Thursday, October 30, 2014

Project Management: The Skill Everyone Wants, Everyone Just Doesn’t Know It Yet, by Michael Perry


Project management is a growing profession and the importance of its skill set has created demand for it across a variety of industries. Librarianship is no different; a recent search on ALA Joblist for “project management” returned 36 current listings. Project management is mentioned in library school curricula (at least it was in mine), but I’m not aware of entire courses devoted to it. In fact, if you asked me back in library school if I thought one day I’d be a ‘Collections Services Project Manager’, I would have asked you what that even meant. I can’t help thinking if these skills are in demand but aren’t being taught, where will other future librarian project managers come from?

My project management skills are a result of being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude. I was fortunate enough to have a non-library job during library school that provided me excellent opportunities to not only manage employees but also manage projects. Coupling this with my study of knowledge management and some outside reading on the subject I was able to pull together enough experience and knowledge that I feel comfortable in my job. Like I said, there was a lot of luck involved, so this is not a model that will scale.

So where do we librarians turn? The project management community does an incredible job of recording their professional knowledge. There are thousands of books, included the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) produced by the Project Management Institute (PMI) which is the primary project management professional organization. While informative, these often aren’t the most engaging reads and often describe theory in a vacuum without real world context.

There are also many certificate programs there that will supplement reading with classroom and group exercises and instruction. PMI has a list of registered education providers. I completed the certificate program at Northwestern University and it was great experience both in class and online. Unfortunately these programs are often expensive and the prospect of an additional certificate program after library school may seem daunting.

I’d like to suggest a third option that is probably realistic for most situations: wing it. Even if it seems scary or impossible, you are at the same point where everyone else was when they started. Here are some tips for how to do that:

  • Read a book. We’re librarians, after all, and we have access to written materials. I started with The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management which is accessible and well-written.
  • Pick a tool. There are countless project management tools out there. I like Trello, but you can accomplish the same with a white board or post-it notes on a wall. The key is to be able to track work and make it transparent. If everyone knows who is doing what, you will encounter far fewer problems.
  • Plan and then plan some more. People often think planning is a waste of time that could be spent doing. I could not disagree more. Planning helps you identify potential risks and how to handle them, stakeholders that might have been overlooked, and redundant and unnecessary work.
  • Communication is key. If this is a project team they should be talking all the time. The project manager should have a clear plan for talking with stakeholders in a manner that they expect and works for them. It is impossible for me to envision a scenario of too much communication.
  • Close out projects. Often when the work is done people simply want to jump to whatever is next. Take some time to let the team or users talk about what went well and what can be done better next time. You can often uncover something that will make the next project much smoother.

There is no magic bullet. Some techniques work better in some situations than others. Never put a process or technique above the people or results. If it isn’t working try something else, you will find something that does.

I hope this provides a starting point for people who may be asked to take on project management responsibilities, but who are unsure about how to get started. Project management can be tricky, especially for libraries which are not always known for their agility. But if the goal of a project is clear, project management will help you achieve it.

Interested in learning more about project management? I’ve started a blog about project management and libraries. I will be posting about the ins and outs of project management weekly at LibraryProject.Info, focusing on how I’ve applied these skills at my own library.

Michael Perry is the Collection Services Project Manager at Northwestern University. He is currently working on the migration to a new ILS and a switch in classification scheme use. He holds a BA in Political Science from DePaul University and received his MLIS from Dominican University. He tweets at @michaelrperry6 and can be found on Google+ here.

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