I’m currently studying ‘systems thinking’ at university and have been reading the works of one of the most renowned systems thinkers, Donella Meadows.
Meadows writes about ‘indicators’ and their importance in all facets of our life. In business, we live and die by ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs) as a measure of success. But Meadows suggests that we often choose our indicators poorly, and these choices have significant ramifications for the behaviour of our ‘systems’.
Consider the sales person who is remunerated purely on his achievement of sales. He will go to any lengths to record a sale so that he is paid the highest possible commission. But this transactional ‘carrot and stick’ approach often results in individual behaviours that are anathema to the wider organisation and its longer term goals.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most commonly used indicators in business are numerical; quantitative factors that measure a narrow, partial element of our wider business ‘system’: new sales, revenue generated, calls made, quotes prepared, units produced, tenders submitted. These objective indicators are typically retrospective in nature; they measure past performance in the (often mistaken) belief that they are indicative of the future.
Meadows suggests that indicators need not always be numbers. They can be signs, symbols, pictures or colours. They can be unquantifiable, subjective and predictive. Looking into the eyes of a child, for example, can provide insights that are indicative of the child’s overall health and well-being; the health of the living ‘system’ that is the child. This indicator cannot be quantified, but it tells us much more than any numerical value can.
So this got me thinking about my current engagement at the Public Library Network of South Australia. Like most organisations, there is a natural tendency towards quantitative indicators: the number of items in the library collection, the number of library members, the number of items borrowed, the circulation numbers for individual items, the number of eBook downloads. Certainly these are all useful indicators in their own right.
But the role of the library today is less about the circulation of books, and more about ‘building community’. Books are just tools to help the library service ‘build community’. The traditional indicators associated with the borrowing of library books don’t really suffice when considering the performance of the wider library ‘system’ as a community-building institution.
So how does one go about measuring ‘community’?
That’s when I was struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration that harks back to my German roots.
How about ‘Gemütlichkeit’ as an indicator for public libraries?
Blank stares from my uni colleagues.
‘Gemütlichkeit’ is a German word for which there is no single English word equivalent. Its meaning is encapsulated in a combination of English words: it is a place of cosiness, warmth, friendliness, atmosphere, ambience, good cheer, peace of mind and belonging.
In Germany, it is regularly used to describe the atmosphere of a restaurant or beer hall. But it struck me that many of these characteristics are precisely what we are seeking to deliver in our public libraries (minus the beer) – a place of warmth, friendliness and belonging.
Having visited many of our metropolitan public libraries in recent months, the level of Gemütlichkeit is indeed discernible and some do it far better than others. It’s an entirely subjective indicator, but one which provides more clues about the state of the library than any circulation statistic.