I’ve just come from the Library, having been invited to join colleagues in a day long strategy workshop, led by a nice bloke called Ken Chad. Throughout the day, we discussed library users’ needs, took a pragmatic view in assessing the work to be done, looked at the barriers we face and some potential solutions. One of the contributions I made was around the benefits of getting to know the users of our Library better and using that knowledge to further improve our library services. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What got me thinking throughout the day was a brief discussion about the role of surveys in soliciting feedback on the services we provide. It got me thinking about some reading I’ve been doing recently around ‘resilience theory’ and a key component of resilience theory is learning from feedback so as to adapt and survive. Resilience theory is a branch of the ecological sciences that “emphasizes non-linear dynamics, thresholds, uncertainty and surprise, how periods of gradual change interplay with periods of rapid change and how such dynamics interact across temporal and spatial scales” (Folke 2006). Folke lists the attributes of a resilient social-ecological system as:
- the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction,
- the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization (versus lack of organization, or organization forced by external factors), and
- the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.
It’s the last point that interests me here. That is, the degree to which something has the capacity to learn and adapt. So, resilience theory is a theory of learning, adaptation and change. It’s not a theory of preservation but rather one of sustainability. Hopkins (2008) has likewise summarised the ‘ingredients’ of resilient systems as:
- Tightness of feedbacks
I think resilience theory is a theory which can be usefully applied to eco-systems, single organisms, individuals, even library systems. Anything that has an interest in longevity or sustainability in the face of inevitable change. So it seems to me that the use of surveys is an implicit admittance of failure in terms of knowing the people who you are surveying.
In our relationships we don’t issue quarterly or annual surveys to find out what people think about us. As I said in the workshop, I’ve never surveyed my wife. I listen to her, I get to know her as she changes and I change, adapt and respond to her needs. This is what it’s like to fall in love. In my experience, you meet someone and the first few months are a concentrated effort to get to know that person. Long days and late nights, talking to each other, discovering connections, sharing ideas and ideals, each person looking for a sense of surprise and delight as we unfold our lived experience in front of each other. In other words, we get to know that person and at the point or the period of falling in love, we commit ourselves to continually learning more about that person, listening to them, taking their feedback and adapting ourselves, growing old together. A relationship where neither or only one person takes on this commitment to listen, learn and adapt is, frankly, living hell.
And in a way, that’s what the most successful online services are engaging in. I’ve never been issued a survey from Google or Amazon. They don’t need to survey me, because they’ve been learning about me, with every click, every purchase, every email, every movement and decision they can track. ((I completely neglect to discuss privacy issues here. Needless to say, falling in love is quite different to being stalked.)) And using that feedback, that learning, they’ve adapted their services to respond to what they think are my needs. ((Sometimes they impose features on users and the technology can drive our actions and create artificial needs, and many of us recognise this manipulation or domination of the technology and begin to reject it, calling off the relationship. Sometimes people can become subservient in the relationship, too.)) The ‘tightness of feedbacks’, as Hopkins puts it, is essential to long-term friendships, marriages and, yes, the sustainability of library services. We need to get to the point where the feedback we receive from surveys is not necessarily perfect (what relationship is?), but is no longer of any use to us, because we already know what library users need, enjoy and are interested in. By creating a library system that learns from every person who uses it and adapts over time to the environment it is part of, we create a resilient and therefore a sustainable library system that its users fall in love with.