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Perspectives: Carnegie Library chief's top priority is modernizing facilities

Sunday, June 09, 2002

By Linda A. Dickerson

Sounding more like a for-profit CEO than a nonprofit executive, Herb Elish, director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, said, "You have to start with who is the customer and what does the customer want and need."

 
 

Linda A. Dickerson is a principal in Dickerson & Mangus Ink., an issues consulting firm.

   
 

When Elish arrived at his new job in 1999, the Carnegie libraries had no marketing or information technology departments. Monitoring customer demand wasn't a priority. The libraries were operating in traditional nonprofit mode.

"Until 10 years ago, libraries had a monopoly. If you wanted information, the library had it, and you had to come here to get it," Elish noted. Having a monopolistic, iron grip on the market caused libraries to lose focus on their users' needs.

Accordingly, people had to access the libraries on the libraries' terms, not on their terms.

The widespread usage of the Internet ended the libraries' monopoly. "Things changed overnight. Libraries began to become less relevant," Elish explained.

To restore their usefulness to the community, the Carnegie Library hired Elish, a seasoned veteran of transition management. Before to joining the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, he served as chief executive officer at Weirton Steel.

Managing a company through the decline of the region's largest industry prepared Elish. His experience taught him that "cultural change is about management rigor and goal-setting." Elish brings both to the Carnegie Library.

"The first thing that you have to understand is what you have to start with." What he had was "a culture where people were afraid to take risks."

Elish embarked on a program to remove this fear, unbridling the organization and producing a climate that fosters innovation. "You create an organization with a lot of excitement within it, and you see who responds to it," he said.

Those who respond most favorably become the catalyst for further change. "In any organization, you need to have believers. One of the most important things to do in managing change is to create a cadre of believers," Elish contended.

Then, he said, "You reward the people whose behavior models what you want." In order to clearly articulate what leadership wants, he cautioned, "I believe in making [goals] simple."

Goals in the for-profit world concentrate on the bottom line. Alternatively, nonprofit goals tend to be more value-driven. A nonprofit's more oblique goals are somewhat more difficult to measure.

One of Elish's foremost objectives is simply to increase use of all the libraries. Admitting that he never used the library before accepting the director position, he conducted extensive marketing research to determine who uses the library and why. Similarly, this research explored who didn't rely on libraries and what could be done to appeal to these individuals.

Feedback from these studies caused the library to examine its physical plant. "When we get the facilities looking modern, that will make a big difference," Elish said.

The first floor of the Main Library in Oakland will have a major face-lift early next year. "We're going to make it more like a bookstore," Elish said. In addition, the Homewood and Brookline branches are scheduled for major remodeling in 2003, with the Squirrel Hill and Woods Run branches to follow later.

Reflecting the libraries' newly acquired customer sensitivity, Elish said, "We asked what are the services that we want to provide, and then we determined what the buildings should look like."

The Carnegie Library plans to invest approximately $16 million in the renovations, but bricks and mortar are not the library's only investment. The library, Elish noted, has "doubled the amount that we spend on books since I got here."

In short, his business acumen imbued the Carnegie Library with customer-centric culture. "We're in the early stages of some real significant change," Elish said. He views this constant state of flux positively.

To him, it is all in a day's work. "All management is change management. There is no status quo," he said.

Increasingly dynamic externalities obliterated the status quo for almost all organizations today. Those that realize this and accommodate it will flourish. Those that don't will fail.

"Dealing with change is a process, not a project that gets done," said Elish, acknowledging the permanent need to constantly accommodate new realities.

As long as libraries continue to add value to people's eternal quest for knowledge and information, they will continue to thrive. Elish's job is to ensure that this change becomes an inherent part of the culture and that all change emanates from an unmet customer need.

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