From Accidental to Intentional Library Management: The RISWS Approach

In Brief:

Considering that just one of the two ALA-accredited MLIS programs in Illinois requires completion of even a single management course, good management practice is often left to on-the-job happenstance. How do you manage the personnel and political dynamics of your team when you can’t stop the clock and go to a management seminar? How do you find out what’s making your people dread coming into work and find solutions that engage and empower them and benefit your library? This article describes the process and findings from a project, funded by a grant from Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) for the 2015-2016 academic year, to train a small cohort of academic librarians in a practical, hands-on management system called Recording/Interpreting/Solving Workflow Solutions. RISWS involves a weekly reporting process that formalizes employees sharing information on both issues affecting their work and achievements they might not otherwise report to their managers.

By Rana Salzmann and Magda Pecsenye


The title of Rachel Singer Gordon’s 2005 book The Accidental Library Manager says a lot. Middle-management librarians assume leadership positions because they’re knowledgeable about the “stuff” of good librarianship, like creating compelling programming and serving as an effective liaison to faculty or management. But where did they learn to manage?

By combining best practices in employee-focused management with daily observation, reporting, and analysis within our specific library contexts, this project demonstrates one approach to empowering the “accidental library manager.” ((Gordon, Rachel Singer. 2005. The Accidental Library Manager. Information Today, Inc.))

The RISWS Method

During the 2015-2016 academic year, the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) study team followed the Reporting/Interpreting/Solving Workflow Solutions (RISWS) Methodology. ((Pecsenye, Magda. RISWS website. http://risws.com/ ))  RISWS is a simple weekly process that gives managers data about how their employees experience work and allows managers to use this data to solve problems that inhibit their teams from performing optimally. RISWS works on the idea that transparency and information flow allows managers to solve problems for their employees and teach their employees to solve their own problems. Employees can then focus on doing better work without institutional blocks and meta challenges, such as personality clashes and power struggles.

RISWS operates from the assumption that managers already have the typical people skills to be great managers, and just need to have systems in place for using those typical people skills to facilitate excellence in their team members. If managers and staff don’t already come to the job in possession of basic customer service and interpersonal communication skills, additional training may be required to successfully implement the RISWS process or manage effectively in the first place. Improving these basic skills was outside the scope of this project.

The RISWS management process helps managers make data-driven policies and decisions for their teams by giving managers:

  • A regular stream of data from their employees about how they are excelling and where they are struggling.
  • The skills to interpret that data so they can remove their team members’ blocks to doing their best work.

RISWS relies on a weekly reporting process that formalizes providing information on both issues affecting work and achievements employees might not feel comfortable reporting organically. RISWS is an “agnostic” methodology designed to create better management outcomes across organizational structures, work settings, and job functions, regardless of the size of an organization. It’s adaptable to a variety of success metrics. The authors believe this flexibility is a critical asset to applicability in the diverse institutions employing librarian managers, and the results of this project among different types of library situations suggest that the RISWS methodology could be applied successfully to other library sectors and environments.

Gathering Feedback in RISWS

At its core, the RISWS process was designed to be as simple as possible for employees to complete so that it isn’t another block or burden for them in their work, and so managers can get a high compliance rate from employees.

Every Friday, a few hours before the end of the work day, each employee sends their manager a list of three things that prevented them from doing their best work this week and a list of three real accomplishments this week. The manager thanks the employee for sending the lists and gives “high-fives” for the accomplishments, then triages and looks for patterns in the challenges and makes a plan to solve them or empower the employee to solve them. RISWS training focuses on how managers can respond to this information in ways that create a problem-solving culture and greater trust from employee to manager to employee.

The first few weeks of RISWS reporting can be distressing for employees and managers alike. Employees have a real, justified fear of exposing problems they don’t have the ability to solve and admitting that they can’t do optimal work because of these problems. Managers discover that there are deep, basic problems they had no idea about. As the cycle is established, however, employees begin to feel they’re listened to and taken seriously, and managers start to understand and get traction on solving the problems blocking their employees.

Supporting the Practice of Feedback in RISWS

A critical aspect of the process is learning to present the practice of weekly feedback to employees so they don’t think they’re being “set up” to be called out on a problem they report, and so they know that the more honest they are in what they submit, the more help they’ll get from the manager in solving problems. To make the practice work, it’s important for managers to convince employees that these weekly reports are to benefit the managers, so they know what problems to solve. Specifically asking employees what prevented their best efforts gives managers something they can actually control (or begin to change), instead of focusing on individual personality traits or professional shortcomings. When working in RISWS, managers specifically ask employees not to report things they did or didn’t do, unless the manager can help.

In RISWS, employees are coached to report issues in a way that gives the manager information they can use. Consider these examples of how the same issue might be reported:

Useless report: “I didn’t get all my cataloging done.”
Useful report: “The new carpet off-gassing gave me a migraine and I couldn’t work at my usual efficiency.”

Useless report: “I didn’t get the list of missing books completed.”
Useful report: “There are so many holes and missing records in the database that I had to vet each item through several methods, and it took three times as long to process each item as we’d anticipated.”

The Project Team

Participants came from a cross-section of academic libraries in Chicagoland.

Rana Salzmann, the facilitator and project manager, completed RISWS training with Magda Pecsenye in early 2015 and shortly thereafter applied for the CARLI grant. Rana has worked in management roles in libraries for nearly a decade. Her first job out of library school was Head of Reference and Electronic Services at a small public library in the Chicago suburbs. She then served in various supervisory library and IT positions at the American Planning Association and now works as the Director of Library and IT at Meadville Lombard Theological School. For the majority of the project timeline, Rana directly supervised one full-time archivist and one part-time library assistant and managed one part-time tech support position.

Magda Pecsenye, trainer and consultant, developed RISWS in 2014 to address management problems she’d identified while consulting on business flow and value chain problems, including employee work issues that were disrupting work flow outside the context of a specific project. Pecsenye used the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model to create a process that was accessible to managers at all levels in all settings.

Together, Rana and Magda trained two Chicago-area librarian managers.

Valerie Neylon is full-time faculty librarian at Richard J. Daley College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. She graduated from Dominican University with an MLIS in 2013. She supervised five library assistants, two work-study students, and seven library adjuncts throughout the span of the project.

Gabrielle Toth is an associate professor and chair of Library and Instruction Services at Chicago State University. As faculty chair of the CSU Library, she supports a group of faculty who, as part of their profession, organize and manage information, processes, and people on a daily basis. At the beginning of the grant project, a total of 21 individuals directly or indirectly reported to her: seven tenured/tenure-track library faculty, two non-tenure-track library faculty, one administrator, and 11 civil service staff.

Discoveries: Common Management Challenges

RISWS quickly uncovered several common management challenges across the cohort.

1. We all have org chart confusion and problems locating authority.

Magda: The org charts in academic libraries are like Escher drawings and the baseline lever isn’t money, so solving problems that block your employees is more complicated and requires strategy, nuance, and emotional intelligence.

Employees who were directly under the authority of the cohort managers were the first to understand that RISWS was a way to assign responsibility for problem-solving and bring actionable issues to light. In contrast, employees who weren’t subject to the manager’s direct authority initially refused to do any reports, particularly where union contracts came into play. One of our managers was told by her supervisor that implementing RISWS might violate the terms of the union contract, and one employee went so far as to complain to her union rep about being asked to report on what she was doing at work.

This challenge reinforced for the cohort how complicated org charts and reporting relationships create confusion about who has authority over all aspects of work, including hiring and firing. This confusion stifles productivity and engagement; employees who don’t have a clear idea of how to succeed at work can’t engage with it fully. Employees in all our study libraries identified problems that the manager had the responsibility, but not the authority, to solve.

Academic library managers report both formally and informally to a complicated array of VPs, deans, chairs, and department heads, but it’s often unclear in daily practice who really does what and when they can or should do it. Our managers wonder if and when it is appropriate to pull in the “big boss” to help solve a problem. If the manager takes the initiative to involve upper management, they can look like a great advocate for their team, but they also run the risk of appearing useless and ineffectual if the problems don’t get solved or get taken out of their hands.

A complicated org chart is also a serious problem when it comes to scheduling. It may be the manager’s responsibility to make sure the public service desk is covered during open hours, but the manager is often working under conflicting rules about who they can schedule when, and they may lack the authority to approve existing employee overtime or hire temp staff. Budget restrictions and the different pay categories of employees further complicate these scheduling decisions.

Another organization challenge highlighted by the project was the divide between professional librarians and clerical/civil service employees. Professional librarians are generally classified as faculty in tenure-track positions and hold the MLS degree. They’re evaluated in terms of teaching, service, and scholarship alongside subject matter faculty peers, and are encouraged to undertake research projects, find grant funding, and pursue intellectual passions that enrich their work. Faculty librarians follow a prescribed path of evaluation leading to advancement and, ultimately, tenure. Meanwhile, the staff they manage (often circulation desk or tech services staff) are evaluated through their union or another process entirely, experience less intellectual freedom, and get less support for professional development.

2. Structure and transparency empowers success and helps create a culture of trust.

Early on, our managers started giving feedback to the employees who did turn in weekly reports, and those employees started seeing value in having a manager understand what was frustrating them (even if the manager couldn’t fix it yet).

The managers found that people who were facing challenges in doing their jobs as well as they wanted to were hungry for the chance to simply tell someone and have their issue reports noted officially. Employees knew that once they’d reported a problem it was in the official record. This meant that they had evidence that they’d tried to solve the problem, if it continued to affect their performance, which in turn allowed them to focus on what they could change. Examples of this during the study included problems with missing and incomplete records in databases, limitations on physical space for collections, and communication blocks within the organization.

The weekly reports also forced the cohort members to confront their own limitations as problem-solvers within their organizations, leading to sometimes uncomfortable conversations and opportunities for professional growth. Their experiences in this project illustrated that it’s important for a manager to be transparent with their team about those limitations so that they know and trust that the manager is doing their best to work for greater organizational change. This situation came up repeatedly in the study with regard to the different categories of employees our managers supervised and how much authority the managers had over employees in these different categories. Making differences in authority and expectations transparent eased tensions and increased morale for the managers and some of their employees.

3. Collecting regular employee feedback supports performance management and helps managers promote their team’s achievements with leadership.

In most corporate environments, the bottom line is king. While librarian managers do work within a budget, they aren’t always empowered to reallocate funding or change staffing levels, and they’re often evaluated not in terms of dollars but in the language of enrollment targets or “student satisfaction.” As such, the business results of using the RISWS process revealed themselves more slowly in this study than they often do in organizations where the manager’s actions have a clearer relationship to costs or revenue. Nevertheless, the process of collecting and analyzing data about employee’s successes and challenges created real business value by exposing performance issues and creating a bank of evidence to help managers take leadership in sharing a complete picture of their team’s value.

While the RISWS process is not designed to force employees to report their own weaknesses, the weekly structure and reporting format will expose employees who aren’t doing their own work as a matter of course. Having no problems or accomplishments to report can suggest that the employee may not be doing enough work to encounter problems or accomplish anything.

Val: Sometimes reports were turned in with no accomplishments. Sometimes challenges would be “students needed to check out books.” Sometimes accomplishments would be, “Val printed spine labels so I didn’t have to” or “Spring break ended and students came back to school.”

Comparing reports from employees in the same job function may reveal other performance issues. If an employee fails to report a problem reported by all of their colleagues, it could mean that they figured out a way to get around it, but it also may mean that they weren’t doing enough work to notice it. Conversely, an employee who submits the exact three problems submitted by another employee may simply be copying from their colleague’s report, which raises flags about integrity in other employment responsibilities.

Our managers also found out that some of their employees were doing some cool things they hadn’t had any format to report in on before.

Val: As we progressed, staff members would say to me during the day, “Hey! I found my accomplishment!” I cannot even begin to describe the change in attitude this was. These were staff members who seemed fully checked out, and now they were on board with accomplishments and being proud of what they did. One staff member even asked if they could start reporting accomplishments for co-workers, sort of a “giving a pat on the back” situation. This teamwork was new, and exciting.

Finally, when advocating for their libraries and teams to key stakeholders, managers often need a longer answer to the question, “What is the library staff doing this week?” RISWS data helped our managers in these moments when we were called upon to articulate library value and win support, enhancing the typical metrics of circulation stats, archive research requests, and database usage.

4. Consistency creates confidence in uncertain times.

No management methodology can solve state economic crises, generate record-breaking enrollment numbers, or heal rifts between union employees and management. But having a constant stream of employee-provided qualitative data can help managers allocate limited resources more confidently, and to argue more coherently for continued funding and institutional support. Each of the members of the cohort found RISWS data helpful in adapting to change and uncertainty.

As a public higher education institution, Chicago State faced severe budget cuts, furloughs, and widespread layoffs during the project. By April 2016, after a major budget crisis, Gabrielle’s staff was reduced to six tenured/tenure-track library faculty, one administrator, and one civil service staff member. While three additional civil service staff were called back to work by September 2016, the extra workload had to be done by Gabrielle, or was deferred.

Gabrielle: My two regular librarian reporters worked in areas both outside of my bailiwick and areas easily missed by patrons, university administration, assessment types, and the like, so getting regular reports from them was a godsend. It helped me learn about what they did and it provided me information I can, and will, use as I prepare a formal annual report and which I’ve been able to deploy to argue for the protection/swift return of my staff and the maintenance of resources.

While state budget cuts were less of a factor at Richard J. Daley College, Val and her institution encountered major changes resulting from her promotion to Department Chair for the new semester. Throughout these times of flux and a busy management holiday season, she found the consistency of the weekly reports to be a valuable management tool.

At Meadville Lombard’s Wiggin Library, Rana faced the challenge of onboarding staff while navigating the first phases of a long-term, intensive change management initiative during the study year. She added a temporary cataloguing employee and an archive assistant to the team, then had to help her team adapt when the assistant altered her shifts over the winter term so she could take on another job opportunity in LIS.

Rana’s team filed weekly reports on a shared Basecamp site where everyone could see everyone else’s lists of challenges and accomplishments. From day one, the new employees were asked to contribute. This practice provided transparency around where each new employee needed more guidance and training, and what “new hire” obstacles (e.g., information gaps, confusion about priorities, lack of proper equipment or software) continue to stand in their way. Rana found that as the RISWS process became part of the regular workplace rhythm at Meadville, it encouraged team-building by letting the seasoned employees jump in to help and troubleshoot where they could.

5. Managers benefit from a learning cohort and a support system in order to do their best work.

Aside from the specific benefits of the RISWS process, this project demonstrated the value of the learning cohort. Though the cohort managers all reported feeling often isolated inside the particular realities of their institutions, having the structure of a monthly phone check-in and information-sharing through the Basecamp site helped the study participants to feel less alone. Working together to implement a shared management practice could help break down the silos and boundaries among special, school, public, and academic librarianship.


Ultimately, RISWS helped the cohort managers examine their environments and consider, with the help of continuous feedback:  

  • What can I fix immediately?
  • What do I have the authority and support to realistically fix soon?
  • What seems impossible to address given current structural realities?

The members of the cohort, including the creator of the RISWS methodology, made progress on several tracks during the project.

Untangling the Org Chart – The RISWS methodology made visible to each of the managers specific trouble spots within the libraries and team workflows. This process of uncovering authority gaps and untangling the org chart within a department can help managers start difficult conversations about how to realign job duties, rewrite job descriptions, and shift reporting lines to empower the entire staff to do its best work in the service of the institution.

One of our managers inherited supervision of employees without completely understanding their area or job duties. The other manager needed remaining employees to pick up some extra duties after positions were cut. In both cases, the reports helped the cohort managers understand the employees’ priorities in their roles, and supported discussions to make sure those priorities were in sync with the managers’ goals.

The RISWS data also made clear when library staff encounter challenges that are truly institutional, or bigger than the manager can handle on their own. Our managers have used the data they gathered through the RISWS process to work within the org chart to address bigger problems with superiors and work for broader institutional change. Being able to present hard data about how certain practices were costing money for little return gave our managers’ cases more weight. The main area in which this data provided support for change was in scheduling and allocation of resources and workload.

Recognizing Excellence Drives Professional Growth – Our managers were pleasantly surprised by things their employees were reporting as accomplishments, and they were able to give employees more responsibilities and assignments in the areas in which they excelled.

Incorporating the Mission into the Mundane – The RISWS process allowed Rana to see exactly what her library team was doing (and not doing) in support of their mission, and where the team was wasting time on inefficiencies.

Rana: In the next year, I hope to spend more time analyzing data from FY16 and working with my team to craft a plan for library service that can further big institutional goals and more clearly mirror our school’s priorities. Then, I want to create a feedback loop that flows from my school’s mission statement and strategic plan into individual performance evaluations and employee goal-setting, to weave institutional aspirations and markers of school success into the job descriptions and expectations for my individual team members.

Building Trust in Management – The project helped Val establish respect and trust with her team: “Overall, I feel much more confident about my skill as a manager. I was promoted to department chair in the middle of the RISWS project, so that makes me feel that other people feel confident in my management style, as well. This project helped build trust between me and the staff who were very suspicious at the beginning. Staff members now come to me with problems and we resolve them and they are much less hesitant to come to me with disagreements, when before they simply filed grievances. This management style certainly has benefited our library.”

Winning Through to Positive Changes – While it wasn’t easy for her to institute the RISWS practice of regular feedback, Gabrielle appreciated the changes she eventually saw: “Suspicion, recalcitrance and generalized whining as I ‘peat and repeated why these reports were necessary, were important, and were really not that big of a deal ate away at my enthusiasm for learning a new management skill and reminded me of all that I loathed about being a manager. But that tide quickly turned once I recalled why I was a manager: my peers had chosen me, and they’d elected me to become our manager due to my skills of analysis and persuasion.

“I deployed these to convince my people to craft and submit their reports. I realized that some of my staff were reluctant to put anything in writing, so I made a point to chat with them and keep mental track of challenges and accomplishments. Once I learned about the nitty-gritty challenges facing my faculty and staff, challenges that could easily go unnoticed as they’re almost always surmounted in order to get the work done, I was in a position to address them. These minor fixes led to major boosts in morale and efficiency because my staff were no longer hobbled by them.

“I am still working through the data I collected during the course of this project; it generated far more than I would have expected. Over the summer I hope to develop a reporting system using Springshare so that I can continue to collect data and share it with my faculty and staff.”


Rana: I have found that managing intentionally through the RISWS methodology helps build a culture of trust among my staff. By removing roadblocks to performance, I hope to inspire my employees to do their best work, engage with organizational objectives, and push the library forward.

What’s next beyond the project team’s stated plans to continue with RISWS? If you’re intrigued about RISWS and want to read more about the year-long study, please see the project blog. Consider signing up for the Fall 2017 training session for in-depth instruction and a chance to build community and discuss complicated management issues in a small cohort setting.

The authors would like to thank the following individuals: Amy Koester of the ITLWTLP team for her feedback and assistance as we moved this article from proposal to manuscript to final publication; Richard Kong, Director of the Skokie, IL Public Library, for his valuable comments as an external reviewer; and Neal Shankman for additional editorial support. Finally, we could not have completed this project without the enthusiastic participation and insightful observations of our trainee managers, Val and Gabrielle. Thank you so much!


Gordon, Rachel Singer. 2005. The Accidental Library Manager. Information Today, Inc.

Pecsenye, Magda. RISWS website. http://risws.com/

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing about Reporting/Interpreting/Solving Workflow Solutions . This is a good program that libraries can employ in improving operations and services.

  2. Pingback : 2018 RISWS Cohort Details Announced! – RISWS Working Blog