User-driven services

by Edward Henkler on January 13, 2015

The 10-Jan-15 Philadelphia Inquirer included an article about Siobhan Reardon, the Library Journal’s 2015 Librarian of the Year. When she first assumed the role as Head of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2008, she was faced with significant budget cuts. In collaboration with the mayor, she announced that 11 libraries would be closed. Protests and a lawsuit eventually forced her to abandon that plan and Siobhan has reinvented and revitalized the library system since then. Part of her success includes an important lesson for many other organizations. The protests confirmed that she had a valuable product. She also realized that a portfolio of user-driven services would bring in more clients and potentially drive fund-raising. Quoting from the article, she asked “What is it people need? Is it children’s literacy? Is it job search? Is it a safe place to be after school? What is it the people who live in those 40 or 50 neighborhoods are looking for?” She has subsequently blended those interests into the mission of the institution.

User-driven services

Siobhan’s approach is similar to the NSF i-Corps program, a wonderful initiative in which I’ve participated twice. The i-Corps process requires each entrepreneurial team to interview at least 100 potential customers before they even build a prototype. The goal is to develop products and services which people want, rather than just developing things which are clever.

User-driven services seem like such a simple concept. Ask people what they want and then deliver on their request. Simple yes….typical no. Every day there is another article about a religious institution or non-profit failing. There are myriad reasons but I have to believe some of the failures could be avoided if we just spent more time finding out what people need. While the specifics and message vary widely, churches generally exist to teach the Word of God. They almost always have an element of community outreach, both local and global but do they do enough? Many people are struggling for employment or even the more basic needs of food and shelter. It’s fine to teach them the bible but might you attract more folks if you addressed their basic needs and found a way to pair the “haves” and have-nots” in a community? Perhaps every person who is unemployed could be mentored by someone who is employed?

The challenges are more complex but starting with the user or customer perspective might make better use of scarce resources.

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