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Zap the library!

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on October 1, 2009 - 8:29am

There are roughly 8 gajillion websites devoted to social media. Like many librarians, my RSS reader is crammed with them. I am not above clicking “mark all as read” on a fairly regular basis. Even the blogs that are supposed to act as filters, linking only to the best and most interesting posts, can become overwhelming. Increasingly, I rely on the human filter that is Twitter to let me know when there’s an article worth reading. Earlier in September, my twitter friends alerted me to a post on Social Media Explorer about “social business.”

Jason Falls tells us that social business is The Next Big Thing. Businesses that focus on people instead of stuff will do well. To illustrate his point, Falls outlines the rise of Chik-Fil-A, a rise that he contends is unrelated to the chain’s chicken. People, not products or dollars can make a company a success.

This should be a natural fit for libraries. We don’t make widgets or profits. In a moment of Internet synchronicity, I ran across the New Yorker’s profile of Zappos shortly after I read Falls’ post.

Alexandra Jacobs’ study of the inner workings of Zappos' corporate culture seems designed to prove Falls’s point that organizational culture, both internal and external, matters more than products or services. Zappos, it seems, has achieved its “it” company status under the direction of someone who is totally uninterested in shoes.

The product does matter a little, of course. Zappos offers a wider range of sizes and styles than the conventional shoe store and it’s hard to imagine a site devoted entirely to, say, pants or hats doing as well. Tony Hsieh, the company’s quirky CEO may not be into shoes, but he is into people. His focus is on corporate culture and Zappos is serving as his home base for his movement to create better workplaces. When he started with the company, “Hsieh was rich, and bored. ‘I just liked working for Zappos,’ he said. ‘It was about: What kind of company can we create where we all want to be there, including me? How can we create such a great environment, where employees get so much out of it that they would do it for free?”’

These are not the words of an overly enthusiastic shoe salesman. Hsieh’s focus is on experiences and not stuff. While this clearly makes him an interesting boss, does it matter to his customers? It certainly matters to the people who call the company. The policies that grow out of his almost cult-like leadership are enticing for potential customers. But for people who use the site as a way of avoiding both the “hushed, pastel-carpeted salons” of traditional shoe stores and the “enjoyable contact sport” of shoe warehouse stores, do the Core Values really enhance their shopping experience?

It may not matter to a click and run customer of Zappos that they work hard at having happy employees and that they applaud the person who spent over five hours on one phone call instead of firing her. That customer may just be there for the free shipping and liberal return policy on the 5.5EEEs. Just as intellectual freedom and a healthy respect for patron privacy don’t mean much to the patron who runs in to grab a few bestsellers once a month.

What Zappos has done so well is to both offer incentives to the click and run shoppers who just want to buy some shoes already and run a call center that provides the assuring and helpful staff of a high-end boutique. On top of that, they’ve done it in a way that’s interesting enough to garner the attention of the business world and The New Yorker (which begs the flip side of this question: does it matter to the employees that they have a celebrity CEO).

Librarians are frequently on the prowl for lessons from the corporate world, an arena that sometimes offers questionable wisdom. Motivation matters. Libraries are not profit-motivated organizations and can’t measure success in dollars. Zappos risks their bottom line with their return policy, but gains devotion from employees and customers alike. Devotion matters.

Zappos generates that devotion internally by letting their employees be true to themselves and externally through generosity and honesty. Openness, honesty and generosity are not new to libraries. While we page through our business collections looking for insight into success, successful companies are learning how to do some of the things that libraries do so well already. What are your organization’s core values and how do you stay true to them?