Bulletin, April/May 2007

Managing Teamwork in a University Library Digital Environment: Issues to Consider

by Bill Edgar

Bill Edgar is an assistant professor at the School of Information Resources and Library Science at the University of Arizona. He can be reached at bedgar<at>u.arizona.edu.

As information technology has matured, a tremendous opportunity has arisen for university libraries to reinvent themselves by regenerating their resources, challenging their competition and reforming their traditions. As Lisa Tyson (2003) points out, “Reliance on technology to deliver information to clients who consider the physical library building the last resort has steadily pushed the boundaries for libraries in recent years. Instead of an internal focus with an emphasis on clients coming to the library for a physical item, libraries must now provide the means for the client to obtain what they need when they need it,” primarily through the provision of networked, digital information (p. 318). In this model, university librarians’ collaborative, integrative work – often through the effective use of cross-functional groups such as teams – has emerged as a powerful means to deliver library users’ access to rapidly expanding digital content. 

Since teams are becoming the preeminent means by which librarianship will be practiced in the digital environment, understanding how they can be effective has become critical to librarians. Therefore, it is vital to understand what issues must be addressed to manage teams effectively as they provide library users access to digital information.

This article raises four issues for university library managers to consider as they guide these teams. Using examples for each, it identifies key attributes of some relevant social phenomena (indicated in italics) that managers must influence. The following are the issues: 

  1. The team’s task(s) in the digital environment.
  2. The team’s environment in the library organization.
  3. The team’s internal dynamics.
  4. The interactions of the team’s tasks, environment and dynamics. 

Finally, we consider the importance of developing a systematic understanding of teamwork performed to provide digital service by university libraries. 

Issue 1: Team Task in the Digital Information Environment
Within organizations, groups – especially teams – often exist to accomplish tasks. The potential number of team tasks is huge, and several schemes have been proposed for classifying them, indicating several task attributes. These include the task’s ambiguity, complexity and familiarity. Ambiguous tasks are ones for which there is more than one acceptable outcome (Shaw, 1981). Tasks can also be socially or technically complex. Technically complex tasks are those for which a search must be performed in order to find the resources to handle the task’s technical demands. Socially complex ones are those that require intense and possibly problematic social interaction among a group (Herold 1978). Familiar tasks are those that apply existing knowledge to existing products or those that open new markets for existing products. Unfamiliar tasks are those that develop new knowledge, which might be applied to existing or new products that might in turn be sold to new or existing markets.

Library Team Tasks. To understand library team dynamics, it is helpful to consider the tasks they perform. In light of the opportunities presented to university libraries by digital content, it is useful to consider a hypothetical team task that could support providing digital information to a variety of its users by requiring university librarians to act cross-functionally. 

The team task discussed here is the provision of personalized, collaborative digital library environments for science faculty served by a university library. For a generic model of this kind of service see the CYCLADES project, located at www.ercim.org/cyclades/overview.html. This kind of system has emerged in recent years to support collaborative, data-intensive, distributed and time-sensitive scientific research. This research is based upon huge, rapidly changing collections of digital content objects – including papers, monographs, reports, journals, articles, proceedings, notes, discussions and immense data sets. Such environments can support users by performing the range of librarianship’s activities. As they do so, the environments provide digital spaces in which users share content objects to perform collaborative research. 

Competing directly with information brokers and online information providers, this kind of librarianship, which is specialized to serve a scientific research community at a university, supplements traditional library service. However, more integrative than functional, it is quite different. Providing this kind of personalized service is a task that is ambiguous, complex and often unfamiliar to librarians used to working in functions.

Issue 2: The Team’s Environment in the Library Organization
Group work performed within organizations is not done in isolation. Instead, it occurs within the context of the activities or functions that are central to the organization. These core activities, such as finance or engineering, are performed at the organizational level, usually to provide some product or service. Therefore, one way to consider organizations is in terms of how these activities can be directed. This direction and its style are heavily influenced by these activities as well as by their products and the diversity of an organization’s customers or clients. 

Direction occurs through organizational structure – dividing activities among an organization’s members and then guiding the divided activities. The division in turn is driven by a key attribute of the activities, their differentiation. Providing a horizontal distribution of work, differentiation is the distribution of labor according to some systematic organizational pattern, such as functional activity. 

Once an organization’s core activities are divided, their direction or guidance can be characterized by their formalization. Formalization is the extent to which an activity is governed by rules, usually written ones, established in advance of its occurrence. The more some aspect of an activity is governed by these previously established rules, the more formalized it is said to be. An organization with a low degree of formalization might, for example, have its organizational actions directed by unwritten principles, such as an emphasis upon collegial decision-making by organizational members (Robbins 1994).

Another well-known model classifies organizational structure to be mechanistic or organic (Burns and Stalker, 1961). A mechanistic organization contains extensive differentiation of all kinds. The goal in this kind of organization is to divide the work as a machine would, so that most positions perform a relatively narrow, highly controlled task. In contrast, organic organizations tend to have less differentiation. Each role is more broadly defined and permitted to encompass more activities. 

To guide work, mechanistic organizations tend to use formalization, while organic organizations tend to use the opposite, informal coordination. The difference between the two is that “the mechanistic model seeks to maximize efficiency and production, [while] the organic model seeks to maximize flexibility and adaptability” (Ivancevich, 1987, p. 483). As discussed below, these two structural models can influence how groups within organizations accomplish their tasks. 

However, organizations do not always organize along functional lines. They may organize around products or even around market focus. Many organizations shift back and forth among these models or incorporate a mix of them.

The Organizational Environment of the Library. As is the case for other organizations, group work performed within university libraries is not done in isolation. Instead, it affects and is influenced by the central activities of librarianship. Several theoreticians describe the set of professional activities done within libraries to provide consistent, dependable and reliable access to physical or digital collections. According to Atkinson (1996), access is provided through the following process of professional activities:

  • Librarians select items of content, such as a monograph or scholarly journal 
  • Organize and create representations of content items
  • Acquire formal legal control of them
  • Manage in some way the place at which the items are to reside. 

Other access activities often include the information search and retrieval done for library users in reference service (McGrath 2002).

The results of these activities create the basis for library service. Selection creates collections of content items while organization efforts create content classification schemes, such as the Library of Congress system into which collections are categorized. Representation creates item descriptions, such as catalog entries. Acquisition of control over items creates a pattern of legal control, such as ownership, over collections, and place management creates the place, a physical building or a computing environment, in which they reside. Finally, search and retrieval also have their results: search queries and retrieved sets of collection items. 

To achieve these results, many libraries are organized according to their functions, for instance, with departments for acquisitions, cataloging or reference. However, university libraries have collections of enormous extent in subject matter, physical format, source, publication characteristics and audience. No one person can be knowledgeable about more than a fraction of such holdings. Therefore, some means is needed for significantly dividing the cognitive labor related to librarianship’s activities. We thus see, in addition to organizational structures representing the central or core functions, other specialized structures that may be multifunctional, such as special subject collections, map libraries, serials departments, undergraduate libraries and Slavic, Arabic or Asian Language collections. Such divisions are the result of significant decisions, for all the sub-organizations enumerated here have traditionally centered on physical collections. Therefore they cannot be reorganized with a stroke of a pen, a revision of the organization chart and a few office shuffles.

However, these professional activities must complement each other, so that once they are divided, some means for carefully guiding this work is required. To accomplish these goals, university libraries have traditionally adopted the mechanistic model of organization. Supported by the relative stability of physical collections, they often highly differentiate their core activities, creating deeply specialized expertise across library functions. To coordinate this diversity, they guide work through extensive formalization, often in the form of policies and rules. The need to meet national and international standards and the enormous legacy represented by the library’s shelving arrangements and catalogs also result in a very rule-and-procedure-based environment in many areas of library work.

On the other hand, the volatility of digital collections held by university libraries has encouraged a more organic management approach that moderates differentiation and provides coordination through collegial decision-making rather than formalized rules. The tremendous intellectual flexibility required to provide networked, digital information has encouraged an integrative rather than functional approach to library service. Also, the digital nature of the collections removes some of the constraints present in the traditional environment.

Issue 3: The Team’s Internal Dynamics
The literature on group dynamics, developed by management specialists, is largely oriented around progressive group development. One relatively typical, widely used model in this literature conceptualizes groups as moving through four progressive phases during their existence: forming, storming, norming and performing. Throughout the first three phases members’ behaviors organize the team, thereby enabling the fourth stage, “performing,” in which the members’ behaviors accomplish the team’s task. 

Alternative approaches to progressive group development do exist within the management literature. Gersick’s (1988) model of punctuated equilibrium argues, for example, that groups go through much more unpredictable phases, such as long periods of inertia followed by intense periods of activity. McGrath (1991) proposes that group activities depend upon the needs of the task rather than progressing inevitably through certain stages. What these alternative models have retained, however, is the progressive approach’s emphasis upon behaviors as the fundamental component of group dynamics. 

Utilizing the idea of the “role,” a management construct, supports a progressive, behavioral conceptualization of groups. Under this conceptualization, any organizational form, including a team, operates through the performance of roles, which are the “the recurring actions of an individual, appropriately interrelated with the repetitive activities of others so as to yield a predictable outcome” (Katz and Kahn, 1978, p. 189). Therefore each role is a set of recurring behaviors existing independently of any particular organizational member inhabiting the role, and different roles can be performed during progressive phases of the group’s development.

Furthermore, the progressive model has been used to indicate attributes of teams, providing a much broader conceptualization of group dynamics than do its behaviors alone. First, team members must provide an internal structure to their behaviors, guiding them systematically as roles interact to accomplish team tasks. As is true within the host organization, team structure occurs as team role behaviors are divided and then guided, creating some degree of differentiation and formalization of the group’s roles. Second, team roles sometimes generate a level of conflict as they are performed. This conflict can arise because certain role behaviors counteract the effects of others; it can also occur because certain behaviors are mutually exclusive to others. Third, a team’s roles are performed with some level of cohesion, defined as a “closeness of attitude, behavior and performance,” hopefully leading to better group performance (Gibson et. al., 1997, p. 208). Cohesiveness often increases as members have positive experiences performing role behaviors. 

Arising from the discipline of management, the cumulative depiction here is that 1) recurring role behaviors, 2) structure across role behaviors and 3) cohesion and conflict arising from them all constitute the dynamics of a team. Vital to research on teams, this depiction allows for a conceptualization of them as something larger than their individual members. “A complete mapping of all these...clearly exceeds human cognitive capacities. Yet a cognitive map summarizing the general pattern” of behaviors must emerge so that team members can identify their respective roles (Seers, Petty, & Cashman, 1995, p. 20).

Library Team Dynamics. Examining team provision of a collaborative service like CYCLADES through progressive, behavioral library group dynamics can draw upon various models. For a team charged with the task of providing the personalized digital library environments mentioned above, important role behaviors in the early, defining stage (forming, storming and norming) of its dynamics would likely include sponsoring new ideas and synthesizing formerly discrete pieces of knowledge. Sponsoring new ideas is a way of coping with the ambiguous nature of the task. Synthesizing knowledge, in contrast, helps group members cope with the predominance of specialized thinking brought about by extensive differentiation within the central professional activities performed within university libraries. 

Important role behaviors in the latter, implementing stage (performing) of the team’s dynamics include informal risk-taking and improvising. These two behaviors can help team members cope with the ambiguity of providing this kind of library service and the need to counter the formalization of activities within university libraries. Providing such a new form of librarianship will require that team members try different alternatives while working together to make major adjustments, most of which cannot be specified in advance by organizational rules. 

Other important role behaviors in the performing stage of the team’s dynamics include interacting with library users to accomplish librarianship’s activities, such as selecting or describing digital items. Incorporating users’ input into librarianship’s activities will counter the influence of differentiated professional responsibilities within university libraries, supporting instead an integrated approach to user service. 

In contrast to its parent organization, this kind of service team will likely structure its activities using the organic rather than mechanistic model. This would involve relatively low differentiation and formalization across its roles. Performed through complementary (rather than conflicting), highly cohesive interaction among the group’s behaviors, the team’s dynamics should effectively provide this service by unifying the members’ different functional perspectives and collegially coordinating their activities. 

Issue 4: The Interactions of the Team’s Tasks, Environment and Dynamics 
Describing influences among the phenomena related to library teams as theoretical statements will provide managers, information professionals and researchers with a rich body of information. These statements, verified through empirical research, will predict patterns describing how attributes of library team-related phenomena influence each other, and they will provide explanations, or causes, for these patterns. 

For instance, one predictive statement to be verified through research might be that a team charged with an ambiguous task – such as providing a cross-functional digital library service within a university library – must use relatively low functional formalization in its members’ activities. If so, what is the explanation? It might be that team members, though informally synthesizing functional perspectives, can better choose among a range of possibilities in providing access to digital content. Gradually, as these predictive and causal relationships become known, a systematic understanding of university library group work will emerge, supporting managers as they guide groups in performing their roles and as they protect groups from organizational pressures. 

Moreover, understanding university library groups at this deeper, theoretical level will also provide managers a basis for examining specialized issues related to them such as their morale, compensation and evaluation. For example, compensation for the service team’s members might need to be more egalitarian than for other employees in order to attract people who can work within the team’s organic structure. Similarly, team members will probably need to be evaluated on the basis of role behaviors – such as risk-taking – along with their functional accomplishment. And team members’ morale will need to rise primarily based upon successfully performing a group task – providing an integrative service – rather than upon recognition for functional productivity. 

Therefore, a theoretical model of statements describing library team performance might be the following: As a prediction – if a library team is to operate within a mechanistic university library (highly differentiated and formalized) to perform effectively the complex and ambiguous task of providing personalized library service involving large amounts of volatile digital content, the team’s group dynamics must involve an organic structure of its roles (less role differentiation, centralization and formalization), relatively low conflict and relatively high cohesion. Two explanations might support this pattern. First, the team’s organic structure, low conflict and high cohesion allow members to integrate perspectives and informally work out solutions to ambiguous issues inherent in providing such service supporting rapidly changing digital content. Second, this integration and informality also counter the host library’s organizational pressures for a differentiated, strongly functional and highly formalized approach to work. 

Furthermore, as this pattern and causal dynamics occur, issues related to the team will be affected: the team members’ compensation will need to be relatively egalitarian, its members’ morale will need to be based upon providing both integrative and functional accomplishment, and the members must be evaluated heavily according to their contribution to an integrative service to library users.

Again, it must be remembered that this example is only one potential set of theoretical statements describing the relationships between the attributes of the team’s dynamics and task and the organization’s central activities and their results. A different set of team dynamics would likely be needed to perform a more functionally specific task, such as cataloging of extensive physical collections, within a mechanistic university library structure. In summary, answering these four issues for any team to be managed within the digital environment raises an even more important one.

Systematic Understanding of Team Work 
Is developing a systematic understanding of team work necessary if university libraries are to provide digital services? The answer is yes. Moreover, emulating the development of other social sciences such as management or psychology, library managers and researchers can bring it about by working together to develop rigorously tested theoretical statements that predict and explain the behavior of social phenomena related to university library teams as they support the provision of digital content. Developing these statements involves using research to define phenomena related to teamwork within university libraries, to define influential attributes of these phenomena and to verify statements describing influences that these attributes have upon each other (Babbie 1992). 

Once developed using this approach, this theory will create a framework for analyzing library team performance as well as an extraordinarily useful tool to support professional practice. Therefore, theoretical and practical understanding of library teams need not be separate. In fact, uniting them can organize library professionals’ practical insights into a systematic theoretical framework, and it can substantiate the theoretician’s framework with the details of professional practice. The result can be a far deeper, more systematic understanding of the details of team performance as it provides library service using digital content.

For Further Reading
Atkinson, R.W. (1996). Library functions, scholarly communication and the foundation of the digital library: Laying claim to the control zone. Library Quarterly, 66, 239-265.

Babbie, E. (1992). The practice of social research. Belmont, CA: Wordsworth.

Burns, T. & Stalker, G.M. (1961). The management of innovation. London: Tavistock. 

CYCLADES: An Open Virtual Archive Environment. Available February 14, 2007, at www.ercim.org/Cyclades/overview.html

Edgar, W.B. (2007). Toward a theory of university library group work: An approach for development. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(1), 1-8. 

Gersick, J.G. (1988). Time and transition in work teams: Toward a new model of group development. Academy of Management Journal, 31(1), 9-41.

Gibson, J.L., Ivancevich, J.M., & Donnelly, J.H. (1997). Organizations: Behavior, structure, process. Chicago: Irwin.

Herold, D.M. (1978). Improving the performance effectiveness of groups through a task: Contingency selection of intervention strategies. Academy of Management Review, 3(2), 315-325.

Ivancevich, J.M. (1987). Organizational behavior and management. Plano, TX: Business Publications.

Katz, D. & Kahn, R.L. (1978). Social psychology of organizations. New York: Wiley.

McGrath, J.E. (1991). Time, interaction, and performance (TIP): A theory of groups. Small Group Research, 22(2), 147-174.

McGrath, W.E. (2002). Explanation and prediction: Building a unified theory of librarianship, concept and review. Library Trends, 50(3), 350-370.

Robbins, S. (1994). Essentials of organizational behavior. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Seers, A., Petty, M.M. & Cashman, J.F. (1995). Team-member exchange under team and traditional management: A naturally occurring quasi-experiment. Group & Organization Management, 20(1), 18-38.

Shaw, M.E. (1981). Group dynamics: The psychology of small group power. New York: McGraw Hill.

Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.

Tushman, M.L. (1979). Impacts of perceived environmental variability on patterns of work related communication. Academy of Management Journal, 22(3), 482-500.

Tyson, L. (2003). Library systems teams – More than just peripherals.” Library Hi Tech, 21(3), 317-324.