Sheila Corrall. Strategic management of information services: a planning handbook. London: Aslib/IMI, 2000. £39.99 ISBN 0-85142-346-9
A 364 page monograph written by one author is something of a rarity in library and information publishing, whose catalogues are full of sometimes hastily-assembled items with ten or twenty contributors. Often such compilations suggest an editorial task similar to the herding of cats. In contrast, Sheila Corrall's book is thoughtfully structured, well written, and contains a good deal of useful information.
The title is significant, for this book is not just about strategic planning: it is also about the management of the planning process, and about the wider organisational context of strategic planning. Crucially, it also addresses the implementation of strategic plans.
Corrall stresses that strategic capability is needed at all levels in an organisation - not just top management; indeed, a recurrent theme in the book is that first line supervisors and middle managers have a critical part to play in the development and implementation of strategic planning. She also tackles head on the idea, popular with non-planners, that rapid change renders strategic planning both unhelpful and unnecessary. Modern strategic management is thus clearly not the same animal as traditional long-range planning of the five-year tractor production variety.
There are eight substantial chapters, extensively subdivided; and, as Corrall intends, these units can be read largely independently of one another. The sequence broadly follows the cycle of conceiving, formulating and implementing a strategic approach to planning, with excursions of varying length into the detail of topics such as financial planning and management and staff development. The chapters have extensive reference lists and excellent annotated bibliographies, so that digging deeper into the literature is easy for those who want to know more about the theory and practice - especially the theory, of which more anon.
Anyone approaching the book as a narrative, however - particularly if they've had limited exposure to the literature of management - needs to grit their teeth for a seemingly endless parade of acronyms, mnemonics, and graphics intended to show the relationship between, what can only be described as 'things'. This is not Corrall's fault; indeed, she has evidently done a titanic job of absorbing the literature, acknowledging her sources, and demonstrating the range of thinking on planning theory. The result, though, is that the reader can easily be left bewildered, and uncertain as to which of a number of planning concepts is the most useful. It also leaves Corrall with relatively little space in which to pursue the application of many of the ideas she discusses to the library and information service environment.
The fact that so many typologies and models are described can start to fuel a scepticism about the management literature that grows as one works through the book. To those used to the hypothetico-deductivist rigour of modern science, the structures of management theory look frankly feeble. The SEPTEMBER "formula", for example, is intended to allow us to focus on the environmental factors that form the background for strategic planning. The General Theory of Relativity it is not. Then we have the McKinsey '7S' framework for thinking about strategic planning (a hexagon of 6 things beginning with the letter 'S', with Service in the centre). Corrall comments, hopefully with tongue in cheek , that the model has been criticised in recent years for its lack of reference to other important factors such as quality and innovation. Not beginning with the letter 'S' may have something to do with it, perhaps.
Of course, management authors would make no claim to scientific rigour for such models and mnemonics. Their purpose is to aid strategic thinking, not to claim universal truth. We are all familiar with many of these tools, such as SWOT, SMART and PEST, if less so with CUTE. And Corrall prepares us in her first chapter, a brief history of planning, for the terminological inexactitude that bedevils the management literature. So the fact that there is apparent contradiction between some of the compartmentalised sections in the book should not surprise us too much. For example, Corral reports Harrison and St John's advice, in the context of stakeholder partnerships, to "avoid formalisation and monitoring of contractual agreements, which lead to conflict and distrust". How does this square with the modern trend to articulate client/service relationships through service level agreements, covered later in the book? On page 212 we're advised, in the context of achieving change, to beware of over-organising and making too many plans; and on page 213 to be prepared to invest time in preparation and planning for change.
If that sounds negative, let us get the other gripes out of the way before finishing with the book's considerable strengths. It would have been useful to see Corrall being more critical of some of the work she describes, at least in terms of its relevance to typical LIS missions, and perhaps more selective as a result in terms of those theories she chooses to unpack at greater length. The finance chapter is not terribly strategic, and reads like a potted accountancy text; it could usefully have been omitted (surprisingly, the references in this section do not include David Baker's (1997) comprehensive book on resource management in academic libraries). It might have been worthwhile to have had a lengthier discussion on the extent to which public-sector LIS resemble businesses in terms of the institutional constraints to which most are subject, and the relationship between corporate (institutional) and LIS strategic planning. And the book is printed on paper of poor quality considering its price, with enough show-through to distract the reader.
Set against all of that is the inclusion of many genuinely thought provoking ideas, which should give even seasoned planners scope for reflection. Early on, for example, Corrall flies the flag for marketing as a key planning activity, and a fundamentally desirable management orientation. Marketing is something that most public-sector library services still do badly, if at all, 20 years after Blaise Cronin's (1981) landmark book on the subject. It would be good to give this more space if the book goes, as it usefully might, to a second edition. Another strength is the attention given to environmental factors, including a checklist based on Marianne Broadbent's work intended to demonstrate the value of information services to their parent organisation. This is something that academic library managers might consult from time to time as they feel obliged by extra-institutional political pressures (from bodies such as Re:source) to be "cross sectoral". The discussion of scenario planning is particularly interesting; as the pace of change accelerates, and as the future seems less certain than ever, so scenario development will surely come to play a bigger part in planning. RAND and Royal Dutch Shell may like to take some of the credit that Corrall gives them for developing the technique, but Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were there first!
Corrall's final chapter, on flexibility in strategic management, seeks to temper the management theory with an acknowledgment of the importance of more subjective qualities such as insight and intuition, and the need for "new voices" (Hamel), including a "youthful perspective". A questionable perspective, perhaps? There is also an all too brief discussion of things that can go wrong, which is in some ways more illuminating than being told how to do it right. As in science, publication bias in the information management literature - people only writing up successful outcomes - tends to deprive us of the opportunity to learn from others' mistakes.
So this is a valuable book, and well worth persevering with, if by around page 130 you feel that there has to be more to life than the 7S framework. It is a shame that it does not convey more enthusiasm for the strategic management that we all need to practise, but it is also good to know that there is now somewhere to go for a competent, up-to-date and thorough overview of the subject.