Guest Post: Good to Great and Library 2.0, A Case Study

Claire Steiner
Dominican University


During my days as a MLS student, I have heard the phrase “running a library like a business” too many times to count. So many times, in fact, that I have decided to examine what exactly this concept entails and the effects it may have on libraries and the inevitable implementation of Library 2.0 technologies. The reality is that many libraries are being run like businesses these days, however, they are still not living up to their potential. So it begs the question, how does running a library more like a business make it a more successful institution? Also, what kind of business should a library be modeled after? There are a lot of businesses out there, some better than others, and so it is important to keep in mind that libraries should not only be run like a business, but run like a great business.

In 2001, Jim Collins revolutionized the way people think about business with his bestseller, Good to Great. Collins examined several key concepts that appeared consistent in his five years of research on mediocre companies and their “great” counterparts. With the help of 21 researchers Collins set to work examining thousands of pages of financial reports, stock returns, interviews, and articles of 28 carefully chosen subject companies. Of the 28 companies, 11 of them were considered great, 11 were considered good, and 6 were companies characterized by unsustained success. Each of the great companies were matched up with one of the good companies. The pairs were each from the same industry with similar backgrounds, challenges, and assets. However, one company made the leap to becoming great, while the other remained mediocre. The data supports that several principles and concepts were consistently found in great companies and lacking in mediocre ones. These concepts include:

  • Level 5 leadership
  • Getting the right people
  • Confronting reality without losing faith
  • The Hedgehog Concept
  • A culture of discipline
  • The Flywheel and Doom Loop

Each one of these principles proved vital to making a good company great. The concepts are supported by evidence pertaining to for-profit businesses and so would create the argument that libraries, being non-profit institutions, would not be subject to such parameters. The answer to this argument is addressed in Jim Collins’ follow up monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, released in 2005.

The social sectors are thought of as being in a completely different world from for-profit businesses. This is simply not true. Non-profit organizations are still organizations that need good employees, discipline, well-envisioned goals, and leadership despite differing bottom lines. The Good to Great concepts can be easily adapted to any organization regardless of the organization’s specific goals. In Good to Great in the Social Sectors, Jim Collins stresses the fact that “thinking more like a business” is an incorrect approach to creating an efficient and successful environment within the social sector. These principles should not be thought of as “principles of business,” but rather, “principles of greatness” (Collins, “Social Sectors” 1).

Soon after its release, businesses all over the world began comparing their practices to Collins’ Good to Great principles. Some changed, some didn’t, but most became more aware of how details that may have seemed insignificant could make or break a great company. Collins’ monograph brought on numerous articles illustrating the results of incorporating GTG principles into schools, libraries, and other non-profit organizations.

In his monograph and the articles that followed, Collins and his admirers enlightened readers with how the GG principles could make any organization successful. However, most of the material I found on social sectors was focused on organizations that did not include libraries. In fact, none of the interviews or articles even mentioned libraries as a potential subject of the successful implementation of the GG principles. However, I heard about a public library that implemented the GG principles into its business plan and found a great deal of success in doing so. Marie Liang of the McCracken County Public Library in Kentucky, was more than willing to assist my research into effective implementation of the GTG principles in libraries. I spoke with her extensively on how the library administration adopted the principles and improved the functioning of the library.

In 2002, the McCracken County Public Library staff set out to explore new opportunities in effective library management. They scoured articles about award winning libraries and visited many of them in the hope of picking up new ideas. 2003 came around and the MCPL still had not implemented significant changes in any department. That is, until Joe Framptom, CEO of Paducah Bank, introduced the library board members and library staff to Jim Collins’ principles. Each week, the administration came together to discuss the principles of Good to Great and how they could be incorporated into the . They called themselves the “Good to Great Council”. After a year of discussion and the rise and fall of hundreds of different ideas, the GTG Council presented their plan to the Library Board. Upon approval, the Council set forth to begin implementing their research and ideas into the library.

I have reflected on each concept below through its context in the original Good To Great book followed by its interpretation in Good to Great in the Social Sectors. I then illustrated how the McCracken County Public Library incorporated each principle into its management practices and services. I sum up each principle with further elaboration on its importance to the efficient and effective functioning of a great library. Of course, there is a lot more to implementing useful services and managing an effective staff but Collins lays down some great groundwork and starting points for managers and employees to dissect, discuss, and tailor to fit their own work ethics and institutions.

Concept #1- Level 5 Leadership

Level 5 leadership in Good to Great was characterized by professional will and personal humility. Level 5 leaders have an unwavering determination to be the best and never settle for less. Level 5 leaders are intelligent, savvy, fair, decisive, and determined However, they lack the excessive ego and flash that can be attributed to many existing CEOs. Their ambition lies with the company’s welfare and not the amount of wealth they can accumulate for themselves. They recognize the attributes of their employees and never build themselves up as the reason for the company’s success (Collins,2001).

Good to Great in the Social Sectors backs up Good to Great’s description of Level 5 leadership but it also expands to cover the fact that many social institutions require a more legislative governance. That is, while for-profit companies usually put one person in the highest level of leadership, social institutions diffuse the power between the head of the organization and the other branches. There is no one in the company that has the power to make the most important decisions on their own (Collins, 2005). Great leaders in social sectors, however, are clever and persuasive enough to make the right decisions happen even if they don’t hold the power to do so on their own. The most important part of doing that is for a leader to be able to show those around them that their motivation comes from their desire for a successful institution and not their own glory or reward (Collins, 2005).

McCracken County Public Library is a great example of diffused leadership. There was a library director but each department had its own leader that made many of the decisions on their own. Dave Denton, Library Board Chairman, was the first to take the lead in 2003 and introduce GTG to the library staff. From there, Marie Liang took over in leading the library staff through transition to success. Ms. Liang had only the progress of the library as a concern when she began implementing changes. Her interest was serving the public to the best of her ability, and her dedication inspired the staff to follow suit.

Level 5 Leadership and Library 2.0

Making Web 2.0 a successful part of every library requires the hard work and dedication of a level 5 leader. Technology changes in a library are often slowed down by nay-sayers and tired employees that are only interested in keeping the status quo. My experience in libraries has shown me how hard it can be to progress to the next level of technological proficiency. Collins’ comment on how negative power can hold things up is apparent in many social institutions, especially libraries. Though this negativity is extremely detrimental to success, I have also seen the presence of a great leader provide the encouragement needed to overcome such negativity. It takes a strong leader to implement change in the social sector but when it is done the reward is that which makes a huge difference in quality of service. Library 2.0 is about creating that quality and improving a library’s ability to serve.

Concept #2- Getting the Right People

According to Good to Great, before any project can get underway there must be a complete analysis of employees. No system will become profitable if the right people are not involved. This could mean rearranging staff into different and more suitable positions, or hiring new people to take the place of those that are not proving themselves as invaluable to the organization. Collins stresses the importance of not hiring out of the fear of facing the possibility of more work for others due to an empty position. In the long run, hiring the wrong person will create more loss and difficulty for the company than waiting until the right person comes along (Collins, 2001).

When it comes to social sectors, “getting the right person in the right seat on the bus” may prove more difficult than with for-profit businesses. For-profit businesses are able to buy their talent or get rid of under-performing employees more quickly. Social sector institutions may run into more red tape when trying to weed out unproductive staff. They often do not have the budget to attract great people with big salaries or perks. However, there are other ways that the social sector can make an organization more desirable to a job seeker. Selectivity will make positions more attractive, while appealing to those who want to make a difference in their community will draw dedicated applicants. The more of the right people an organization has, the more attractive it becomes to potential fundraisers. Having an organization of disciplined and dedicated people can make up for lack of money but never the other way around (Collins, 2005).

The McCracken County Public Library recognized the importance of hiring great people right away. In 2004, Liang and her staff implemented frequent performance evaluations, revised job descriptions, and staff incentive programs. They revised their interview questions to include

asking the candidates as to why they want to work at the library, as well as, what they are most passionate about. They did not fill a vacancy just because it needed to be filled but took their time to make sure that they hired the right person. Liang also took early assessment seriously by hiring staff from temp agencies for three month periods. This allowed staff the opportunity to work with a candidate before bringing them on permanently. Liang created in-depth exit interviews for departing team members in the hope of improving the staff dynamics.

Getting the Right People and Library 2.0

Library 2.0 can be an overwhelming concept for many library employees. It is important for libraries to evaluate staff frequently to avoid problems that could face a staff adapting to change. Of course, there is never going to be a transition without set backs, however, if the staff is carefully chosen and made to be aware of the certainty of change beforehand, it will provide a smoother process and a happier, more well adjusted team. On top of being able to adapt to inevitable change, great library employees have a knack for seeking out change. Great librarians should always be looking for a way to improve their services. In this day and age, a great deal of library service improvement comes from taking on new technologies. Those individuals that seek library employment should be trained in innovation, and those employers seeking new staff should expect nothing less then candidates with a drive to improve and succeed.

Concept #3- Confronting Reality without Losing Faith

Reality can come as a blow to a lot of companies. Whether they are facing financial difficulties, impending layoffs, product failure, or hostile takeovers, it can be very difficult to stay positive. Even worse, companies that ignore reality and continue as if the outside world has no influence on their success will inevitably result in massive loss and the reality of a failing company. Collins takes on this issue in GTG, Chapter 4: Confronting the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith). The most important lesson in this concept is keeping the staff aware of the company’s strengths and weaknesses through honest questions, debate, and the ability to recognize red flags. Collins also stresses the importance of staying positive, even in a situation that seems hopeless. There will always be a company or organization that has faced worse and prevailed (Collins, 2001).

The most common issue facing the social organizations pertaining to this concept is the attitude that the entire system is broken and nothing can improve until that system is fixed. Yes, the system is often broken, however, giving up is not the answer. The system will probably not be fixed for years and people will continue to rely on social institutions despite such obstacles. This is an obvious roadblock in health care and public education but closing these institutions is not an option (Collins, 2005). Closing doors should not be an option for libraries either, whether they are facing budget crises, natural disaster, under-use, or irrelevancy. Facing the reality of the problem is the first step in overcoming. The second step is getting over it and moving forward. Cutting costs, cleaning up, promoting services, and getting in touch with the community and its needs are ways to stay dedicated to making a serviceable contribution.

The McCracken County Public Library began their Good to Great Journey in 2002. They were still working on implementing principles in 2006. Today, they continue to search for new ways to uphold Collins’ principles. The staff at the MCPL recognized the great things that would come from staying true to the concepts, and did not let the lack of immediate results waver their resolve. Instead, they held regular meetings to measure success and they never stopped believing that they could accomplish what they set out to do. Seven years later, the MCPL has won several awards for outstanding customer service.

Confronting Reality and Library 2.0

Library 2.0 is the reality of future libraries. For some, this would translate to the loss of faith in books and other print resources. However, this is not the case. The books aren’t going anywhere. 2.0 is about giving people the opportunity to reach out to others, overcome differences, and make the world seem a little smaller. There is no reason why 2.0 cannot coexist with other formats and media. The more people who understand 2.0 and confront the reality of its usefulness, the faster librarians can move forward and embrace all that it has to offer.

Concept #4- The Hedgehog Concept

Good to Great treats the Hedgehog Concept as the turning point in making a good business great. It can be tied into all of the other concepts and is a culmination of the core values, passion, and economic drivers. The HC is illustrated by three interlocking circles. The circles represent an organization’s passion, what the organization can be the best at, and what drives their economic engine. Ideally, an organization will function in at the height of where these concepts intersect (Collins, 2001). Collins further elaborates explaining that the HC is not a plan or strategy, but an understanding a great company has about its abilities and purpose (Collins, 2001).

The Hedgehog Concept translates to the social sector except for one fundamental difference. Social institutions do not have an economic engine. The root of their existence is not based on how much profit they make (Collins, 2005). Social institutions must recognize what they can be the best at, what they are passionate about, and what drives their resource engines in order to be at the top of their success. The resource engine is further broken up into three parts: time, money, and brand. While all organizations need money to pay the bills, social organizations also need the support of time from volunteers, and the ability to cultivate support and goodwill through an institution’s brand. All three of these aspects will build a strong engine to drive an institution’s ability to obtain its goals (Collins, 2005).

The McCracken County Public Library recognized the need for a Hedgehog Concept and, through committee collaboration, came up with one that they felt would drive their library to success. The MCPL recognized that their resource engine was driven by the community in which they served. They were passionate about giving the community a valuable personal experience, and felt that they could be the best at providing the best collection possible to facilitate that experience. The MCPL focused on collection building and service rendering within the boundaries of their HC. By 2006 they had built up enough community support to renovate their Adult Services department, reduce fine and card replacement costs to patrons, implement a new and innovative website, and increase the amount of pubic computers throughout the library.

The Hedgehog Concept and Library 2.0

Library 2.0 should be incorporated into every library hedgehog concept. This is because Library 2.0 is about providing better service to a community. It builds the library brand as more innovative and patron oriented while providing new ways for the library to fulfill its passion for service. Keeping libraries relevant is an important part of brand building and providing for a community of potential supporters. Social networking can grow a community base and open up new opportunities for a library to strengthen its ties and grow its collection of products and services.

Concept #5- A Culture of Discipline

The culture of discipline in a GTG company comes from the ability of its leader to stick to the Hedgehog Concept no matter what. Leaders must be able to say “no” to opportunities that present themselves if they don’t fit into the HC. Discipline also means having employees that can follow a hedgehog concept but still have the freedom to produce their own ideas and interpretations of the three key points of the HC. Great companies have employees that are able to govern themselves and take accountability. Bureaucracy is the result of undisciplined staff (Collins, 2001).

Social sector institutions can relate very easily to the for-profit culture of discipline. This concept is not necessarily about making money, but supporting an institution through hard work, dedication, responsibility, and accountability. If the staff of an organization is working to uphold their HC while “operating with freedom within a framework of responsibilities,” success will surely follow (Collins, 2005). The advantage that social sectors have with this concept is that there is less executive greed driving decisions. Most decisions stem from the desire to do good things for a community. However, the personal desires of donors should be managed appropriately and not allowed to overshadow the true purpose of the organization (Collins, 2005).

Marie Liang incorporated a strong sense of discipline in her staff. The administration rewrote job descriptions to elaborate on the responsibilities and expectations of staff while further training programs were implemented to help the entire organization become more disciplined in public services and team work. By 2006, 14 members of the staff were KDLA certified, and the library was able to significantly increase technical support for staff and patrons. Coverage was no longer an issue and the community was able to truly experience the valuable personal service that the library had been striving for.

A Culture of Discipline and Library 2.0

Remaining dedicated to a goal such as implementing Library 2.0 is part of creating a culture of discipline within a library. There will be times when tools become tedious or difficult to manage and staff must remain diligent in the effort to provide the best social networking opportunities to the public. Committees or groups of staff dedicated to the incorporation of 2.0 can build up enthusiasm and understanding of the benefits. Leadership is also important to sustaining discipline through times of struggle. Laying out plans of improvement and working out the bugs in 2.0 implementation can help those reluctant to change come around to seeing how their own work will improve and become more efficient.

Concept #6- The Flywheel, Not Doom Loop

Creating momentum for improvement is the last concept that Collins reflects on in Good to Great. One of the most important ideas within this concept is that great change does not happen overnight. Momentum is built one step at a time and increases as more changes are implemented. If an organization is implementing change according to the previous principles, the momentum will build up to a point of breakthrough where all aspects of the business will fall into place and continue to improve at a faster pace. For many companies, this breakthrough took many years to reach but the discipline and dedicated staff provided the drive to persevere through the slower years of progress. The Doom Loop can be illustrated by an organization that is too impatient to wait through slow and steady progress and opt for immediate and dramatic change. The result is usually a quick upswing in business and profit followed by a steady decline. (Collins, 2001).

In social sectors, there is not a financial bottom line to measure the progress of change, however, building the brand creates better support for more change and increased utilization of an organization’s products or services. Channeling such support will make the flywheel of change move faster and more efficiently. The profit mechanism isn’t there, but the progress mechanism and the resource engine is still in need of increasing amounts of fuel to sustain results (Collins, 2005).

The McCracken County Public Library understood that what they were taking on in 2002 would be a slow but rewarding process. They collaborated consistently and implemented changes that would provide an environment for more change. Their slow but steady progress became faster as the staff became more adaptable. Eventually their flywheel resulted in an abundance of awards and an organization that was truly dedicated to providing the best personal service to patrons. Their successes opened up new opportunities to build the brand which resulted in more funding for new programs. The entire process took several years, however, the library is still reaping rewards and passing the benefits on to the public.

The Flywheel and Library 2.0

Incorporating Library 2.0 into a library often requires smaller implementations while the staff is getting used to the idea of change. Once the staff is adapting more easily to technology, the flywheel can move faster and larger programs can be implemented without overwhelming the staff or the public. The momentum of change is dictated by all of the Good to Great concepts. There needs to be great leadership to start the drive forward, followed by dedicated staff that recognize the usefulness and necessary implementation of 2.0 technologies. The reality of the future of libraries and technology should be recognized as a force that will change the public’s concept of libraries. The hedgehog concept will provide structure for improvement while discipline will keep the focus on the best programs and most beneficial uses of 2.0 technologies. The flywheel culminates with the blending of all the concepts and can stop moving completely if any of them are taken away.

Running libraries like businesses is not the answer to how to create successful institutions. The success of an organization goes much deeper than such a simple concept. We must understand what makes a great business and adopt those principles into their own organization. Jim Collins created a great outline for success. We have yet to see these principles disputed by a great company or a great library. Library 2.0 technologies have brought the need for change management and project efficiency to the forefront of current challenges in libraries. Recognizing successful practices is important to being an invaluable addition to any type of organization. Library 2.0 is an ally to great libraries and should be utilized to the fullest possible advantage. Only then can libraries truly show their dedication to serving the public to the best of its ability.


  • Collins, Jim, “Core Values, ” Leadership Excellence (2009): 5. (accessed March 29, 2009).
  • Collins, Jim. Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer. Topeka: Topeka Bindary, 2005.
  • Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
  • Liang, Marie, telephone interview, March 27, 2009.