Starting the New and Handing Off the Old: Onboarding, Organizational Memory, and Succession Planning

August 21, 2013

by flickr user chris messley

by flickr user chris messley

I recently joined the Editorial Board of In the Library with the Lead Pipe, and just last week my term as member manager of The Hub ended. Joining an already-established group and handing off an ongoing project to someone new has had me thinking about onboarding, organizational memory, and succession planning among librarians.

While this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, it’s caught my attention before. One of the jobs I had while I was in library school was at a synagogue library; it was a part-time, solo librarian position, and I loved my time there. When I started, they’d scheduled the outgoing librarian and me to have an overlap of a day or two so she could show me the ropes. She was the only one who knew everything about how the library worked — other staff members knew bits and pieces here and there, but she was the only one who knew it all, and she was the only one who knew certain things (like how the catalog worked). She passed on what she knew verbally to me and then I was on my own. There was no formal documentation, just papers that’d been sitting in a filing cabinet largely untouched for years.

My first few days on the job were spent going through those papers, trying to determine what was still relevant and what wasn’t, tossing things we didn’t need anymore (floppy disks!), and trying to absorb as much of the library’s history as possible (its role within the synagogue had changed over time, so there were all sorts of old book lists and student assignments that weren’t useful but I felt like we should save).

When I left that position, that experience was still fresh in my mind, so I made sure to write up a little manual that described all of the duties the librarian performed, gave a little orientation to the different parts of the library and our different collections, and explained where I was with the projects I hadn’t been able to finish. It wasn’t a complete history of what had happened at the library over time, but it was what I knew, and I was hoping it’d be helpful for the next person (both as a training manual when I showed her around and for reference after I left) and for the rest of the staff, should they lose their librarian suddenly.

My next job was my first real professional position, and I was the first person they’d ever hired to do teen services, so there wasn’t as much history to dig through. I dove right in and started spinning up new programs and services, and I tried to leave a decent paper trail as I did so. I experimented with different things: a daily diary (scrapped because seriously, who has time for that?), a monthly run-down of things that had gone well or not and how I was feeling about how my program was coming and what I’d do differently the next time that month came around (more useful), a filing cabinet with every booklist and flyer I was making (abandoned when I realized I had all the files digitally anyway, so why bother with paper), and a lot of other big and small things to keep track of what I was doing. I did most of this for me, but in the back of my mind, I hoped I was leaving behind enough evidence of what I’d been doing that someone else would find it useful.

When the time came for me to move on from that position, my successor hadn’t been hired, so I spent my last couple days putting together an extensive manual of everything I’d done and learned that I thought was relevant. It included the programs I’d done (and explanations for why I’d sunsetted some), the connections I had at schools and which faculty members I thought were best for a new person to reach out to, why I’d structured my summer reading program the way I did and how and why it had changed from the first year to the second, how I decided what books to purchase and weed, and so on. I felt like I’d learned a lot about my community and what their needs and desires were, and I wanted to give my replacement a leg up so he or she wouldn’t have to spend as much time trying to figure things out as I did. I also wanted to make sure that my colleagues in other departments had plenty of information about what I did in case it took a while for them to hire a new teen services person so that they could keep things running for a while. I also made sure to clean up the files on my computer to make sure they were well-organized (I had flyers, booklists, photos of previous programs, notes from meetings, contact information for kids who’d come to programs, reports I’d written), and I put those files on a USB drive and on the network drive so anyone could get to them. Especially since I was a department of one, being able to collect all of that and hand it off felt important to making sure my teens were well-served after I left.

My current position is for a much larger library — large enough that it has a full-day orientation for all new employees. The day is a mix of getting new people on board with the library mission, making them feel like they’re part of the organization, and helping them see their place in the organization along with mandatory HR paperwork and setting us up with different computer accounts. I liked this use of orientation both for information and to sort of culturally indoctrinate people and get them excited about the organization. How often do any of us explicitly talk about the library’s mission statement and how, concretely, we can contribute to that?

My first day at my branch wasn’t as structured. I’m sure things vary from branch to branch and manager to manager, and I think some of this was because I was a department head (a more independent position than front-line staff with a less strong connection between supervisor and employee), but I didn’t shadow anyone or get any additional training. (I’m really glad I was already familiar with the MLS!) I once again found myself cleaning out filing cabinets to uncover my department’s history, but this time I also had staff members who could tell me where we’d come from, where we were, and where we might go. They were also really helpful when I didn’t know a password or where something was located! I think this was the first time I had sustained access to organizational information via people rather than documents.

Anyway, my point is that all of these experiences from my employment over the last four years or so primed me to be thinking a lot about knowledge transfer when people join or leave organizations. When I joined In the Library with the Lead Pipe and stopped managing The Hub within three weeks, those thoughts came back fresh.

WIth the Lead Pipe, I’m once again findng myself reading documents (this time shared through Google Docs rather than filing cabinets!) to get a sense for the past, the present, and the future. But I also have the human component again: there are other Editorial Board members who can tell me about our past, our present, and our future and who can steer me in the right direction when I have a question. (There have been a handful of times I’ve seen something in a document that hasn’t been touched in a few months and I’m not sure if it’s current or not, but there’s always someone to ask to confirm what I’ve found.) The knowledge that’s come from people’s experience but that hasn’t been formalized into a document is readily accessible to me.

It’s funny, though, that after all of those experiences and all of this thinking about people joining and leaving organizations that I didn’t do a better job of handing off The Hub. A lot of what I’d done as manager was outlined in Google Docs and in emails (The Hub has its own email address, so I could hand off the password and give the new manager years of information), but I didn’t spend as much time organizing all of that information as I would have liked. The weeks before the transition were busier than I expected (a houseguest! a cold! my dog having surgery!), so I wound up just handing off the files and email address and having a phone call to explain everything. I’d been conscientious about the transition process at my previous jobs, but with this project, I didn’t put my experience to good use because life got in the way. I’m lucky that the new manager is stepping up from a role as a blogger for The Hub, so she’s already steeped in what we do, and I’m staying on as a blogger so I’m available for help if it’s necessary, but there’s still small stuff that’s undoubtably getting lost, and I’m frustrated with myself for letting that happen. I know better by now, don’t I?

I don’t think we think a lot about what happens when new people join our organization. I’m not sure if that’s because historically in a world of pensions or small-town libraries where people stay for decades there hasn’t been a lot of turnover or if it’s because most librarians who are managers didn’t get a lot of formal management training (we got librarian training!) or if it’s just something that every organization struggles with. Some of it is just the nature of working, I suppose: you’re always so in the middle of what you’re doing that it’s hard to step back and look at it all at once, much less document what you’re doing, so when you’re about to leave or a new person is arriving, there are months or years of work that have happened that don’t have any formal documentation or anything. And in most cases, there are other people who are staying with the organization who can help smooth the transition process to some degree.

Particularly when people in highly specialized roles (like the only YA librarian or the only librarian period) are leaving, though, valuable information can be lost. In some cases that might actually be good (you can start fresh if the department is in need of a change!), but it can also leave the new person scrambling to get a sense for what’s worked before, what hasn’t, and why. Obviously it would be overkill for smaller organizations like In the Library with the Lead Pipe or individual projects like The Hub to have formal training and orientation processes for new people, but there are still practices we could put in place to help even smaller organizations or initiatives be stronger during times of change. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on organizational memory recently, and I guess I’m hoping more librarians will do the same. And then I’m hoping we’ll all actually have the time to put that knowledge and experience to use!

Are there libraries you’ve worked for or heard of that have been really good about bringing in new people and getting them up to speed or managing transitions as people leave? What made those processes work well?

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