Thoughts on Applying Collins’s Good to Great and the Social Sectors to Libraries

Here are some thoughts on how Jim Collins’s Good to Great and the Social Sectors could be applied to the library world. I highly recommend this little monograph–it can be read in an hour, but the ideas will keep your mind whirling long after!

Not having read many management or leadership books in the past, Collins’s monograph was eye-opening for me. I keep hearing very different things from the library world: on the one hand are those who insist libraries should be run like businesses, with far greater accountability and assessment of their effectiveness. On the other, are those who believe that librarians can’t follow a business model; by their mission as educational institutions, libraries are bound to serve each of their patrons equally. Collins offers a way to bring these two perspectives together in my mind.

The financial structure of a public or academic library is very different from that of a typical business, and so are the power structures. “…[S]ocial sector leaders face a complex and diffuse power map,” Collins points out, explaining, “In legislative leadership… no individual leader—not even the nominal chief executive—has enough structural power to make the most important decisions by himself or herself. Legislative leadership relies more upon persuasion, political currency, and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen”  (Collins, 2005, p. 10-11). I understood this immediately—achieving something in a legislative organization requires much more patience and persuasiveness.

From my own experience, I have learned that bureaucracies don’t move quickly—even good ideas that are universally agreed upon have to go through layers of committees and approvals that can slow progress dramatically or stall a project altogether. I like Collins’s assessment, “Social sector organizations increasingly look to business for leadership models and talent, yet I suspect we will find more true leadership in the social sectors than in the business sector…Indeed, perhaps tomorrow’s great business leaders will come from the social sectors, not the other way around” (Collins, 2005, p. 12-13). It does seem sometimes that if a leader can achieve something while working with a board or committee, he or she has done so with much greater diplomacy and persuasiveness than a CEO who declares that “it shall be so” and simply waits for his/her employees to make it happen. I particularly loved Collins’s anecdote of the CEO who tried being a Dean and found “a thousand points of no” among the many faculty under his jurisdiction (Collins, 2005, p. 10).

I also very much connected with Collins’s idea that non-profit and social sector institutions need to develop their own metrics, distinct from the kinds of data for-profit businesses rely on. It seems clear to me that if the measures of success are not in alignment with the mission of the organization or with what employees are really doing every day, a great deal of discord and confusion follows. I know that creating meaningful metrics is an area that libraries, especially academic libraries are really struggling with. How do you measure the indirect benefit of a professor using the library resources to produce a published work? Or the increase in a student’s performance thanks to a quiet study space outside of their apartment? Circulation statistics and gate counts can be basic indicators, I think, but they only scratch the surface of what is really happening at a library. New analytics from websites, records from chat sessions, and usage logs from databases could have interesting implications—perhaps offering new ways to learn about the information seeking behavior of users by asking—how many articles are being downloaded? How long does a user spend reading an e-book? And so on. I like Collins’s point, “What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor” (Collins, 2005, p. 8).

While I was at this year’s ALA conference in Anaheim, I attended a session on the LibValue Library Assessment project, an IMLS funded project with half-a-dozen or so research projects at universities around the country, all centered around finding appropriate measures of an academic library’s value. Some of the projects attempted to determine a kind of return on investment figure, another tried to assess how much value users assign to e-books. Bruce Kingma at Syracuse University used the economics concept of contingent valuation to ask library users how much they would pay to replace access to library resources if the library was magically taken away. Students and faculty reported how much time they would spend finding replacements for those resources and how much they would spend to pay for them. Kingma applied the values reported from his sample respondents to the total number of students and faculty at the entire university. Using this method, Kingma estimates that Syracuse faculty place the economic value of library resources at $32.6 million and students at $37.6 million, compared with the library’s actual budget of $17 million (Kingma, 2012).  This seemed like a very interesting way to try to make business-data meaningful in a social sector context, but I am not sure how well it would work for other institutions. Related to this problem of assessing library’s value, I would be interested to learn more about what the Library Research Service is doing to find meaningful library metrics that can be used to compare institutions across the country.

Collins recounts the story of Roger Briggs, a Boulder school teacher who found a way to get the “right people on the bus” and create an exceptional science department, without having a great deal of authority (Collins, 2005, p. 13-14). Briggs used emergent leadership (or, could we say, embedded leadership?) to make a difference, using what influence he had. It probably didn’t hurt that Briggs is one of the rock climbers who pioneered some of the most famous first ascents of routes in Eldorado Springs Canyon. I can imagine that the discipline and persistence he used to push climbing to new (forgive me) heights, helped him greatly when facing faculty challenges in the Boulder Valley School system.

Baby African Pygmy Hedgehog, photo by Adam Foster, used under Creative Commons license.

I liked the idea of the Hedgehog Concept very much, too. I think it could even be applied to an individual’s outlook on life or career decision-making. Briefly, the concept is: “Focus on what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be best in the world at, and what drives your resources engine” (Collins, 2005, p. 19). When it all comes down to it, these are the three questions that really matter, ‘What are you good at, what makes you happy, and how can you support yourself?’ For libraries, understanding the resource engine as being distinct from just monetary funding seems key. Understanding that volunteers can be a key part of a small library’s day to day operations could represent a valuable attitude shift between the “haves” and “have nots.”

I also liked the Center for the Homeless anecdote, which explains why an organization decided not to go after federal funding, despite being eligible for it, because it didn’t fit with their model of connecting people in their community to each other (Collins, 2005, p. 22). It is clear to me that many libraries are facing similar challenges. When a wealthy donor offers to support the library through a bequest that has strings attached, it can be tempting to take the offer, even if doing so leads the library further from its mission.

Finally, Collins’s use of the Stockdale Paradox seems to apply particularly to libraries: “You must retain faith that you can prevail to greatness in the end, while retaining the discipline to confront the brutal facts of your current reality. What can you do today to create a pocket of greatness, despite the brutal facts of your environment?” (2005, p. 30). Before starting the MLIS program, I talked to as many librarians as would agree to speak with me. I wanted to know about their perspective on the field, where they thought libraries were headed, and advice on how best to prepare myself for a library job. All of the librarians I spoke with were extremely helpful, yet a few of them were frustrated within their organizations and with the budget situations in their libraries. I wonder if things would have been different for these people if their organizations had leaders who were honest about challenges, but willing to say, “we will do what we can with what we have today” and still strive for something excellent. I like Collins’s last words, “Every institution has its unique set of irrational and difficult constraints, yet some make a leap while others facing the same environmental challenges do not” (2005, p. 31). Naturally, it sounds more fun to be the former!


Collins, J. (2005). Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why business is not the answer: A monograph to accompany Good to Great. Boulder, CO: Jim Collins.

Kingma, B. (2012). LIBValue: Valuing the academic library [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from