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Reimagining Libraries in Singapore through Innovation
By Ramachandran Narayanan, Director (Systems, Applications & Operations), National Library Board
Learning from the success story of the National Library Board of Singapore
When you step into a library in Singapore today, you may notice that they are well designed with attractive open spaces, quiet reading nooks, modern furnishings, and are equipped with screens showcasing digital resources. Singapore’s libraries have successfully evolved with the times. They have expanded beyond its physical presence by harnessing new technologies to integrate digital content and services.
The transformation of traditionally ‘brick-and-mortar’ libraries is not an easy one. It involves the continual re-examination of existing processes and services, as well as the tenacity to take bold steps to do something different. This has to be driven by a strong innovation culture, where the needs of users are at the heart of the organisation.
Thinking in and Out of the Box
Digital content and technology have changed the game for most, if not all, industries. While it presented new challenges, it has also opened up new opportunities for organisations to use technology to innovate.
Innovation is not a ‘eureka’ moment. Rather, it should be a culture and guiding principle that is applied to all aspects of an organisation’s services and processes. One way to start is by identifying problems. The next step is to find the most effective solution, which sometimes involves looking in places least expected. For instance, a project which I was personally involved in was the collection of reserved library items. In a bid to encourage self-service, we had to think of ways for users to collect these items, which was then an over-the-counter transaction. We noticed how postal companies enabled customers to self-collect their parcels from lockers at designated locations. We built on the idea and developed the Reservation Locker, where users can pay reservation fees and collect their reserved items, all at a single touch-point. These lockers are also placed outside the library, so that people can collect their items even when the library is closed. Not only did this make the reservation of library items more convenient for users, it also enabled the library to move towards self-service.
A thriving innovation culture must be driven from the top, and the leadership team needs to be the torch-bearers of innovation
There are many good ideas out there and organisations need to look at what others in the same field and even across other industries, are doing. While looking and thinking “out of the box”, it is also crucial to look “in the box”. Organisations need to ensure that the solution fits the needs of both their users and operational requirements to accomplish their goals.
Building a Culture of Innovation
Having a culture of innovation means that everyone in the organisation needs to embody this spirit. To this end, it is important to have a framework to guide the organisation’s innovation journey. For instance, the National Library Board (NLB) uses an innovation management framework that comprises four foundational building blocks: Leadership, Strategy, People and Process.
A thriving innovation culture must be driven from the top, and the leadership team needs to be the torch-bearers of innovation. Together, they lead the business to inspire an organisation-wide commitment towards innovation. NLB’s leadership team (including NLB’s Board and Senior Management) ensures that resources are set aside for innovative projects. They also constantly encourage staff to be bold in trying out new ideas.
For strategy, the organisation needs to periodically review its mission, vision and strategic thrusts to stay relevant and effective amidst the changing external environment, technology disruptions and the ever-evolving needs of users. The planning decisions need to be 'data-driven' by analysing the internal and external trends using appropriate tools. Strategic planning is a hallmark of NLB's innovation journey, by focusing the resources and energy of the entire organisation to enhance services for its users.
Most importantly, innovation is a collective responsibility of the people, which involves every staff member and also extends to other stakeholders–including customers, partners and suppliers. Since co-creation is able to achieve a ‘multiplier-effect’, organisations should strive to ensure greater engagement and collaboration with their stakeholders. For instance, in NLB’s case, the volunteer-run library@chinatown has been used as a successful case study of a public-service co-developed and managed by the community for the community. Another example is the ‘Citizen Archivist Project’, which is a nation-wide crowdsourcing initiative by the National Archives of Singapore to encourage citizens to pool their knowledge to index a valuable collection on Singapore's history.
An innovation culture cannot be developed overnight. It takes an organisation, years to nurture this mindset and to instil such values as part of the organisation’s DNA. Special attention is required to cultivate and sustain organisation-wide culture through various internal processes. Of special mention is the Blackbox programme at NLB, which aims to empower staff to explore possibilities, pitch innovative ideas, and turn their ideas into reality.
In summary, NLB as a whole has embraced the innovation culture so as to meet the evolving needs of the organisation, and every staff is well aware of their part to play in this critical endeavour to sustain the innovation journey. As a testament to these efforts over the years, NLB has been well-recognised locally and internationally as a thought-leader in innovation.
In a fast-changing environment, what remains constant is the need for organisations to innovate in order to stay relevant. That said, innovation should not be undertaken for the sake of it. It should be guided by the aspirations of users as well as the organisation, to attain the desired outcomes.