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March 19, 2015

The Things We Do: This Must Be The Wrong Lock Because I Have The Right Key

Ah, the question. What do you do? Saying that we do consulting and software development isn’t inaccurate but it never feels adequate either, because it leaves out so much of what is critical about being good at what we do.

Describing what we do is difficult because it is both so specialized and so obvious and generic all at once. It can be easy to think of it as very niche but on the other hand it couldn’t be more mainstream. The things we do certainly can be as arcane as helping the Library of Congress to develop the BIBFRAME data model, or diagramming enterprise metadata management schemes for media & entertainment companies, or building funny little specialized tools for the community named things like Fixity and MDQC, or consulting with the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative to develop standards for testing analog-to-digital converters, or doing detailed workflow and throughput analysis for Indiana University and New York Public Library, and even doing digital preservation assessments for the likes of MoMA and VIAA. Yes, we do those things and lots more, but we do so much else too. Or maybe I should say that it’s how we do them that matters the most.

So what exactly is it that we do as a consulting and software development firm? From my point of view we enable and empower the use of data, media and metadata so that organizations can wield it to achieve their goals. For a media and entertainment company those goals will include increasing user consumption of content, leading to monetization. For a university they will include getting content into the hands of faculty and students. For a corporation they will include utilizing content effectively for marketing and public relations. For a not-for-profit they will include enabling content to serve education and advocacy.

One thing that sets us apart as a company is that we bring a different dimension to the conversation by thinking about both immediate and long-term access to media and data. Now, I usually prefer the word “use” over “access” because the latter is more archives and library lingo that does not quite have the same meaning outside of those worlds. However, as a word to describe the things we do for the purpose of this post, access conveys it more clearly.

Access, in general is the removal of barriers, but long-term access is not the permanent removal of barriers. Why? Because over time needs change, emerge, and evolve to present new types of obstacles.

Long-term access is about the removal of barriers in such a way that enables you to effectively remove obstacles as they present themselves. In other words, do not sandbag all of your doors to prevent flooding in such a way that you are left without an exit in case of a fire. Do not paint yourself into a corner. Instead of focusing only on how to get data from Solution A to Solution B, we are also looking at the exit path from solution B to an unknown Solution C to make sure the path exists and we can see it clearly. We are focused on building sustainable foundations on which new applications, services, and uses can effectively grow and change. From a financial perspective, we are not focused only on how an organization will garner funding to implement their current solution but also on how they will sustain their work on an ongoing basis.

I have to admit, when I started AVPreserve I made the naive and wrong assumption that most barriers were technological. In fact, what I came to find through working with many amazing organizations and hiring insightful and thoughtful people, is that barriers come in all forms: technological, political, organizational, financial, and more. Technology is often the smallest part of the solution.

As anyone (hand raised) who has purchased that brand new desk organizer, or the time management application, or the new whizz bang technology that will be sure to improve your life knows (seriously though, Slack is awesome), just as soon as you have it in your possession, you quickly find that simply owning some piece of technology is not the whole solution. It is human nature to want to believe that solutions to our problems are just one purchase away, and despite all proof that this is not the case we (hand raised) make the bet that, “This time it will work,” over and over again. The reality is that in order for a solution to remove barriers, of any form, a holistic approach is almost always required. This means establishing systems and policies, following through on them and forming new habits, and updating of technology and systems over time as they become outdated or less effective. It’s all of the things that happen before and after the procurement of that shiny new app that will ensure the attainment of an organization’s goals and objectives and, ultimately, success. And navigating this reality is what AVPreserve does… or at least helps to do.

When we work with organizations we really get to know them. As we talk to the people about about vision, goals, objectives, systems, workflows, and technology, we learn so much more about the organization, the people behind it, how it functions, areas of sensitivity and areas of ambition. We watch interactions, we read between the lines, we see how people actually use tools, content, and data. We use our experience with other organizations to better understand how to read each new one.

Yes, we have to be experts on the technologies that we are discussing or recommending, and yes we have to know the ins and outs of the industries and fields involved, but this is the easy part and is not why we succeed in helping clients implement effective solutions.

We succeed in helping our clients because of our attention to nuance. The small things. The real things. These are the things that allow you to get from what an organization needs, to how to actually make it work. This means knowing which compromises are worth making because it will be the difference between failure and success. It means knowing how to mitigate risk where you cannot negate it. It means coming up with unique solutions for unique organizations.

The title of this post – “This Must Be The Wrong Lock Because I Have The Right Key” is a jab at what I consider irresponsible consulting and software development firms who apply the same solution to every problem without considering what will really work for the organization. Singer-songwriter Joe Henry recently expressed a similar sentiment on On Being, one of my favorite podcasts. In talking about song writing he said “It’s about listening to what [the song] means to say and not what *I* mean to say.”

As consultants it is often expected that you walk in the door with the answers. That is why people hire you after all, right? I disagree wholeheartedly. Coming in with a key to the “wrong lock,” or coming in with your own story to tell instead of coming to understand the story being told by the organization is a path to failure. Consultants are often made fun of for just repeating the things that their clients say back to them. In fact, I think this is the sign of a good consultant. It’s a sign that they are listening, and if they are listening to you then they are listening to others, and if they are listening to others then they are coming to understand the organization as a whole. They are gathering the knowledge necessary to identify the key for the lock that exists, and to understand the story of a unique organization. It is only after this takes place that access can be granted and solutions can successfully be implemented. It takes the expertise to know what, the experience to know why and the understanding to know how.

Chris Lacinak

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