Libraries expect continuity from the organizations that they rely on for strategic technology products. Libraries tend to make use of their automation products for incredibly long periods and expect them to be supported and enhanced throughout a prolonged life cycle. I observe that a typical lifespan of an integrated library system implementation in a library exceeds a decade, with some libraries keeping systems in place for as long as 25 years. It's even more common to see a library transition through a series of automation products provided through the same vendor. While many libraries do change vendors, I observe that the tendency is to be loyal to automation suppliers.
It is not realistic to expect any given product to remain viable indefinitely. We are at a phase now, for example, where a new slate of systems is emerging due to major changes in library collections, strategies, and in the broader technology arena. I have written extensively about the transition underway from integrated library systems based on client/server architectures to library services platforms built for cloud computing technologies. Libraries can become stagnant if they remain on outdated systems.
One of the key challenges for a company providing technologies to libraries is to balance the continuity that is so highly valued with the changes needed to meet continually shifting requirements. While libraries may find comfort in continuity, they also embrace and expect change. How technology vendors manage change and transitions in both their product strategies and business environment can make a big difference in their long-term success.
Given that any one technology product may or may not be able to maintain its viability across the decades, it's essential to have a roadmap that lays out the trajectory for its strategic products toward a long-term future. Such a roadmap should plot the life expectancy of its current product and articulate its vision for future offerings. I think that it's important for technology providers to reveal their vision for long-term development as early as possible so that libraries can evaluate and explore whether or not that vision aligns with their own longterm strategies.
Libraries naturally do not react positively to abrupt changes in product strategies. When a product loses its viability sooner than anticipated, it disrupts the automation strategies of the libraries using it. In some cases the demise of a product might be inevitable, such as those based on technologies or operating systems that lost out in the broader IT marketplace. Mergers and acquisitions often take their toll as well. When a company acquires a direct competitor, the eventual outcome will almost always involve product consolidation. Implementing such a consolidation in a short timeframe can be disruptive to the libraries, and may have backlash for the company as well. As a general observation, it seems that libraries appreciate transition strategies that include maintaining and enhancing products for an extended period and developing new, next-generation systems that libraries using any of the legacy systems might eventually adopt. Libraries like a roadmap that will give them control of the timing of transitions, avoiding unanticipated, end-of-life deadlines for products.
Libraries also expect a reasonable level of continuity and stability in the management of these organizations. Long-term business viability is paramount. The business history of the library automation industry demonstrates that individual companies come and go. Only a very few have failed outright and gone through bankruptcy; many others have been acquired by competitors.
When companies change ownership. libraries naturally question whether the transition will bring positive or negative changes. Having observed many companies in the library automation industry experience a change of ownership, I notice some interesting patterns. Recognizing the sensitivity that libraries have to abrupt change, initial announcements almost always provide reassurance that it will continue to be “business as usual” and downplay the future implications of the current transition. Current executives will usually remain in place, at least for an interim period. In some cases, the new owners will bring in their own executives to lead the company, but they will work with the incumbent management to plan business strategies that provide for both the continuity needed to maintain customer satisfaction and the business goals for the future. The top executives of an acquired company may join the acquirer, in some cases to such an extent that it is difficult to say which of the entities really dominates in the long term.
We see parts of these patterns play out in industry events covered in this month's issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter. The transitions of management at both Innovative Interfaces and Bibliotheca illustrate the issue of managing continuity through a major business transition.
Innovative Interfaces saw a significant business transition in March 2012 where two private equity companies acquired a major stake in the company, with the founder, Jerry Kline, retaining some ownership. The owners of a company appoint its board of directors, which effectively control its high-level business strategy; executive management and operational personnel carries it out. Innovative's recent transition provides a very interesting example of maintaining the strongest degree of continuity through a major business transition. One of the notable qualities of Innovative throughout its business history has been stability with evolutionary product strategies and organic growth of its customer base. Given that history, any abrupt changes would not necessarily be well received by its library customers. The retention of the founder with equity in the company ensures balance between the interests of the new investors with its corporate heritage and vision. It is also not surprising that the new board of directors would appoint a new senior executive. Again Innovative has struck a course that leans more toward continuity than would otherwise be expected. In most companies a single individual holds the positions of President and Chief Executive Officer. With Innovative, however, these roles are separate. Neil Block, a company veteran who rose through the ranks, is President. The new board of directors appointed Kim Massana to be Chief Executive Officer. Founder Jerry Kline serves as the Chairman of the Board, providing yet another layer of continuity.
The recent changes at Bibliotheca give another example of these issues from the perspective of an RFID focused company. The consolidation that took place with Bibliotheca represents a much more complex scenario because it involves three companies with overlapping presences among the international regions involved. Yet, we see a business strategy that works toward the formation of a single unified organizational entity and brand, while maintaining some degree of continuity for customers of the antecedent companies. Looking only at the North American operation, we note the same pattern as with Innovative where Shai Robkin, the founder of ITG as the acquired company, maintains both an ownership stake and an ongoing role in the executive management of the company both at the national and global level, at least for an interim transitional period. Robkin will now step away from daily executive roles, and we see the same balance of continuity while the company sets its long term strategies.
I see great value in the organizational continuity of the organizations that create technology products for libraries. I also don't want to downplay the factors that advance new developments. I favor momentum over inertia and feel a sense of urgency for more rapid development of strategic library technology products.