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Update: Review of Affinity Groups

November 19, 2013—In September 2013, Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library, appointed a review committee to evaluate the Affinity Group Model. A summary of that report is below. Thomas will determine next steps and share them with the Library community by the end of fall semester 2013.

Summary of Affinity Group Review Report
The charge to the review committee read, “After gathering a range of opinion from the community, the review committee will prepare a report for the VPHL that considers the current model’s strengths and challenges as a part of the organizational structure, and suggests options for continuing its successes and addressing its failures.”

The members of the review committee were Leslie Donnell, Marilyn Dunn (chair), Franziska Frey, Dan C. Hazen, Mary Murphy (project manager), Lynne Schmelz, Ann Baird Whiteside and Scott Wicks.

To fulfill the charge, the review committee met seven times, hosted three open meetings to gather opinions from approximately 80 staff members, and met with current and former Affinity Group Heads and with the Library Directors Group. The review committee also solicited input from the Harvard Library Board and the Faculty Advisory Committee and distributed a survey through HLComms to all members of the Harvard Library. The survey was completed by 146 staff members.

Key Findings
The committee concluded there was consensus in the Harvard Library community around broad themes that became clear during the course of their work. They include the recognition that the Affinity Group Model produced some clear successes, such the collection development document Towards a Collection and Content Development Strategic Plan. Additionally, for a variety of reasons, some Affinity Groups are successful while others are not. Reasons range from the level of “buy-in” from leaders and the size of the group to conflicting local and library-wide agendas that emerged quickly. The committee received many comments from the community indicating a continuing need for communication and collaboration across the entire library organization. Further, it is clear that there is pervasive frustration across the Harvard Library with lack of decision-making.

From its inception, there were serious impediments to the potential success of the model, including an inconsistent and ambiguous charge to the Affinity Group Heads. The role of the Affinity Group Head is complex and became limited in unexpected ways. Another difficult obstacle to the success of the model is that many perceive Affinity Groups as artificial and possibly perpetuating silos.

The review committee suggested that there are necessary pre-conditions for an effective organization moving forward. Some are: a communication mechanism for increased transparency; a team of advisors for the VPHL who represent all stakeholders; an articulated decision-making structure with a chain of authority for decision-making at all levels; cross-library groups authorized to take on projects, do work, recommend policy, and share expertise; an internal program that sustains staff engagement and fosters the sharing of information; a management structure that assures a balance of perspectives and priorities from across the Harvard Library; pan-Harvard planning; credibility, confidence, and trust in management; and a human resource program that facilitates change management, culture change, and  professional development.

The review committee also offered potential models that could be considered to either bolster the current Affinity Group Model or replace it with an alternative structure. They include the following:

  • Option #1: Restructure, rename and keep the Affinity Group Model with adjustments made to the system.
  • Option #2: Replace the Affinity Group Model and allow the existing Library Leadership Team (LLT) with Strategic Work Groups to act as a central organizational leadership structure with the possibility of subgroups to carry out the work of the organization. Allow successful Affinity Groups to continue in some form. 
  • Option #3: Replace the Affinity Groups with an appointed representative Executive Cabinet for the VPHL to inform decision-making and carry out strategic work. This option allows for the possibility of creating subgroups beneath that leadership structure.