Libraries as a ‘holacracy’?

Just a quick blog post regarding an article I spotted via my RSS reader this morning (who said RSS was dead??). I’ve sort of touched on this area before and it is one I am very much interested in from a library perspective – the idea of library services that abandon traditional hierarchies and adopt a flattened approach to service management and delivery.

The Next Big Thing You Missed: Companies That Work Better Without Bosses highlights the efforts of Zappos to flatten its hierarchical structures, creating a supposed egalitarian system. (Although, it is worth adding that Zappos is a subsidiary of Amazon and therefore not entirely hierarchy-free – still, it is an interesting concept worth exploring).

What do you think? Is it possible to create a ‘holacracy’ in libraries? Would it even be desirable? What would it even look like? I’d be interested to hear what people think.

  • Peter Williams

    The structure of library teams is often quite horizontal (e.g. a team of Subject librarians) so it is possible to have a fairly democratic set up. As a manager, I’ve tried to encourage discussion and debate. I like people to think about our ways of working and the services we provide, and to suggest ways in which these can be improved. I try to let people run with ideas. I should add that I think UEL library is a less hierarchical organisation than others I’ve worked in and personally I’ve been allowed to do things outside my remit.

    I think the approach you’re interested in could work with some library working groups or projects. I was only half-joking about trialling it in cpd25! But running an academic library like some sort of hippy commune? I don’t think so. To paraphrase Robert Webb on Russell Brand: ‘read some frickin Orwell’. But, as you know, I’m not a radical librarian.

    Zappos’ connection with Amazon is, to me, actually quite sinister and an example of how some seemingly radical internet ideas are, on closer examination, the opposite of what they claim to be.

    I think the question of how to maintain progressive ideals as you go up the library ladder is interesting though and one you’ll have to grapple with sooner or later, sooner hopefully!

    • Ian

      Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment!

      In my previous management roles I was always keen for staff members to take ownership and develop ideas and solutions to problems that would help in the delivery of the service. I am a great believer that empowering staff and providing a supportive, encouraging environment is vital in ensuring staff happiness and, consequently, the delivery of a quality service. It’s important for staff to feel that they have a stake as well as feeling that they are able to try things out without fear of ‘failure’ (in other words, they should be encouraged to try out new ideas without fear of reprimand if things don’t quite work out…if they don’t work out, there should be an open discussion identifying reasons why and seeing if there are ways to tweak things).

      I agree, digging into Zappos’ connections opens up a whole load of questions about the nature of the set-up, which I am not sure is as benign as it appears.

      Maintaining progressive ideals as you work your way up is certainly tricky! I tried very hard to maintain these ideals as a line manager in retail, and it wasn’t always easy. But I know that the staff I line managed respected me and were appreciative of what I did or tried to do in terms of line management – always tricky when you have competing pressures and personalities. I guess that’s the best you can hope for.

      As for the Webb/Orwell/Brand thing…I have read a fair amount of Orwell, and I take issue with Webb on a number of aspects of that particular ‘debate’ (such as it was). But this isn’t the time or place. Maybe in the pub after a CPD25 event!

      • Peter Williams

        Further to this, I neglected to make the obvious point that
        ‘hierarchies’ are not necessarily a bad thing anyway. Libraries have structures – with transparent lines of responsibility and reporting – precisely to protect against the sort of workplace bullying and oppression that we are both against. You’re probably familiar with descriptions of how supposedly egalitarian internet start-ups were in fact home to all sorts of tacit power structures (e.g. who sat closest to Mark Zuckerberg). See also the history of hippy communes!

        • Ian

          Yes, that is true. Non-hierarchical structures are just as prone to bullying and oppression. I guess the answer is to make the structure as flat as possible, ensuring everyone is fully able to participate in guiding the service, creating an open and transparent environment for everyone. Maybe that is the best we can hope for.