two years ago, therefore, I take an offensive approach to these transactions in order to bring out the best in a customer.  Take a look at these two transactions and see if they sound familiar:

I've seen both of these scenarios play out and I'm sure you can guess which one ended up with a better outcome.  The conversation on the left almost always ends up with an upset customer, a disenchanted employee, and a manager that has to clear all the fees because it's just better to take the customer at their word in situations like this.  The conversation on the right, however, plays a good offensive game because the staff member uses offensive tactics to keep the transaction conversational instead of accusatory.  The customer on the right may go on to argue about the account fees but chances are the staff member will walk away from the transaction in the same spirits as he/she entered.  Why? Because staff didn't give the customer an opportunity to tackle.

Do you have other tips or tricks for getting the best out of you customers?  I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why'd They Do That: Questions From Staff #2

Our library has an automated check out station, so why do customers insist I check out their books instead of waiting to use the machine?

Besides the fact that people hate waiting, the perception of the library is a huge factor here.  Unlike other organizations, we constantly struggle with philosophical questions like "who are we" and "what is our purpose."  Like most departments of the government, libraries are full of policies and guidelines but we also have traits in common with retail stores which put the focus on customer satisfaction.  Not sure where I'm going with this? Allow me to continue.

You can argue until you are blue in the face about how people need libraries.  I'm not one to argue with you, but the people who vote on raising taxes might.  We have to face it, people don't need libraries like they need the police department or DMV.  In the eyes of many, libraries are a luxury, not a necessity.  Therefore, unlike the departments which are governed by rules and regulations and can afford to piss people off, we are not afforded the same luxury.  It's for this reason we look to service models of retail businesses for inspiration.

This question from a staff member puzzled me, to say the least.  Why should it even matter if the customer doesn't want to use the automated machine?  And then I realized that it came down to rules.  Somewhere, at some time, someone said "everyone must use the automated machine to check out materials" and that statement became law.

Pretend that you are standing in line at the Tag Office and there are several open windows but one of the employees is not taking anyone.  Chances are, you won't say anything but you might be a little upset over the amount of time it's taking to get through the line.  But your anger doesn't matter because it's the Tag Office, and we have to go there every year to keep our cars legal.  

Take the same scenario and apply it to a grocery store and you get a different outcome.  Chances are you will ask if a register is open and, if it's not and the lines are long, then the chances are even greater that you will not return to that store.  

It's a "need" versus "want" spectrum and libraries are caught in between.  Considering that people choose to go to the library (as opposed to being forced to go to the tag office,) puts us more on the "want" side of the spectrum.  The customers referred to in the question above have much more in common with the customers in the grocery store scenario.  And when we factor in the fact that automated services are involved, I think you will definitely see the parallels.

If we look at service models of other companies who utilize automated machines (Walmart, Kroger, USPS) one will notice the check-out choices.  For a customer who sees more similarity between his library and grocery store than the tag office, it is safe to assume that this customer just wants quality customer service.  If choice is the norm for most individuals, then it's reasonable for them to expect the same choice at their library.  After all, it is our nature to look for the fastest route to get where we want to be; in grocery stores we look for the smallest line, in traffic we look for the fastest lane, and in libraries we carry that same mentality.

For some, it's not even about waiting in line.  There could be a myriad of reasons why this particular customer sought out the staff member for help.  In this, I think libraries and the post office have a lot in common.  We are both appendages of bigger organizations (local government, universities, hospitals, etc) and we toe the line of bureaucracy and customer service.  We also have customers that use us infrequently.

According to ALA, libraries average about 5.3 visits per capita.  That means most customers are coming in every couple of months.  I would imagine that visits to the post office are quite similar to these numbers.  When I walk into the post office, I always feel a little lost and I can imagine that is how a majority of library customers feel as well.  What it boils down to is this: customers are not at the library like you and I are at the library.  We expect them to know how to use our non-intuitive services or at least attempt to figure it out. We may get Customer Service Fatigue from the repetition of explanation after explanation, but you save yourself more time in the end by spending the extra time with the customer up front. Every time I have to repeat the same instructions to a customer regarding their print job I just think about the post office; I know I can use the automated machine to mail a package but, sometimes, it's just easier to ask for help because nobody knows the procedures better than the staff.

To conclude the answer to this question, either the customers don't want to wait in line or they just need help.  But in the end, it shouldn't matter why. The only thing that matters is that you help them complete the transaction and they leave satisfied.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why'd They Do That: Questions From Staff #1

Ever wonder why customers do the things they do? Whether it's swearing up and down that they've returned a book only to find it home or not turning the corner of the shelf to find the book they are looking for, customers do some pretty strange stuff.  I surveyed staff at my branch to ask them what crazy things customers do and I've tried to give reason to those actions.  Throughout the next several posts, I will dive into the crazy antics and try to put some reasoning behind them.  Here is the first question I received:

Why do customers stand right next to the person you're helping instead of getting in line? 
When it comes to lines, there are typically two types of "line jumpers" - the Thinkers and the Thoughtless.

Before self serve beverages were a thing, it was a common occurrence in places like McDonald's for customers to stand to the side of the line for a refill rather than rejoining a line.  The same phenomenon happens in libraries.  Although customers may not need a top off, they may deem their question to be a quick encounter and not intrusive. How customers come to that conclusion has a lot to do with deductive reasoning.

1: This line is for reference questions
2: My question is not a reference question
3: Therefore, this is not the line for me.

Once a customer has deduced that this line is not applicable to him/her, he/she may seek out another staff member on the floor or, as established, form their own line.  This action may be a nuisance to the staff member and the customer being helped, but the logic is sound based on perceptions and opinion.

At this point, you may signal for the interrupting customer (or Thinker) to proceed or they may just ask the question once you've acknowledged their presence.  Or, as I used to do, perhaps you do not engage the customer in conversation at all and let them wait until the transaction is finished.  While I do not recommend cutting off the person you are helping to refocus on another customer, there is some middle ground that can be gained.

The Thinker's 'Quick' questions range anywhere from "where is the restroom" to "can you locate a book for me." And the meaning of 'quick' can be highly subjective. Because perception and knowledge are two different things, what a Thinker may believe to be a quick question may require a lot more thought on the part of the staff member.  In these instances, the Thinker does not mean any harm at all and should be addressed appropriately.  Before interrupting the customer you are currently helping, wait for a natural break in the conversation (a time when you have to look something up in the catalog or locate articles in databases) before acknowledging the Thinker.  Take a look at this interaction:

A customer bypasses line and walks to reference desk. After the current customer has explained what he is looking for, you pause to look up books on his subject.  Seeing the Thinker to the left of the customer, you address him.
Staff: "I'll be with you in just a moment."
Thinker: "I just have a quick question - where is the Christian Fiction section?"

The staff member is in a bind!  This customer has a seemingly harmless directional question but the staff member's training has told her that pointing is never a good idea and that follow-up questions are key to quality customer service. So what would you do? Often, customers with 'quick' questions are looking for both quick answers and quality customer service.  It may seem hard to deliver both, but with effort it can be done.

Staff: "You want to go to the right - the third shelf from the back is 
where you'll find Christian Fiction.  If you have trouble finding it, let me know."

What you've done by giving this response is providing a quick answer along with the reassurance that you want to help.  Once the customer walks away, however, it is important to remember the follow-up.  Once you get through your line, head out to look for the customer to make sure they've found everything or send another staff member in your place.  The follow-up will ensure that your Thinker got the same customer service as all your other customers.

We've all experienced those people who just don't have time to wait in line - those who think the world revolves around them.  Often times, the Thoughtless are just Thinkers with bad attitudes, but occasionally you may get a real doozy.   Thoughtless customers are often customers you have helped before that habitually interrupt you when you are assisting others.  Sometimes they are nice people who just need a little direction and sometimes they have not-so-pleasant personalities.

For your thoughtless-but-nice customer, a gentle phrase like "Let me finish up with this customer and I will be able to assist you" should work.  In these instances, you probably have helped the customer previously and they wish for you assistance again.  Their logic may follow this deductive reasoning:

1. This line is for customers with new questions.
2. My question is a continuation from my previous question.
3. Therefore, this line is not for me.

Basically, in the customer's eyes, the transaction was never completed - and it will not be completed until they are entirely satisfied.  Although it may mean an occasional interruption, this type of customer will be willing to wait for your excellent customer service.

The Thoughtless customer who comes across as rude or, sometimes, downright hostile is a rare occasion which requires a different approach - empathy.  But we'll save that for another post and another staff member question - Why did they just throw a book at me?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Get the Best From Your Employee

What makes a job "a great place to work?" One of the top responses to this question may be "people," and it is true that your coworkers can seriously influence your work experience, but as this Times article suggests, it may not be just your coworkers influencing your work day. "Make sure you have the tools to be effective" and "Understanding Expectations" are the top two ways Time suggests improving your work environment.  Not surprisingly, these two headings fall under the category of Training. Let's take a look at these in more detail:

If an employee is unclear on anything, it can make for a stressful work environment.  And let's face it, there is a lot to be unclear about: job descriptions, policies, procedures, etc.  Just within the day-to-day tasks such as shelving there is a lot of room for confusion.  This is a critical training issue.

Trainers must work closely and develop a good, communicative relationship with managers in order to set clear expectations.  Before training any employee, it is essential to completely understand the expectations yourself so that you can transfer the knowledge accurately.  Within the training, expectations should be communicated again and again through objectives, learning outcomes, and follow-up.  Once the training is completed, staff will learn through repetition and with the encouragement of management. Communication is key for staff to recognize what is expected of them.  Once communication stops, doubt creeps in.  It is essential for staff to always know where they stand within the organization: reiterating their roles and purpose can keep employees from becoming disengaged or, even worse, actively disengaged.  Telling a staff member they are doing a great job is nice, but telling them why they are doing a great job is even better.  It's not just about the keeping lines open between employee, trainer, and manager, it's about the quality of information that is passing through those lines.

But it's not just about communication, it's about giving your employees what they need to do the job well.  17% of employees are actively disengaged, meaning they spend work time acting out their unhappiness. And with only 29% being actively engaged, this means most employees are just there to do a job.  But those numbers don't have reflect your organization - not if you put effort into engaging all your employees through training opportunities.

Giving employees the tools to be effective in their job is more than teaching policies and procedures - it's about providing the means to get the job done.  In a library, training your employees on databases, eBooks, reader's advisory, etc will help them perform well.  There is no job satisfaction in being asked a question and having to stumble through the answer.  If nothing, it can be embarrassing.  You can engage employees by listening to their needs and providing the tools for them to be successful.  If training does nothing but break up a monotonous workday for staff, it has at least accomplished something.  As little as that seems, it means a whole lot to employees who get burned out doing the same routine.

Sometimes, what people want to know and learn may seemingly have nothing to do with their jobs - and that's okay.  Professional development can often lead us into strange territory, but that's the whole point.  Take, for example, my desire to learn HTML.  It doesn't really have much to do with my job unless you consider the occasional customer who asks a reference question. When given the time to learn it, however, I accomplished two things: (1) job satisfaction and (2) career growth.  Just because coding is not my job now, doesn't mean it can't be in the future, and that's important to remember. As trainers and managers, it is highly rewarding to help staff reach professional goals - even if it results in them leaving the organization or pursuing a different career - because goals which develop employees both professionally and personally are an ideal way to keep your library innovative.  By taking advantage of staff knowledge, you can simultaneously grow your organization and its employees.

It's important to remember that professional development is key for all staff - not just the degree holding professionals.  All library staff have skills, talents, and interests that could possibly benefit the organization.  Through training and professional development, you create more opportunities to engage staff and, ultimately, inspire organizational growth.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

English as a Second Language, But Don't Forget Your First

My husband and I have recently embarked on a journey of teaching Spanish to our daughter.  Using the One Parent, One Langauge approach, I speak only Spanish with my daughter and my husband only English.  The library has played a huge role in supplementing materials for both me and my daughter as we immerse ourselves in the language and heritage.  In my quest to only speak Spanish, I've discovered just how difficult English can be to speakers of other languages.  If you've never really thought much about your foreign language, bilingual, or multicultural collections, I hope I can help shed some light on these critical materials.

The argument against foreign language collections usually comes down to two things: money and language.  I'll talk a little more on money later, but let's discuss the driving force behind the language.  While the concept of libraries in general are not American, from the Andrew Carnegie Libraries of the 19th century to the New York Public Library's iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the history of public libraries are rooted deeply into America's past.  With the largest amount of immigrants being English speakers well into the 19th century, English, has also become a long standing American tradition. Combine the two traditions and you get a library full of books in English.  That may have suited early 20th century America, with its relatively small population of ESL speakers, but for the 21st century America that boasts a 30% Spanish speaking population (Making it the world's 5th largest Spanish speaking population) and with Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean speakers each in the millions, foreign language materials are needed now more than ever.

But shouldn't English materials suffice? After all, libraries have long been cornerstones in helping newcomers learn English.  If you've ever studied a foreign language, then you know how tedious it can be.  Now imagine learning a foreign language and being unable to escape back into your own language.  When we learn Spanish, French, or German in high school or college, classes last for one hour before we are able to carry on our lives in English again.  But if you've ever studied abroad in a country whose language is not English, then you probably understand the frustration and loneliness that comes with language isolation.

For 2nd generation immigrants, the primary language as a child is not English (since ESL learners are more likely to speak their native language in the home.)  English is learned from watching television programs like Sesame Street and from attending daycare.  The 2nd generation can often benefit from foreign language materials in early childhood, but as the child advances in school, English becomes the prominent language.  While 2nd generation immigrants have learned to speak a language other than English, by the time they begin school, the focus of reading and writing is on English.  As any linguist will tell you, reading and writing are the last two steps of language acquisition.  Since most 2nd generation students continue reading and writing in English, language acquisition for their native language is never fully developed.  A lot of this can be attributed to the lack of materials available for students at this critical age.  Once the 3rd generation immigrant is born, preserving the native language becomes even more difficult.

For children like my daughter, who is 4th generation and has learned English as the primary language, the idea of creating a total immersion environment is not possible without the help of the library.  Your library most likely collects plenty of language learning books, CDs, and DVDs.  But learning the grammar rules of language are not nearly enough for acquisition.  This is where total immersion comes in.  In order to learn a language fully, there must be additional materials provided that go beyond the basics of grammar drills.  Whether the materials are being used by 1st generation immigrants or the 20th generation, the importance of literacy, whether it be English or other, is one of the cornerstones of libraries worldwide.

Unfortunately, the reality of library budgets across the nation are less than ideal. So how does one decide what to purchase?  A community friendly collection development policy is the best place to start.  If the collection development policy states that purchases are made based on the needs of the community and the community is 30% Spanish speaking, then a collection with only 1% of materials in Spanish may not be meeting the needs of its community.

When considering the total immersion approach, it is important to not only consider the percentage of native speakers, but also the percentage of language learners who may benefit from the material as well.  If 30% of a community's population are speaking another language, then it stands to reason that those in the community wanting to learn a language, are more likely to choose the predominant language to learn.  For example, if the second majority language spoken in the community is Chinese, then English speakers within the community are more likely to choose Chinese as a language they would like to learn.

Let your collection truly reflect the community you serve.  While I have specifically hi-lighted foreign language materials in this post, a community based collection is applicable to all materials.  You probably already have a good idea about the people you serve in your community.  Back up what you know with some facts and figures.  You can easily view U.S. Census data to determine the make up of your community.  Start with these figures to reexamine the library's collection. If, like me, you have no control over what is purchased,  you may at least have power over how the collection is marketed.  When making displays, ask yourself "do these books accurately reflect the lives and/or interests of my customers."

Multiculturalism is such a broad topic that I highly recommend Multicultural Communities: Guidelines for Library Services from IFLA.org for more information and research.

Monday, July 1, 2013

ALA: Days 3 & 4

There have been lots of great presentations these past two days.  Here's more of the great work being done in libraries:

I was most fascinated by the NYPL and Goethe Institut-New York German Traces New York App.  This app uses GeoStoryteller and Augmented Reality to give students, visitors, or anyone else who wishes to do a "walking tour" of the city's German influences.  At the tap of your mobile device, you can see the instant history behind a piece of architecture or landmark and see it both pictures of what the building/location looked like then and now.  NYPL created the platform and logos and have given it a Creative Commons licensing for any library to use and adapt the technology.

Orange County Library System is also doing great things with their Right Service at the Right Time kiosk and app. This program, in conjunction with local service providers ranging from healthcare, shelters, to immigration, quickly matches up the right service to an individual depending upon their needs.  OCLS developed the platform and it has since been added as a statewide program.

Not surprisingly, I attended quite a bit of training presentations and I took away a lot of information. Here's what's going on at these awesome library systems:

Notre Dame University
When the university library underwent a huge reorginization, the library had to do a lot a change management training for overwhelmed staff.  They developed a training model for this that I think could be adapted well for new hire orientation.  The training program utilized several different methods including retreats, followup activities, reinforcement, and one-on-one training. The training lasted over the course of one year and gave many opportunities for staff training and retention. Adapting this format for new hires allows you to keep in touch with your trainees after the initial learning period time. Maybe retreats are not in your budget, but face2face meetings after six months on the job (and again after 1 year) will give a forum for new hires to talk about their experiences and ask questions in a safe environment.

Idaho Commission for Libraries
The biggest take away from this presentation was the the critical role of supervisors assisting learners after training.  If you are a trainer, then you are aware of the three different roles of training: the trainer, the learner, and the supervisor.  In order to see that learners retain information acquired in the training, supervisors must be a part of the process.  Trainers can help supervisors by giving them a plan/course of action.  For example, after a training program, the training manager can communicate to supervisors what the learners were taught, what the learning outcomes were, what the expectations should be, and what supervisors should provide to their staff in order to solidify the training.  When learners return to their work after the training program, that is when the real learning happens - putting the training into practice.

Suffolk Cooperative Library System
If you've worked in any organization, then you are probably familiar with strategic plans.  There are strategic plans for the organization as a whole, plans for capital projects, technology plans, and collection development plans.  But a strategic training plan?  You may be lucky to have a blurb about staff development in one of these other plans, but a fully developed strategic training plan that aligns itself with the library's mission statement and vision is hard to come by.

Library Journal Mover & Shaker, Emily Clasper, spoke on the importance of a strategic plan to keep sight of long-term goals for the library, to bring consistency and complimentary training programs together, and training focused on the competency levels of staff.

Western Maryland Regional Library
Julie Zamostny is a great presenter.  The focus of her presentation basically boiled down to making training less boring by mixing up the asynchronous classroom.  Using Skillsoft* as the basis of the training content, she incorporated Ted Talks into the instruction as well as face2face meetings to discuss what the learners viewed online.

Some training buzzwords popped up in her presentation that are very important: learning fatigue and learning anxiety.  In order to combat these two unwanted effects of training, Julie suggests being surprising and being consistent.  Two seemingly juxtaposed concepts but, if worked correctly, can be highly effective.  For example, throwing something into your training that may be completely off the wall is memorable to learners but scheduling weirdness or rescheduling can be off-putting.

*Skillsoft is now available to Georgia Librarians through GLEAN

Siera Learn
Pat Wagner is a training professional who advocates that every supervisor be a trainer first because, in essence, after the training has ended it is up to the supervisor to keep learning a top priority.  But not only are the supervisors and staff learners, trainers are learners too.  Training should be equitable and if one needs to know something, then everyone should know it as well.

Three different library systems presented on the the importance of idea innovation and implementation in libraries.  Fostering innovation is key to both library relevancy and staff morale.  Here's what these three library organizations have done:

Monroe County Public Library (IN)
In theory, there are two types of innovation:

  • Incremental - small improvements that bring better products to established markets
  • Disruptive - simple, low cost initiatives that appeal to a relatively small audience (these "beta" innovations are usually unattractive but have the ability to grow into wider markets.)
In order to understand the types of innovations your library may want to implement, you must consider where you may be with your three different types of customers:
  • Undershot Customers - the customers who want more and are frustrated when the library does not have the capability to provide that service.  These customers ask "why can't I . . .?"
  • Overshot Customers - the customers who just want the basic, incremental innovation. This customer may get upset over disruptive innovation because it "disrupts" the service they may be used to.
  • Non-Customers - the potential customers who currently lack the motivation to use the library and it's services.
By understanding the types of customers and the types of change innovation, as well as understanding the 6 levels of change -
  1. Awareness - participants learning of change that is about to occur
  2. Knowledge - gaining information about the change that will be occurring
  3. Skill - acquiring the new skill that comes with change
  4. Behavior - adjusting to the new skill that came with the change
  5. Condition - Using the skill and being comfortable with the change
allows a safe environment for change to occur

Indiana University
Robert McDonald added more weight to Sarah Laughlin's presentation by discussing the specific environment that needs to occur for innovation.  He mentions two specific types of innovation forums:
  • Discover Session - a group of people that focus on a "what" question.  This type of session usually has a scope and and must answer specifically "what do we need?"
  • Jam Session - a group of people that focus on a "who" question.  There may be no specific goal in mind but the question is "who are we designing for?"
Just the act of coming together to bounce ideas off one another can be a great way to get the ball rolling

Orange County Library System
I talked about this library system in ALA: Days 1 & 2 and it shouldn't have surprised me that they would be the forerunner of innovation.  Mary Anne Hodel, the director of OCLS, has based her organization on Marissa Mayer's (former Google Innovator, CEO of Yahoo) 9 principles of Innovation.  Just a look at their webpage will give you a sense of the innovation happening in Orlando.  But when I asked Ms. Hodel about the specific procedures in place to funnel staff ideas to the top level of administration for consideration her answer was very simple:

I visit every branch regularly at staff meetings and ask them directly for ideas

Ideas are often implemented in "beta" form with one branch trying it out to see if it succeeds before other branches adopt the initiatives.  This ensures that ideas are tried and allowed to either succeed or fail.  And if the ideas fail, it's nobody's fault.  It's better to try something and fail than suffer from the not knowing.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

ALA: Days 1 & 2

I was fortunate enough to attend ALA this year in Chicago.  As I wrote in one of my very first posts on this blog over a year ago, one of the main issues surrounding conferences like ALA is the dissemination of information to those who are not able to attend.  To help rectify that, I will be sharing everything that I've learned via this blog.  A lot of the information contained in this post, and the post to follow, will be directly in line with what I've discussed in the past.  I hope that you find some take away value.

My first session of ALA was all about thinking in terms of Lean Start Ups.  Referencing the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, the biggest take away from the presentation was the importance of failure.  If you take a look at the slides from this presentation, you should note the graphic on slide 11 which explains in pictures the best way to find the solution to a problem.

Often, we perceive problems and come up with ONE solution.  The solution, as demonstrated by the graphic on the left, misses the mark just by a fraction.  Thinking of many solutions, however, greatly increases your chances of hitting the target.  But thinking of many solutions and testing them means that failure is bound to happen - and that's okay!  In order to come up with these many solutions, it's important to get out of the building and talk to the target audience for insight.

Of course, getting insight, brainstorming ideas and testing those ideas takes time.  For this reason, the Lean Startup model employs the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in order to keep failure from being one big colossal mistake.  Early adopters of beta versions are a prime example of MVPs. Beta versions help you work out all the bugs before deploying solutions on a massive scale.  In relation to libraries, you may want to test out the popularity of a new class in one location with a small audience before rolling it out to the whole system.  For more information on Lean Startups, you may be interested in Think Like a Startup by Brian Matthews.

In the Orange County Library System of Florida, the Director and library administration began a new program for library staff called Librarians as Learning Leaders (LLL.)  The purpose of this group was to gather librarians from all the branches and bring them together to open lines of communication.  The meetings happen every other month and, while not mandatory, have a loose agenda to discuss projects in the works and to generate new ideas for the branches.  Meetings focus on a variety of topics from collection management (staff observations of what is being used and not) to programs that staff would like to offer.

Although librarians were a little leery of the program at first, Orange County reports that staff morale has increased significantly as a result of these meetings which promote trust in the organization's professional staff.  Orange County Library System also implemented yearly staff surveys to give staff an opportunity to give their brutally honest opinions of the organization.

User Experience theory says that the user is what should dictate how and why we do the things we do.  The University of Florida, along with four other universities, conducted research that revealed the divide between staff perceptions of what customers do at the library and what customers are actually doing.  Some standout numbers  include 48% of customers have never approached library staff.

The survey also revealed the research habits of students who begin their search very broad using Google, then using Wikipedia, and the library's website coming in as the third location visited.  Library staff, on the other hand, start with the library website before moving on to library guides and then the library catalog.  Applying user experience theory, we should meet our customers where they are.  This would suggest that, instead of fighting customers over their use of Google and risk losing trust, we should instruct them on how to perform better Google searches.  Doing this along with library instruction will ensure their trust and satisfy their queries to the fullest extent.

Furthermore, staff perceived themselves to be much more irrelevant than customers considered them.  Overall, customers think of librarians very fondly and do not perceive them to be irrelevant.  This suggests that the more librarians frantically tout the vanishing library, we seal our own fate.  According to this survey, libraries do not need saving!

Trainers often have a "best in the class" complex - a need to be the smartest and most knowledgeable person in the room.  This is the worst attitude for a trainer because that means we've forgotten what it's like to be new to a subject, just as those we train are new to the subjects we teach them.  In order to keep yourself from being a know-it-all, follow these steps:

  • Learn something knew to remember what it's like to be new to a subject
  • Have empathy for your trainees
  • Don't show off by jam-packing your training sessions with information just to make you look like an expert.
  • Refresh your training knowledge with these 50 training theories

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Learner Will

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend an Continuing Education class on Training Design taught by Emory.  My biggest take away from this class was, surprisingly, writing objectives.  The objective tells the learner what he or she can expect to get out of the class but it also provides a good roadmap for the content creator.  Before taking the Training Design class, I had no idea how much writing an objective could truly help me understand exactly the points I wanted to cover.

Every objective attempts to use descriptive words to communicate what the learner will have achieved by the end of the training module. In many cases, those words are not as descriptive as they should be.  Take, for instance, this sample learning objective for an introductory class to iMovie:

Participants in this class will learn the ins and outs of the popular Apple software, iMovie.  Join this session to get a better understanding of how the editing process works and, by the end of 1 hour, you will have made a movie of your very own.

At first glance, the objective may not seem so bad.  It informs the learner that the class is about iMovie, that a movie will be made, and that the class will be taught in one hour.  But how is the learner supposed to know if this class is appropriate for their level?  And how will the course be taught? The objective makes no mention about what specifics of iMovie will be covered and, although the objective hints at a hands-on learning method, it is not clearly stated exactly how the participant will learn the material.  

So, how can we make the objective better? Let's dissect:

The example above uses vague verbs such as "understand," "learn," and "master" to indicate what the participant will do or achieve in the class.  The problem with using such words is that they are no-brainers.  Of course the participant is going to learn  - that's the whole point of training.  There are much better verbs to describe what will actually take place during the course of training. Verbs such as "build," "create," and "explore" say so much more, so let's try replacing these verbs:

Participants in this class will explore the ins and outs of the popular Apple software, iMovie.  Join this 1-hour session to build upon your knowledge of iMacs by creating your very own movie.

Using different verbs paints the training in a different way.  Don't you think the word "explore" sounds much more fun than "learn?"  The verbs also help establish who this class is for (those that already have a working knowledge of iMacs) and what they will be doing (creating a movie.)  There are so many great verbs to use that you should never have to default to these seven deadly verbs: Understand, Learn, Know, Appreciate, Enjoy, Help, and Master.

The orginal example did at least one thing right, it gave the participant a time frame.  Whether the training is 1 hour, all day, or over the course of several days, a good objective will inform the learner how long it is going to take before they have gathered all the information pertaining to the topic.

A poorly written objective may result in participants who are either too advanced or not advanced enough to be in the class. Our original objective failed to describe how the participants will gain their knowledge.  When it comes to training, methods can vary widely. From panel discussions to group exercises, learners deserve to know what exactly they will be doing.  In applying a method to our objective, you should aim for stating, not only the method, but supporting details as well.

In this hands-on class, participants will explore the ins and outs of the popular Apple software, iMovie.  Join this 1-hour session to build upon your knowledge of iMacs as we discover how to manipulate audio and video, add transitions and music, and use advanced features such as green screen editing.

This objective has come a long way! Now, the participant knows exactly what to expect upon stepping foot into this class.

Writing a good objective forces a trainer to seriously reflect on the content he/she wants to cover.  In conjunction with the ADDIE model, it is a very powerful tool to keep your trainings on track and increasing retention rates.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting Creative for Summer

I don't know about your library, but mine is in full swing for the summer.  This means lots of kids and lots of books! Before summer started, however, my manager had a vision and a plan.  The goal: to make picture books more accessible to children while relieving the stress on our backs from shelving the piles of books that come in.  The idea of no longer shelving books on the bottom shelf and using it for display may seem a bit out of the ordinary but, after a month of displaying materials in this manner, I can say it was one of the smartest moves we've made.

You'll find in most libraries that the shelves used for picture books are short, usually allowing for a height of three shelves.  In the libraries I've visited, the standard has always been to use all three shelves for the books and using the table-like top to display anything from popular series to seasonal favorites.  Displaying items like this had always been the norm to me, but after giving it some thought and a long discussion with my manager, it became obvious why these displays may not work.
  • Kids Are Short - The shelves for our picture books are designed to be a certain height for a reason - kids are short. Displays on the top appeal to parents only, which is okay, but you are missing your target audience.
  • Clutterful - A display here or a display there may be nice for the parents, but a never ending sea of books on the top can make you feel like you are drowning.
But, fear not, for I am not asking you to expose the top of your picture book shelves - at least not all the way.  You may consider a more planned, thematic display of your picture books instead as featured
here.  But, as I said before, the top only markets to the adults and those that can see above the shelves.  So, what about the younger kids?

Books on the bottom shelf are the last to be pulled as Paco Underhill will tell you that the prime real estate is eye level.  For kids at the picture book age, that's the first and second shelf.  Now with the bottom row free, we realized we could avoid the never ending problem of constant upward shifting by using this space as "kids only" display.  The difference in aesthetics from the top two shelves to the bottom shelf draws the eyes of both adults and kids alike to the bottom shelf.  

One of the biggest perks that came from this change was not having to shelve on the bottom shelf.  No more crawling around on the floor for my branch!  If not for any other reason, I highly recommend using this shelving and display method just as a means to get off the floor and save your back.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Myth of the Digital Native

My library has a cool digital media lab where people can record, edit, and create just about anything.  When I gave a tour of the library to a group of students and their parents, I wasn't shocked when the children took to the software immediately.  The term digital native suggests that people born after the introduction of digital technologies are more likely to understand the concepts behind those technologies.  While the children instantaneously began playing around with the software, they did not have the faintest idea what they were doing.  Their parents, however, were ready to claim them computer geniuses.

Time and again I hear adults exclaim that children inherently know how to operate computers - that it's somehow written in their DNA instead of a learned skill.  Many adults write themselves off as unable to learn how to use computers because of their age and/or memory, disheartened by the youth they see grasp it so easily.

Because digital literacy is a huge part of what libraries do, busting the myth of the digital native is the first step librarians can take in helping everyone (children and adults) learn the computer skills they need to survive in the 21st century.  As a librarian and a parent, I can tell you as a fact that children are not hardwired to become digitally literate.  And here's why:

Today's youth are entertained by their parents' cell phones.  I'm certainly guilty of handing over my iPhone to my 2 year old so she can draw, play puzzles, or even attempt to shoot an Angry Bird.  When she first took the phone out of my hand she certainly didn't know how to access the phone, open applications, and play games.  Instead, she carefully observed my interactions with the phone and continued to learn about the device through a series of trial and error.  Although the methods and tactics of a two-year old are much different from the learning methods of adults, the truth remains that the two-year old still had to learn how to use the device.

Much like my two year old, the eleven and twelve year old girls who experimented in the media lab used the trial and error method to learn the applications.  Participatory learning is one of the key learning methods of Generation Z, somewhat of a foreign concept to the traditional classroom learners of the Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, and even the Millenials.  Given the informal nature of participatory learning and the trial and error method, it's understandable why most adults mistake learning for intuition or knowledge already possessed.

There is no doubt that technology has shaped Generation Z (and some Millenials) in ways that have not fully been realized but, referring back to the definition of digital native, to say they are more apt to understand the concepts behind technology is certainly stretching it.  What is it, then, that perpetuates the myth of the digital native?

The traditional learning methods, such as the classroom model that most of us grew up with, instilled a certain amount of fear regarding how we learn.  I don't know about you, but the classes I took involving any technology were taught on a step by step basis allowing very little wiggle room for experimentation and free play.  As a result, the fear of breaking a device (or even the internet) can become an insurmountable obstacle in learning new technologies.  Fear is the one thing that children just do not have.  My two-year old does not care if she accidentally purchases an app for $10.99, but adults know that some actions have consequences and that prohibits learning.  Because Generation Z is still in its childhood, it's difficult to say if they will develop the same learning fears that adults have today; I imagine with enough life experience under their belt, we will see a change in their methods.

The person who coined the term "digital native" did so in his 2001 article On the Horizon.  Before the onslaught of iPhones and YouTube, Marc Prensky used the terms digital natives and digital immigrants to describe how younger generations learned.  Having been in highschool at the time of his writing, I think Mr. Prensky had a little foresight about the future of technology and the way it shapes the younger generations.  His oversight, however, is the way it shapes the older generations as well - people he calls digital immigrants.

The point of the article, as I see it, is a plea for educators to be aware of the gap in learning styles - not necessarily just the gap in technological knowledge.  Technology has had a progression over hundreds of years and the quality of life that technology gives us changes from era to era, forcing each new generation to be a digital native of its relevant technologies.  So at what point do the digital natives become digital immigrants?  Suffice it to say we are all digital immigrants learning the relevant technologies of the next generation that follows us.  At some point, our young Gen Z will become adults and soon be just as out of touch with the generations that follow - just as our parents don't understand us, and their parents didn't understand them, etc..

As much as things change, they really do stay the same.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tell a Story

My last post talked about the importance of interactive and engaging trainings in order to appeal to the adult learner.  One of the best and simplistic ways to engage a learner is through the art of storytelling.  Even if you don't think of yourself as a storyteller, the truth is that all humans create stories.  Your stories may not be elaborately made up tales of adventure, but every time you recant your day to a spouse or tell a coworker about what just transpired, you tell a story.  These stories are the most powerful of all because they grip the audience with something they can relate to.

Learners attend training sessions for various reasons and one of those reasons may be because it was mandatory.  In order to incorporate people from all backgrounds and get them interested in the content from the start, you may find that telling a story engages your audience and peaks their interest to want to learn more.  Your stories don't have to be overly involved or complicated, but they should be honest and telling.  When I taught a course on computer basics, I had planned on the target audience to be mostly seniors.  Having planned for this group, I chose to tell a story about me, my grandma, and her computer.  The gist of the story grabbed the audience for two reasons: it was something the learners could relate to and it gave them hope that new things can be learned at any age.

Once you tell a story, it becomes easy to weave it throughout the lesson.  At the end of the computer basics class, everyone had created an email account and sent their very first email to my grandma - and she responded.


Stories help us relate to people and situations.  Without using words that your audience can understand and relate to, you risk losing their attention and doom your training success.  Instead, take advantage of stories and the use of similes and metaphors to bring a message home.  You can easily get a point across with a story.  Going back to the computer basics class, similes and metaphors helped the learners to visualize what a computer is and how it functions.  By incorporating something the class is already familiar with (in this case it was a file cabinet,) you ensure that every learner is on even footing and understands the content.

 If you've developed a story that is relatable and makes an emotional connection to the audience, you can almost guarantee that the individual learner will remember what you've taught them.  But remembering is no good!  The point of training is to make a change in behavior and/or thought processes; trainees should retain information and recall it later to implement change.  My computer basics class taught how to teach computers, yes, but it should have also changed the way the attendees thought about and related to their computer.  In order to motivate them to continue using computers, I using real world stories which explain why the attendee should learn a specific topic, increases their likelihood that a change in behavior will occur.

It may seem like using real world examples in the classroom is a no-brainer but if you think back to grade school and how many times you thought "when am I actually going to use this stuff," you will realize that we teachers do an incredible job of explaining how but can be a little shaky on the why.  It takes both, however, to make a training successful.

If you're thinking that you don't have any stories to tell, think again.  Sometimes, the story is not even your own, but the story of a friend, family, or coworker.  That's okay! Once you've used a story to establish an emotional connection, related to your trainees through metaphors and similes, and explained the why via real world examples, the result will get you buy-in from your learners as you begin to change their thought process.

Special thanks to Michelle Sienkiewicz for sharing an article about storytelling which inspired me to write this post.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Adults Learn Differently

A Facebook friend recently lamented her dislike for training adults - and she's not the only one out there.   Unlike teaching children, adults have already developed their ability to reason and question what they are exposed to.  If you'll allow me to use the analogy that people are like books, teachers are able to fill a child with new information on their blank pages - mostly uninhibited*.  Teachers of adults, however, are required to make edits or alter information already written in the memory banks of the adult learner.  This can cause confusion or outright denial in some learners when trying to add information or alter existing knowledge.  Here are a few tips to mitigate problems you may encounter with the adult learner:

Trainings should be well defined before participants even commit to attending.  Training that may be mandatory should also be clearly explained prior to the start of class in order to help spark interest.  A brief description of the class will also aid in recruiting more learners for those with an interest in the topic, ensuring you have learners who want and/or need to be there.  Descriptions of content prior to the training is only the first step in success with your adult learners, though.  The second step includes giving more details at the beginning of each session.  Before beginning, you will want to clarify what will be covered in class just in case there has been any miscommunication or misunderstanding.  Once you've explained the objective, you can get into the nitty gritty details.

Adults get caught up in the details you are giving them and often have trouble focusing on the bigger picture.  Because we, as adults, are action driven, we want information that is relevant and applicable to our work situation.  A trainee's motivations for attending can be across the board. In keeping with my book analogy above,  the trainee may be a Journal waiting to be filled with information or a Post-It Note needing only one piece of information.  By asking your trainees at the start of class what they want to learn, you can get a good feel for what type of learners you have.

  • Journals are the ideal trainees to have in class since they are vested in learning everything you have to teach them.  Depending on the subject matter of your training, don't forget that even Journals have already been written in and may need a rewrite of information.  Rewriting information almost always means being patient and slowing the pace down.  You'll save yourself time and a headache if you take it slow from the beginning instead of speeding through and backtracking later.
  • Post-It Notes need to know only one thing and they've attended the training hoping you have the answer. These learners can be intimidating because they may not participate with as much energy as other learners.  The key to reaching the Post-It Note learner is keeping them engaged and entertained throughout the training.  By keeping them engaged**, they may be surprised what other new things they learn.

Even when a trainer has done all they can do, they cannot plan for the outside problems that adult learners bring with them into class.  Sometimes, life gets in the way of learning.  As a trainer, you may not know that Jane just filed for divorce or that John had to put his dog down that morning but you know the show must go on.  Because there is no way to know which of your participants may be going through a hardship, you may find that interactive trainings are the most rewarding as far as retention goes.  As I have mentioned in several posts, follow-up is key for maximum recall.  Even if trainees are not suffering from any personal issues, other factors (such as workload, tiredness, and/or hunger) are always present.  By extending the training beyond your final wrap-up speech, you have one last opportunity to reach any learners who may not have been fully present.

*This is not to say that our children's teacher's have an easy job! Teaching, in general, is difficult and  requires talent, skill, and patience. The focus of this article is only to point out the specific nuances of teaching adults. I will also go on record to say that my child's teachers are one-in-a-million.
**For more ideas on how to keep your trainees engaged, see this previous post, or this one, or even this one.