Resource sharing and the supply chain

As interlibrary loan units are pressured to adopt new methodologies they begin to evolve and look to become resource-sharing units. To accomplish this, they need to take into account the variety of processes and services. To that end, to make the transition from interlibrary loan to resource sharing they need to first start with an understanding of the supply chain of interlibrary loan and institute new methods of analysis and workflows. Key among these is the understanding of the relationship between the physical request and the information request associated with it. Resource-sharing units must learn to accept that the physical request and the informational request associated with that item cannot be permanently linked together. There are places in which the information request and the physical request coincide but then there are opportunities where the items diverge. Emphasizing that the process of a supply chain is fluid then focusing on the efficient movement of the physical request with an eye toward the informational request can help to lay the foundation for an effective resource-sharing unit. What would something like this look like?

For example, if a resource-sharing unit is making a borrowing request, meaning a library is seeking to get a book from another library, the first step is making the request, meaning the resource-sharing unit identifies the correct book or item that the patron wants. Second, the resource-sharing unit searches for libraries that own this item. Third, a library is selected from a list of available libraries, and finally, the information part of the request is sent to the identified supply chain. It is at this point that the item is merely information. There is no physical manifestation of the request yet. The current supply chain is an informational supply chain. It is interesting to point out that when a request is placed either in OCLC, or in any other major interlibrary loan system, the chosen libraries ironically make a chain of libraries willing to supply an item. While anecdotal, this should illustrate how we have moved beyond a simple paper request and we should start to examine resource sharing as a supply chain. Returning to the example, the request then arrives at the first lending library. This is the first potential pitfall for the supply-chain system.

Imagine the library first on the list receives the request and in their searching realizes that the item is checked out or is on reserve. The library then signals to the borrowing institution by way of a conditional. The conditional is a recognition that the informational request supply chain is fluid and can flow backward. However, in treating the information request like a nonsupply chain item asking for a condition, they think they are being helpful but they have, in fact, interrupted the supply chain. In creating that conditional, they have stopped the movement of the item through the potential list of libraries, which means that library has intentionally introduced a supply-chain block to convey information that is not necessary and also is information that pertains to the physical request item, which is not an issue with the information request. Moving to the next library, this library identifies that they own the item, and it is searched and queued for retrieval. This is the first opportunity where we can see the merging of the physical request and the informational request. That process happens when the library updates the item and identifies it as something they are prepared to send. It is at this point that the informational request supply chain replicates to the physical item request supply chain, meaning they have filled the request. From there we can track the physical request in conjunction with the informational request item as it moves through the remainder of the supply chain. The informational request, meaning the electronic record of the request, is updated and returned to the borrowing library as something that is in transit to that location. The physical item is processed by the lending library and prepared for shipment. When the physical item arrives at the borrowing institution it is again matched with the informational request and the request is delivered to the customer. It is in this separation between the physical item and the information item that interlibrary loan units that endeavor to see the world as a resource sharing have the most opportunity for success and failure. It is important to learn from the supply-chain concepts and leave open the possibility for treating the physical item and the informational item separately.

In the past when interlibrary loan was done with paper and even possibly limited email the physical item and the informational item were rarely separate. This allowed for a more coherent supply chain and one that allowed for far less potential for error. Now that the supply chain has been bifurcated the chance for error and the potential for gain is increased. It also means that the supply chain is open to a lot more moving parts. What then is the prescription for interlibrary loan units that wish to examine their workflows with an eye toward resource sharing? The key lies in understanding where the physical item and the information item are matched and where within each of the workflows there are opportunities for improvement. In the beginning stages of any request the supply chain consists entirely of the informational item, that is to say, the electronic transmission of the requesting data is merely information. Very few resources have been invested in the creation and processing of the item. It is here in these early stages we must see this process as one of speed and efficiency. This means that libraries should endeavor to process and send requests as quickly as possible. This is largely due to two reasons. Since this phase can be seen as Ayers (2001) describes as the procurement paradigm, then that should take precedence, and libraries can benefit by incorporating systems that allow for quick transmission. Also, since the item does not necessarily have a physical component, including a variety of sources for retrieval can benefit the supply of the item in a quick and efficient system. On the other end of the supply chain, libraries receiving informational items if they are unable to match the physical item should not be afraid to cancel an item. Conditionals for items that are checked out or on reserve merely serve to stop the supply chain. Since this phase of the process is based on speed many times canceling or allowing an item to move to the next potential supplier is more efficient than attempting to communicate a cancellation or reserve instructional information. In some respects, an emphasis on perfect accuracy could be a hindrance in this phase. Once the item has been accepted by a library that is willing to lend or has the potential to lend, the process changes somewhat.

This is where we see the emergence of the physical item and matching it with the informational item. It is at this point where accuracy becomes important. It is important because the informational item and the physical item must match. If the supply chain is a fluid system that can move forward and backward then the places where the information item and the physical item are matched must be exact, otherwise it may be very difficult to locate the item if errors occurs later in the supply chain. Thus it is at the point where physical item and informational item are matched that business process engineering can play a role. It is important to view this step as a part of the larger process and seek to streamline and refine as much as possible to ensure accurate matching of the information item with the physical item. Once the physical item can be accurately matched to the informational item then the supply chain can continue on separately if necessary and that is often the case. Also, the priorities change when the physical item is prepared for shipment.

The logistics paradigm plays a larger role in the physical item supply- chain process. It is important in this phase that the systems in place to pull, box, and ship the item are efficient and potentially controlled by the interlibrary loan unit themselves. The reason logistics becomes more important is that there is a larger need with the physical item to understand where it exists in the world. To that end the development or use of tracking software to go along with the shipping process could be advantageous. Also, on the lending side there is potential for improvements in how items are located and pulled. Improving the pulling of the items would fit with the business process paradigm. Here is an opportunity to examine the methods by which physical items are located, processed, and sent out for shipping. We can see in viewing interlibrary loan in the more favorable resource-sharing supply- chain conceptual framework what reveals itself is a push and pull between the processes of the physical item and the processes of the information item. Once the physical item has been boxed up and shipped to another university there is the second opportunity to match the informational item with the physical item. Here at the point of check-in with the borrowing library is the informational item again paired with the physical item. It is also at this point where again we see the presence of the physical item while the information item is temporarily halted in the supply-chain process—halted in the sense that the informational item is held in place while the physical item is checked out and used. The informational item is not entirely static but is used to mark the passage of time, meaning it will signal when the item is due or not due. There is also an opportunity with the static informational item to work on the method of communication with the patron. Improving communication can spur the return or the flow of the physical item from the patron back to the holding university. This is a sample of how the different paradigms of a supply chain can act upon the interlibrary loan system. However, those libraries wishing to move more toward resource sharing are going to want to critically look at this process again. Keeping in mind the six paradigms and an eye toward the two questions we posed at the beginning of this discussion.

The first question was, what is the best strategy to deal with the separation of physical item and information as it pertains to the supply chain? It seems like from the summary of the processes presented in this chapter that the best strategy is, in a way, to recognize that these are two separate systems. Viewing them as separate allows for a better understanding of where and when the paradigms can be of help as well as identifying the opportunities for intervention into the process for the purpose of improvement.

For example, in thinking of the movement of the informational item, the places where we could look for improvement would be in the transmission phase, meaning a need to look for ways to quickly and automatically identify items and send them out to other universities. This is where systems like Relais, RAPID, and Direct Request can offer assistance. Utilizing automated requesting systems, we can streamline the supply chain and offer a certain amount of automation. Also, the ability for users to access some of these systems changes how they interact with resource-sharing units and the expectations they have for supply of the item. In turn, this will get users’ requests out faster and aide in the matching of the item. Where this becomes an issue is in receipt of the informational item at the lending library. Libraries need to recognize that informational items are not physical items and are thus influenced by a different set of criteria. Meaning in the informational phase providing more information that is necessary about the existence of the item can actually serve to hinder the process. As mentioned before things like conditionals for reserve/checked out items actually slow the process down. Upon receipt of the informational item there are areas of opportunity as well. Again, systems like Relais, Z39.50, and even RAPID can help technologically search for items and process them for printing. A new feature for this step is also the IDS Logic. A word of caution, though, in this informational stage. Providing too many conditions for the use of a physical item can also provide a hindrance. For example, if a large library with smaller branches that have innumerable conditions on the use of their items can also serve as a roadblock in this process. Think back to the paradigm of business process engineering and procurement. If the library places too many conditions on the item, it causes the increase for confusion as well as the potential for poorer quality of service. Technological systems have a way of allowing us to continue to conceptualize old processes in a new era. Effectively allowing us to covet and conditionalize items creating in fact less access in a time when we should be thinking of how we can increase access. We understand that loaning out items that are rare or valuable can be nerve racking. The solution here is rather than create so many barriers and conditions it actually might be advantageous to streamline the in-house usage criteria to allow for a consistent experience. If streamlined criteria cannot be met, then it might actually make some sense to cancel the item and allow it to move on. Many libraries would find this to be counterproductive, because they are considering the physical item in this situation. Meaning the physical item is very important and hard to come by. However, the informational item can move quickly between libraries and perhaps might end up at a library with far less conditions.

Considering the role of the physical item and what processes can help to improve the movement of the physical item through the supply chain, the physical item is the more important item of the two, primarily because that is where the money has been invested by the lending library. The lending library is going to want to see its investment returned with little to no depreciation. To that end, the physical item processing needs to consider the paradigms of function, information, and logistics.

In thinking of the functional paradigm this process provides the most opportunity for workflow improvement in the physical item. The functional paradigm suggests that one of the keys to an effective supply chain is ensuring good communication between the units within a company. Examining this paradigm in terms of the physical item, we can answer and address questions such as if the pulling is done by another unit the resourcesharing unit needs to ensure that it is done efficiently and in line with the expectations of that unit. If it is done within the resource sharing, it needs to be handled accordingly. Looking for areas of improvement in communication can be both written and verbal. Are instructions given to the students in a clear and concise manner so that they understand their roles in this process? The physical item also needs to have accurate information, meaning it needs to be easily identified and cataloged, which is in line with the informational paradigm. Are the pull slips configured with the correct information to allow the student to accurately locate the book or determine it’s not on the shelf? The functional paradigm for the physical item also applies when the item is found or not found, meaning when the student returns from the task of pulling. In indicating that the item is not found, it is important to make sure that the communication of the “Not on Shelf” status from the physical item back to the informational item is done quickly. Since there is no physical item process it is important to allow the informational item to move along the supply chain quickly, meaning conditional messages for items that are on reserve, checked out, or cannot be supplied only serve to slow down the process, returning the physical items that are found and being prepared for shipment. Again, thinking of improving communication between units, do the pull slips have the delivery addresses already on them? That is another opportunity to streamline the process. From there, how are the physical items prepared for shipment? This is also a functional question. Are shipment items mixed with different types of shippers? This type of process can lead to confusion and potential for mistakes. In thinking about the functional paradigm consider using physical barriers to help eliminate mistakes and streamline workflow. What we mean by that is consider placing books on a separate table for different couriers. This can serve as a functional break in the workflow and allow for a clearer picture of what item goes with which courier. Different shelving is also a potential solution for this. The functional paradigm can also apply to how student activities are governed.

Think about the ways in which the students conduct their work. Are they allowed to move from one task to another or must they complete a task before moving to the next? If they are allowed to move fluidly are there opportunities for staff to verify the quality of work completed. All of these can be functional considerations for the monitoring and improving student workflow. Along with the functional paradigm we must also consider the information paradigm as well.

The informational paradigm is closely aligned with the informational item. This is a subtle point but an important one. There are two types of information in this exchange. The first is the information about the physical item, that is, the metadata and the information of the pull slip. The second is how the informational paradigm relates to the informational item. This is understood as how the information about the physical item relates to the informational item. In library terms this can be understood at the metadata about the physical items and how they are related to the electronic information of the information item. It is important to match these two pieces quickly and efficiently. There are several technologies that will be discussed earlier in this book that can help at the point of when the request is received. However, another point is when the physical item has been located and needs to be matched in the system. It is important here to have clear processes in place and to develop a methodology for this. If students are handling this process, we will want to ensure that they have a good grasp of the identifying information to ensure an accurate match. Also at the phase in which the physical item is located we have to ensure that accurate information is added to the informational item, namely the due date. Since the due date notifications are handled by the informational item it is important that this data is accurately translated. The final paradigm that applies most to the physical item is the logistics involved.

The logistics paradigm is focused primarily on the physical item. The movement of the item from point a to point b are the sole region of the logistics paradigm. In what ways are items physically moved throughout the resource-sharing unit’s area? Are physical items organized to ensure accurate shipping? Are they labeled in a way to ensure accurate packaging? These are all logistical questions. Finally, in terms of shipping, are the appropriate shippers used to deliver the physical items in a timely manner? Is there tracking available to track the package? All of these are opportunities for libraries to streamline the logistical processes on the physical item. The final question is whether or not the separation between the physical item and the informational item matters. What is meant by that is whether or not there needs to be a formal connection or does the separation of these concepts leave open the possibility for evolution.

Given the increased capability for patrons to generate informational items in the form of requests, coupled with the evolution of the expectations of the patron driven by technology, there is likely little possibility that the physical item and the informational item can be returned to a coherent piece aside from the opportunities in the supply chain where they are linked. The advantage in the separation is the advantage of the fluidity of the supply chain. The separation allows requests to quickly move from library to library. Being able to identify a holding library quickly using a free-flowing informational item is one of the primary reasons a supply-chain management understanding of resource sharing is critical to the evolution of interlibrary loan into resource sharing. The developments of new ways of thinking about the processing and movement of interlibrary loan items through an interlibrary loan office will require increased emphasis on staff development and training. Having an interlibrary loan staff that is amenable to rapid change and an environment of flux will require a new type of staff member. The challenge with the evolving demands of interlibrary loan and the staff requirements are also compounded by the act that many departments will have employees who are used to a different way of viewing the process. There are a number of books and methods that describe change management and motivating employees for change. The transition to a nimbler interlibrary loan department can take time. To better understand how some of these concepts can help get the process started we will briefly discuss some change management models that may be of particular use in interlibrary loan.

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