Last month at AALL’s Annual Conference in Austin, TX, HBR Consulting Managing Director Donna Terjesen and I participated in a panel discussion, Outsourcing Library Services, moderated by Cornell Winston, Law Librarian and Records Center Supervisor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We were expected to discuss our perspectives on outsourcing library services and were prepared to answer some tough questions from an audience of law librarians. My fellow panelists and I are grateful to AALL for providing a session to have a candid discussion about a topic that has often been the cause of much anxiety.
I would like to share some of the thoughts expressed in our library outsourcing session, and also include opinions/comments that are often we hear.
How outsourcing and other external service providers add value
Our panel audience acknowledged some of the realities of outsourcing, as well as some of the perceived benefits:
- Librarians widely recognize that outsourcing as a business model not only makes sense, but has become a part of law firm or corporate life. In fact, many organizations routinely turn to outside resources to deliver on non-revenue producing activities or functions on either an insourced or outsourced basis. Contract attorneys, caterers, consultants, service bureaus, independent contractors – call them what you will, but engaging them is outsourcing. It is a rare firm that doesn’t outsource something—mailroom facilities, reception and office services, IT, security, back office work like payroll, and the list goes on.
- Law librarians are generally open to the option to outsource or contract for external support for certain information tasks or functions. Administrative tasks such as updating treatises, document delivery or cataloging have been outsourced for years. Outsourcing to experts in areas where specific skills are lacking among the library staff such as data analytics, non-legal research like competitive intelligence (CI) and technical or business writing is increasingly an accepted practice when the work piles on but headcount remains static.
- Law library directors acknowledge that outsourcing offers scalability and flexibility, both in general and in response to workloads and unique case or client requirements. Outsourcing can be a way to accomplish “doing more with less (resources and staff).”
Concerns within the library profession
As head of a company that has offered managed services (aka outsourcing) in many forms for over 30 years to a wide variety of libraries and information centers, we have listened to many librarians express their opinions about outsourcing. While there has been a general acceptance over time, and in some cases an embrace of the merits of strategic outsourcing, others remain staunch opponents no matter what the plan or the outcome might look like or achieve. As the panelists readily acknowledged – outsourcing is neither a panacea nor the only solution.
During the Q & A section of the panel discussion, we were asked to provide examples of why and when the C-Suite asks LAC (or HBR) to come and discuss options for on-going library operations. There are many reasons we are asked to present or discuss our services, but often these discussions take place when the firm knows the library leadership will be changing (a pending retirement is often the initial catalyst). In our experience, most of the C-level executives we meet take a pragmatic view of how to plan for library services now and in the future. They are interested in knowing how to reduce costs, optimally utilize staff skills and talents, and want to understand trends, in furtherance of arriving at a thoughtful strategy that accomplishes specific goals. If outsourcing makes sense then they are interested in how, when and how much. Is it a fait accompli that outsourcing is the desired outcome? Nope. C-level executives are interested in benchmarks, data to support trends, predictions for the future, and a better understanding of how this information may affect their firm, and more specifically the impact on library services at their firm. Librarians might want to understand this too, beyond the context of their own firm, so they can architect a strategy. Consultants like LAC and HBR make it our business to compile and interpret this kind of data.
Based on the data we know that outsourcing some functions or tasks may be a useful tool that helps accomplish the desired strategic direction. Or it may not, but going through the analysis can be extremely informative – and useful – either to validate or to disprove goals and objectives.
The session attendees expressed legitimate, thoughtful concerns that are shared by many law librarians:
- The belief that outsourcing creates a barrier that doesn’t allow for meaningful interaction or development of strong, trusted relationships with other departments, let along the C-suite. In other words, the belief or fear is that as part of any outsourcing operation, you lose a “seat at the table” in terms of firm strategy and direction.
- As a follow-on, without a seat at the table, the fear is that an outsourced library is viewed as being reactive, not proactive, and thus vulnerable to being diminished.
- Outsourcing won’t work (at my firm…) because library services cannot be easily transferred to an outside company as a “plug & play” move; the implication being that vendors promote outsourcing as an easy process with a smooth, seamless transition when in fact it requires meticulous preparation and execution.
- Once outsourced, institutional knowledge is irretrievably lost, to the firm’s detriment.
- Using an outside consultant to provide any level of consulting, inevitably means that outsourcing is the outcome.
- Working for an outsourcing company is a guarantee of lesser status, lower wages and sub-par benefits.
LAC, with 400 or so employees, many of whom are information professionals with multiple degrees, is one of the largest private sector employers of librarians. Because our clients are in almost every industry, many with a global reach, our employees are situated all over the United States and the United Kingdom. Many work from home and connect via platforms and other technology. The work we do sometimes takes our talented staff far beyond the walls – virtual or physical – of a library into other realms involving data (biometrics, meta-tagging, knowledge management), analytics, editing, technical writing, teaching/training, and of course research. With most of our outsourcing contracts we often hire at least some of legacy employees, appreciating the importance of preserving and honoring Institutional knowledge. As we are accountable for living up to all of our contractual obligations, we generally experience few barriers to the decision makers’ inner circle, often with heightened status because of the governance and reporting (SLAs, KPIs, etc.) that is part and parcel to our approach.
As much of the discussion affirmed both what I already believe and had expected, I came away with an even deeper appreciation for the concerns my librarian colleagues expressed. In the weeks ahead, my team and I will be addressing the concerns listed above in a series of short follow-up postings. We all share the same goals when it comes to promoting the value of librarians, information services, and quality research.