By John Connolly
I used to work as a trainer on the implementation team for an integrated library system (ILS) software vendor. My job was to go from library to library, training staff on their new system and spending the first week with their staff after activating the new system. One of the biggest hurdles I had to navigate in that role was a lack of faith in the new product from key members of the library’s organization. Having developed my project management skills since then, I know now that many of those headaches could have been avoided through thorough planning and better engagement with stakeholders.
A very common mistake, I believe, is that libraries have a passive posture when it comes to this critical piece of technology. Many, many libraries wait until they are under the shadow of a contract expiration before they begin the process of finding their next ILS. Once the organization is in a rush, a lot of critical steps for a good project get missed. The key staff jump into Phase 1 as quickly as possible, and things begin moving quickly.
What is usually missed in this scenario is what project managers call “Phase 0.” Phase 0 is essentially the methodical crafting of a business case for the project: the gathering of requirements, the feasibility of the project as a whole and how the result of the project will look and work. Creating a business case will get the project off on the right footing, as a clear set of requirements needed by the library will inform budgetary and schedule estimates as the project begins its true planning phase.
Many, if not most, ILS transition projects do not gather all the stakeholders to inform the process of setting the project requirements. Worse, often requirements are drafted informally, sometimes as simply as saying “the system should do everything our old system does.” Getting all the right thinkers to the table is critical for understanding the true requirements of the project: catalogers, IT staff, circulation staff, reference, and programmers should all be present, or their needs fully accounted for.
Once the right people are at the table, a good exercise is to follow the MoSCoW method: list out all the potential requirements for the system, and sort them into four categories:
• “must have” (non-negotiable items)
• “should have” (items that are high priority but not absolutely critical for operations)
• “could have” (items that would be nice to have, but aren’t deal breakers if they’re excluded)
• “won’t have” (items we exclude for cost, time, or feasibility reasons)
Not only does this prime the project itself for success, but it sets the table for a thorough examination of features for a new system when gathering bids from vendors.
Another input to consider is from the rest of the library community. Reach out to libraries that have gone through the ILS transition process recently in your industry. Find out what were the most painful elements of the process, and what worked particularly well. Libraries enjoy a great deal of collegiality and that’s an asset that shouldn’t be neglected.
If a library is going to need a new ILS, I suggest being proactive and building a business case for the switch early. Reach out to potential vendors to get estimates on how long an implementation would take from contract signing to full go-live. Plan accordingly; a good window for a total project might be as much as 18 months or longer to allow time for the organization to thoroughly gather requirements and conduct a search for the new system. With good planning involved, the project will have a much better chance at success.
John Connolly, PMP is a project manager, librarian, and 16-year veteran of special and public libraries. He has worked in the library software industry and in libraries as a cataloger, reference librarian, and manager. He currently manages projects for a global software company and provides consulting services on project management topics. He spent six years as the Head Librarian at a special research and museum library, and blogs at:
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