Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Library Outreach, Advocacy & Marketing - close cousins or poles apart?

Last night I took part in a very interesting #UKlibchat discussion on the topic of Outreach and Inclusion on Twitter.  Many of the comment revolved around whether, and how, librarians should use marketing knowledge and techniques to better achieve outreach goals.  Even on the topic of social inclusion, marketing was being cited as a useful means to an end.

There were several comments indicating that some librarians either didn't have the knowledge about marketing (or business concepts in general) or were reluctant to consider using marketing techniques.  Reasons for this were given variously as fear of incurring costs, lack of time/staff resource or a feeling that marketing, in a commercial way, went against the ethos of a 'purely cultural' institution or meant that libraries would be competing against each other, which was inherently wrong and would lead to 'chaos'.

So is marketing the close cousin of outreach and advocacy of library services, or are they poles apart?

I believe that it is possible, and indeed essential, for librarians to learn about marketing concepts and techniques, and then to apply them sensibly to the situation in which libraries find themselves.  In an age of scarce funding resources and rapid technological change, when politicians, budget holders and society at large are questioning the role and place of libraries (and indeed education as a whole), I think it is imperative that librarians 'shout out' for libraries, for their value, and for the benefits they can bring to their communities.

Whatever name or label you give it, this activity is marketing.  You can try reinventing the wheel and creating campaigns called 'outreach' from first principals - or you can learn about marketing theory and learn from past examples of marketing campaigns, and then apply those principles to the matching of library services to the needs of different groups in the community and to the promotion of those services.

Surely it is better to learn the best of what's available, and adapt and grow from there, rather than to dismiss all that knowledge as 'too commercial' and try and recreate a way of communicating with users from scratch?

Update 8 September 2012:

The discussion continues on Twitter (most recent tweets at the top):

What do you think?  I'd love to hear your thoughts so please do leave a comment if you have a view on the whole 'marketing, good or bad?' debate.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

"What's Your Problem" Series #6 - Tricky Interview Questions

Most interviews you attend will throw up at least one tricky question, that one question that you hope they won’t ask, or one where you just can’t think of a good example to give as evidence of a competency.

Your first priority in a situation like this is to make sure you don’t panic.  Panicking is a sure way to make your mind go blank!  To avoid this there are things you can do as part of your preparation before the interview, as well as coping mechanisms during the meeting itself.

Before you go to your interview make sure you’ve thought honestly about your CV/application form in comparison to their job description & person specification.  Consider if there are any gaps in your work history, whether there is more than one job where you only worked there a short time, or if there are any areas called for on the job description where you have only weak evidence. 

These sorts of situations are predictable areas for the interviewer to probe, with questions that could be tricky to answer if you haven’t through it through beforehand.  Ignoring them in the hope that the interviewer won’t spot them, or won’t bother querying them, is a sure route to disaster.

Honesty is the best policy in answering questions about any anomalies in your past work history.  Having said that, blurting out “I had to move jobs because I hated my last three managers, they were awful and had no idea how to manage people” isn’t a great idea.  So, how do you explain difficult situations from past employment?

There are a range of situations from past jobs that need careful handling in interviews –some of these are listed below, with suggestions of ways to talk about them in interviews.  These ideas are not meant to be proscriptive, as each person’s situation will be different from these generic scenarios, but hopefully offer some ideas that can be adapted to suit

Situation Suggestion
Gap between jobs Depends upon the reason for the gap and its length. Short gaps while job hunting (less than 6 months) should be explained simply as time spent searching for the right job. For longer gaps it is good to show how you kept active, involved in the profession and up to date with current issues and skills during your time out of work (eg activities as a member of information associations & groups, involvement in Twitter or LinkedIn discussions, professional reading, writing a blog, etc.

For gaps due to other life events (moving house, caring for a relative, studying) it is fine to give the honest reason for the career break, and again to demonstrate how you have kept up to date.
Many short-duration jobs If these jobs were a series of fixed term contracts and temporary roles, the interviewer will be seeking reassurance that you are now committed to a permanent post and will stay for longer than a year or two (ie, that you will repay their investment in you in terms of induction and training).

One idea is to describe them as something you did in order to gain a range of new experiences and learn new skills, which you now want to put to good use in a long term position. If these jobs were permanent posts, but you moved between jobs once a year or more often, then the interviewer will be concerned about possible clashes of personality with peers or managers, or whether you may have been sacked from one or more of those jobs.

If you genuinely left jobs because you disagreed with the company culture, attitude of colleagues or management style, then it is fine to say so as long as it’s done in a positive way. You also need to acknowledge that any disagreement was a two-way thing, and show you recognise that your own actions or attitude may have contributed to the situation(s). Showing self awareness, reflection and learning from past situations is a key skill interviewers are looking for.
A job where you were sacked for misconduct or poor performance Answers to questions about leaving past jobs, where this was the case, will depend upon the exact reason(s) and how relevant that situation was to those likely to arise in the job being applied for.

For example, if the reason was poor performance in customer service, while the current job application is for a back room library services role, then simply stating the reason plus saying that you have now shifted your career goals to less customer facing roles, could be the best approach. Alternatively you could explain how you’ve worked to improve on the skill at issue in the time since (perhaps you’ve had a retail job in the meantime, or volunteered to help at a conference or membership group seminar?).
A criteria in the job description or person specification where you have weak or no evidence The first thing to remember is that they have called you to interview despite there being little or no evidence that you meet this criteria on your CV/application form or cover letter. This means it isn’t an immediate deal breaker, and they are open to hearing how you are addressing (or planning to address) any deficiency. The interview is your opportunity to discuss this with them.

When they ask a question ‘give an example of a time when you xxx (the situation you haven’t faced at work’, first of all give an example a similar or comparable situation, and then use this as your chance to show what you’re doing to get more of this skill, experience or knowledge.

For example, if they want budgeting experience and you haven’t been in charge of a budget, you could give as your example a time when you contributed figures or results to your manager and discussed with them how they’d impact the budget, and go on to say that you’ve signed up for (or completed) a budget management course to extend your knowledge, and you’re now keen to put that into practice.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

What's Your Problem series #5 - Answering Competency Questions Successfully

Many interviews these days will include some competency-type questions, if not be solely based upon a full blown competency framework with few, if any, ‘normal’ questions included.

So what are ‘competency questions’?  They are based upon a framework that described the ‘competencies’, or behaviours, knowledge and skills, that need to be displayed in order to carry out the responsibilities of the job effectively.  Competency questions are calling for evidence that the candidate has exhibited these behaviours, in situations similar to those likely to arise in the role, in previous jobs or other activities.

A competency framework usually has several levels for each competency, for example corresponding to behaviours that indicate a novice, practitioner or expert level of competence at a particular activity.  An interviewer may therefore have several example answers they are looking for, which correspond to these levels.

What do competency questions look like?  Since they are asking you for evidence of certain behaviour in the past, they are generally calling for you to give examples of having done things before.  Some examples might be:
  • Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer
  •  Describe a situation where you had to win consensus for a course of action
  • Give me an example of how you researched a question from a user
  • Tell me about a time when you worked in a team to achieve something

The interviewer is hoping that you will tell them about how you did things in the situation they’ve described, since that will give them an indication of how you could behave in similar situations in their organisation.

In order to answer these questions successfully, you need to have prepared quite a few examples of different tasks you’ve done or situations you’ve been in, so you don’t have to rely on one example to answer several different questions, as well as thinking through how you dealt with those tasks and situations.  When you prepare your answers to these questions, a useful framework to use is the STAR framework.

This acronym stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.  Since the interviewer wants to hear about how you did things, and whether it was a success, you need to focus on the Action and Result parts in your answer.  Talk briefly about the situation, describe the task you had (ie, your goal in that situation), and then go into a bit more detail about the action(s) that you took to try and achieve this goal, and about the actual outcome or result of those actions.

Taking the first example question above, here is one potential answer to it, using the STAR formula:

“I once had a user who was very upset that we didn’t have a particular book on the shelves the day they came in.  They said they didn’t have time to come back and it was a disgrace that we couldn’t keep popular books in stock.”  (situation) 

“I had to calm the person down, explain to them why the book wasn’t available, and try and find a solution to their problem of getting access to it.”  (task) 

“First of all I showed that I appreciated it was an upsetting situation for them by saying ‘I agree it’s frustrating the book isn’t here immediately’, then I got their permission to start explaining by saying ‘would you like me to explain how this has happened’.  Next I told them how many copies of that book we had in total, and when each copy had been signed out, and so when the earliest of those was due to be returned.  I said that we can only stock so many copies of each book, so that we can have a full range of books available.  Lastly I explained that they could reserve the book, and we’d contact them to let them know when it was available, so they wouldn’t have to come in again on the off-chance but only safe in the knowledge it would be here waiting.”  (actions)

“They gradually calmed down as we were talking, and agreed that we couldn’t stock unlimited copies of each book.  They were surprised to hear about the reservations procedure and asked if they could reserve a book without coming in face-to-face, so I told them about phone and online reservations.  They were pleased about this and said they’d do that next time.” (result)

When you go into your interview, it’s a good idea to take a notepad, ask the interviewer ‘is it OK if I take a few notes?’ and then have it sitting in front of you.  So that you can remember your examples, prepare your notebook in advance by writing keywords that will job your memory in light pencil at the bottom of the page (ie the part nearest to you when the notebook is on the table).  You can then just glance down and quickly remind yourself, if your mind goes blank from nerves during the interview.  You can use the top part of the notepad to takes notes of the answer the interviewer gives to all the questions you have prepared!

Monday, 6 August 2012

"What's Your Problem" Series #4 - Selling Yourself; the big bugbear demystified

Job hunting these days seems to be all about selling.  From personal branding and image, or designing your CV as a marketing brochure, to selling your key skills at interview, at all stages of the process you need to be selling.
Many people find influencing and persuasion skills difficult to master, and just the thought of trying to persuade someone to hire you, especially by ‘blowing your own trumpet’ face to face in an interview, can seem even more awkward and unappealing.

However, help is at hand.  There is, if not a formula, at least a set of communication skills that can be learned that will help you present yourself and what you can do for an employer more successfully.

Here are some links to useful articles about influencing and persuasion skills: links persuading, influencing and negotiation together

All of these techniques are based upon focusing on what the other person’s needs are rather than on your own.  In a job hunting situation it is easy to get trapped into only thinking about what you need – what kind of job, where, with what organisation and at what salary.

However, to sell yourself successfully you should spend some time finding out what the potential employers you are applying to need.  Think about things from their point of view – what sort of person would they expect would be able to do the job they’re advertising?  What qualifications, skills and experience are they hoping to see on a CV/application form?  What answers would they be expecting to their interview questions?

If you can answer these questions, then you can work backwards to prepare better answers to interview questions, write a more tailored CV, and create a more impressive online presence. 

One of the simplest things you can do is to ruthlessly avoid using the words ‘only’, ‘just’ or ‘we’ in your answers.  For example, instead of saying “it was just a small project” say “it was a small project where I ...” and instead of saying “I’ve only used xxx system once” say “I used xxx system at...”

In the words of one of the articles quoted, the aim is to create a proposal the person wants to say yes to, because it will benefit them.  It is your job to ensure that your CV/application form, and your interview answers, form this ‘yes proposal’ in their minds.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

"What's Your Problem" series #3 - Troubleshooting Your CV

If you have sent your CV off in response to lots of job adverts, but haven’t been having any success, then your CV might be suffering from one of these common problems:

1.   Too descriptive – Reads like a narrative or like a ‘cut and paste’ from your job description.  Lots of detail about what your duties or responsibilities are, but little analysis of what your results or achievements have been.
Remember, your CV isn’t your life history; it is your personal marketing brochure.  Like a brochure, it should focus on the benefits you bring to an organisation, not on a list of things you have done.  Put the most beneficial tasks and outcomes, or those most relevant to the job you’re apply for, near the top of each section.  Make sure your skills and achievements are clearly stated.
2.   Too assumptive – Leaves the reader to assume what your skills are from the mere fact of where you have worked, what your job titles have been or the length of your experience.   Assumes that the reader is going to be a librarian or information professional who ‘gets it’ and will understand.
Both of these assumptions are likely to be wrong.  The reader is more likely to be from HR, or to be a senior line manager who doesn’t come from a library background.  Even if a librarian is involved, they may not make the leap from your job titles or lists of duties to believing you have the skills they feel are necessary to do the job they’re advertising.
A CV should have as its primary goal communicating your key skills clearly to the reader.  As a test, give your CV to a friend, without any hints, and ask them to tell you what you main skills are.  Make sure they tell you skills, not ‘things you have done’, or experiences.  Can they see what your skills are?  Are the skills they come up with the ones you expected?  Are they the relevant skills for the job you’re applying for?
3.   Doesn’t look professional.  You are an information professional; part of your core skill set should be presenting and communicating information.  If your CV is poorly laid out, riddled with grammatical and spelling errors or typos and hard to read then you are demonstrating that you fall down in this key skill area.
Your CV needs to be well designed.  There are lots of CV templates and examples available in books and on the internet to give you ideas.  Make sure that you use a professional looking font, use enough white space to make it pleasant to read, and use bullet points, bold, a larger font size, indented paragraphs or columns to make sure the information is well laid out and key points are highlighted.
4.   Lacks key words. While your organisation may call the intranet their ‘Knowledge Base’ or another jargon term, the reader of your CV or the agency doing a text search of your CV is more likely to use the generic, well known, term.  Make sure you ‘translate’ organisation jargon into everyday terms.
If your CV is going being uploaded to an employer’s CV database or to an agency, then their system may not be able to read text inside text boxes or tables, so it is better not to use them in those circumstances.  These databases can parse text and pick out key words to populate skill code fields in the database.  Make sure you include the right key words for the type of job you are seeking in the plain text areas of your CV.
Addressing some of these issues with your CV and making sure that your skill, achievements and passion for your work stand out will greatly increase your chances of getting an interview.

Tailoring your CV, so that the skills and experiences most relevant for the job you’re applying for are found near the top of each section, will also help you get to the top of the list for shorlisting for interview.