may 29, 2016
The work is never done, and that's OK. This product, this program, this service – you're not going to cross some threshold or hurdle and be done with it. Decisions you've made can be undone. It is fine to try things. It is fine to stop trying those things when they don't work, or when they stop working. We have to do these things to be human – we have to recalculate and recalibrate as a situation requires. Constantly. There's an analogy often used for evaluation: riding a bicycle requires constant readjustment to feedback, just as an ideal approach to assessment should. On a bike ride, evaluation happens before (what's the weather like?), during (how many cars are on the road right now?), and after (how long did it take me to get here?).
The same continuum applies to products, programs, and services. Very few projects are immune to the passing of time, the changes to society, the smooth superhighway of technological progress. Very few buildings, websites, telephones, cars, kitchen appliances, or light fixtures are churned out and then never modified or improved upon ever again. Services, too. Would a visit to a hospital in 1916 resemble the experience of going to one in 2016? Did somebody theorize about online shopping back in the heyday of catalog and magazine saturation? Maybe (in fact, probably), but if so the hypothetical description and the present-day reality probably don't have much in common.
It's hard to think of examples of products, programs, and services that have just been completely 100% left alone since their rollout with no alternate limited version, special deluxe flavor, faster processor, greater memory, bigger touchscreen, tricked-out film projector... you name it. There's no shortage of failed products, many of which were made by companies that hit it out of the park with other items. There's been at least one or a handful of minor renovations to most older buildings. There's a ton of popular apps brought to life only after other projects wasted mad money and development time 'til they got tossed in the bad idea bin. The ephemerality of software makes things easy enough to ditch or tweak, but "company culture" has to allow for it.
So why is change and experimentation such a hard sell to certain professions and organizations? And why do many entities in the public sphere – cities, governments, regulatory or advisory agencies – tend toward innovating once and leaving it at that? I'm thinking of the Boston area's beleaguered public transit system as I write this. It was the first of its kind in the country, but decades of neglect and inadequate funding have made it, at least reputation-wise, one of the worst.
Maybe it's because the public sector isn't pressured to grow in the sense that companies are – public employees aren't giving Q4 earnings reports to anybody. They're not forced to bump up conversion rates; they're not persuaded to bake slight improvements or unimpressive new features into "this year's model." I'd argue that's a good thing in many ways; I enjoy my freedom to exist in a sort of gray annex at the periphery of the current economic model, but it also keeps the mission objectives less mercurial and more persistent. We're in this for the long haul, not just to arise as new unicorns from the ashes of the unicorpses (yep, I just went there) before us, selling segment-specific analytics one year and gamified drinking water the next.
This is not to say there aren't private companies who've spent decades iterating something, or mulling over the same ideas. Take two examples from tech: the sensors and tiny processors made so cheap by the proliferation of smartphones in the past decade are largely responsible for the current obsession with virtual reality, after years of clunky forays into the concept. And Apple's been fantasizing about virtual personal assistants since before even Clippy came on the scene, but the gargantuan data mines of Facebook and Google, plus cloud infrastructure and computing speed, are what's stoking the flames on chatbots and AI in 2016.
We library folk stand to learn a lot from how companies have stayed relevant in the face of competition, satisfied finicky customers who tend to err on the side of not being early adopters, and continued to improve their services and products over time, keeping a close eye on competitors all the while. Maybe the most difficult part for us is just understanding the competition – it's not the library in the next town over anymore (unless, of course, you're in a pajama drive rivalry). It's tech companies, coffee shops, social networks, "lifestyle centers" like Assembly Row – gathering spots, places to meet, means of exchanging information. To be able to compete with these things, we need to adopt some of their ways: constant evaluation, openness to change, trial and error and trial again. What's that phrase that's always in academic job postings? "Tolerance for ambiguity."
I'll say it again: the work is never done, and that's OK. Even tiny improvements are still improvements.
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Hey Cal, why is there no comments section? Comments sections have a tendency to devolve into nasty little spaces, teeming with spam & ad hominem attacks. I also have a fondness for the 1.0 Web (props to Neocities, powerer of this site). If you'd like to share your thoughts, find me on Twitter or fire off an email. Thanks!