Last night I watched The Call Centre on BBC3. It features Nev Wilshire, who some people think is like David Brent of The Office.
Nev may be over the top, sometimes, but many of the things he does are actually based on basic management principles of trying to keep his workers happy in what may be a not very rewarding job situation, and keeping himself informed about what is happening within his business.
In the places I worked, when I worked, I had a couple of good bosses who knew their stuff, kept themselves informed, and reacted well with their staff. They were much appreciated, and their services benefitted from their approach. But for far too long I worked in one place where the boss had few management skills, and his deputy for most of that time was even worse.
For years and years, there, we had no staff appraisal system. We were left to motivate ourselves. We also had no agreed goals/aims/targets. We had no collection development policy, so we didn’t really have anything to refer to in order to build our service. All of these things seemed to be too much effort for the boss and his deputy to be bothered about.
On several occasions I suggested forming a collection development policy, and said how this might be done, and its benefits. It would have been nice as a starting point to discuss information provision with our academics, and as a basis for building our collection. It never happened.
We were rarely required to collect statistics.
Worse still, there was no evaluation of anything we did. So, each year I would order thousands of pounds worth of books, and in no way were the choices evaluated. Of course, I did my own evaluation or sorts, for my own satisfaction.
Finally, for years and years we had no strategic plan of any form for the library as a whole.
Imagine that – a university library with no policy of any kind, no evaluation and no appraisal. Despite those facts, and largely because most of the junior and middle management staff were able and conscientious, the place ticked by on a day-to-day basis. It was small wonder, however, that we ended up at the bottom of most statistics for UK university libraries.
One day, these stats were brought up at a staff meeting.
“Well, this year’s comparative UK library stats are out,” the boss said, “and we don’t seem to be doing all that well, but at least we improved on last year for our periodical provision.”
I thought – YES! We will now discuss the poor statistics, and how we are spending less per student on books than any other UK university library. How we’re at the bottom of nearly all the lists. We will come up with some sort of plan to lift us off the bottom.
I waited, but no-one said anything.
“And the next item on the agenda is…” the boss continued.
“Ah.” I interrupted, “Can we not discuss the stats a bit? They are not good. We should surely be doing something about it.”
“Sigh. The academics get the library service they provide for.” the Deputy said, indicating with his body language shrug that he considered it had nothing to do with him, and not worth any further discussion.
I couldn’t believe it. Here were the people who should be doing something about the situation, and they didn’t seem to care.
“But perhaps they need more information and motivation from us. Perhaps they don’t know how bad the stats are. We can surely come up with some ideas for improvement. These stats are actually an opportunity for us.” I suggested.
“Oh well,” the boss eventually continued, “I suppose I could always send a memo to the Principal. Now, the next item…”
Well, that wasn’t that, because I spoke to some of the other staff after the meeting. We all agreed that some sort of plan was badly needed. Someone was elected to take this forwards.
About a month later the person in question came up to me with a smile on her face.
“Roddy, at the next staff meeting the boss will bring up his strategic plan.”
“Fantastic! What does it say?”
“Well, it looks as if it was hurriedly scribbled on the back of an British Airways Executive Lounge envelope, and it’s pretty dire. But what I suggest is that you and the others don’t criticise it at the next meeting. I’ve made it so that the boss thinks that it is all his own idea! So if we can agree at the meeting on the principle that we should have a plan, we can all then work on it and make it into a proper plan.”
How clever, I thought.
So we eventully ended up with an agreed strategic plan, of sorts. There was still far too little communication between management and staff, and it was left to the staff to bring up the topic of the plan at the end of the year, to evaluate what we’d done, but it was a start.
I bring all of this up in order to think about management styles and how they can influence not only performance, but also worker satisfaction. It doesn’t actually matter whether things are called ‘appraisal’ or ‘strategies’ or ‘evaluation’ or ‘communication’. Those are management terms which may come and go. It may also not matter too much how such things practically work in practice. Many people, I suspect, would turn their noses up at Nev’s techniques and think that he is cringeworthy, but it would appear that his business is doing well, he manages to retain many of his staff, and his staff smile and laugh more than I ever saw our library staff do the same.
A very long time ago I participated in a library strategic seminar. Two management consultants were brought in to facilitate the sessions. We spent a long time talking about our SWOT analysis. We spent even longer agreeing on what our purpose was. Of the two consultants, one kept making humorous references to Partick Thistle, and the other played the straight man.
I thought – You’re on a hiding to nothing making references to Partick Thistle, no one here knows about that team, no one here follows football.
After the sixth reference to Partick Thistle which no-one at all laughed about, the penny finally dropped for me. Aha, I thought, this is all symbolic, Partick Thistle is simply an analogy, these guys do actually know what they are talking about, and it is all, really, about first principles.
After many hours, we finally agreed on all sorts of things. We had a plan. We had some ideas. We had some aims. We were agreed on the way forward. We had agreed on what we were trying to do, and why. I felt that the consultants had been worth their weight in gold. There were smiles on most faces. The staff felt energised.
It was late, and the buses were off. On the way back into town from the campus I was in a car with the boss and his deputy.
I said, “That was a great session!”
The deputy said, “I thought it was a complete waste of time.”