Saturday, May 5, 2012

PL 21/12: The social approach

Filed under: statistics — plinius @ 7:16 pm

In the previous blog posts I have shown that the supply of indicators outstrips the demand.

The libraries in higher education have shown some interest in indicator development. Bergen University Library has actually tried to calculate all twenty-four indicators proposed in ABM24. But it took more than a decade to get this far. Earlier proposals for the academic sector did not lead to structured data collection, analysis, discussion and decision making.

The public library sector does not relate to the recommendations at all. The libraries present the data they like, mostly in the form of statistical variables, and express no desire for a national indicator system. This is true even if the actual values have been published (ABM9) or are available in an open database (KOSTRA13). The latest proposal – ABM30 – which recommends thirty indicators and quite a bit of work, will hardly improve the situation. The librarians in the field do not see the point of the exercise.

The customers are missing from the restaurant.
To understand all this, we have to accept that the development of indicators is more of a political than a technical issue. Authorities like indicators. Things that happen far from the center become visible the moment standardized data are available. Unified information systems give central bureaucrats and managers a feeling of power and control. Most librarians dislike indicators. They do not say so very openly, but they reveal their preferences through their practices.
 I have already stated my thesis. The present approach to indicator development does not work. I am not giving up on statistics. I believe that librarians have a lot to gain from quantitative methods and numerical arguments. But we must change our development model in order to make a real impact.


A centralized, top-down approach, where some people start with the things they want to be measured – while postponing the actual measurement – does not work. We have tried this approach many times, with very limited success. The alternative is a decentralized, bottom-up approach, where we start with the statistics librarians actually do and use on the job, Then we cooperate with the libraries in question to improve their established practices.

The top-down approach represents a management model of change. First we decide what to do through the proper institutions, consultations and committees. Then we announce our decisions. And then implementation happens – more or less by itself.


The bottom-up approach represents a social model of change. First we gather people and organizations who want change for themselves. Then we form working groups and consultation networks. And then we start to carry out, to explore and to learn from change.

  • To truly build systems that met the needs of users, we must let them build these systems directly (R. David Lankes)

The management approach is indirect. People with authority tells other people to change. The difficult development work is left to others. The social approach is direct. People promote change by changing their own ways of working. I am not saying that the first approach is wrong and the second one right. I am just saying that the top-down approach has been tried repeatedly without much success. There is no guarantee that the bottom-up approach will lead to success, either. The library field may simply be too resistant. But the people involved in practical  indicator testing will at least learn something from their encounter with the real world of practical statistics.

The management approach sees indicator development as a technical issues. If we define good indicators, people will be happy to use them. The social approach sees indicator development as a combined techical, educational and political issue.

Our subject is a small specialty within a small occupational field (Bourdieu). The stakes are limited. Nobody will become rich from our successes or die from our mistakes.  But people still  struggle for power, influence, prestige and comfort. Library statistics is a tiny slice of life in a remote corner of society. But the play of forces and the dance of interest is everywhere.

People who work with organizational development emphasize that deep change has three necessary components:

  1. the development of new technical systems
  2. the development of new skills
  3. the development of new organizational structures

Changing the systems is relatively easy. It only requires technical knowledge. Computers don’t protest when they are reprogrammed. Introducing new skills is rather more difficult. We know that people are able to learn throughout their lives. That does not imply that they want to learn. Some do, but most don’t. Acquiring new skills is hard work. Becoming a student and beginner after twenty years as a competent adult feels strange.

Changing the organization is harder still. But technology and training is not sufficient. Substantial development is impossible unless relations of power and positions of control can be modified.


1 Comment »

  1. […] PL  21/12: The social approach […]

    Pingback by PL 22/12: NPM from below « Plinius — Sunday, May 6, 2012 @ 9:21 am

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