Implementing the ArchivesSpace PUI: A Before Action Review

Plato’s Ship of State metaphor postulates, “A true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft.” Accounting for all possible variables, risks, pluses, and minuses is also the mainstay of project management. And, if Plato were alive today, you can bet he’d make you put all of it into the project charter!

Before any project begins, the Project Manager (PM) should initiate a Before Action Review, to identify as much of the current environment as possible. This will include talking to people who have expressed the business need, talking to stakeholders, looking at proposed/active concurrent projects, and remembering to reflect on not just what is presented, but what isn’t (more on that in an upcoming post). Often a project is initially presented as either a loosely defined idea, or a shoot the works scenario wherein everyone is promised a pony. Then the PM should figure out the ideal, sustainable, middle ground within an organization’s current capacity, and manage the expectations sure to follow that recommendation.

Next the PM is going to look at the calendar. (How I do love calendars! I think they are a fascinating combination of math, language, and social construct.) The calendar is either the one she carries in her head, the one drawn with dry-erase markers on a whiteboard, or the one on her mobile. (Another nerdy confession- I love smart phones because it means I always have a calendar within reach.) Time is everything in project management, and calendars are how we identify units of time at work. Mondays, how many business days, a work week, the month of January. The PM asks other time-centered questions-Do you have enough? Do you have work estimates? Have you adequately expressed time as a direct cost? What about time as momentum? And time not just at the party, but the setup and breakdown of the party? Time is always on my mind. That look Steelsen gives me when I know March 27, 2018 is a Tuesday without having to check. During the ArchivesSpace crisis, my dad gave me a replica of the time turner necklace Professor McGonagall gave Hermione, that enabled her to be in two places at once and get all her work done. That last week in January, I never took it off, and I still cry every time they go back to save Buckbeak.

As Yale begins the work of implementing the new public user interface for ArchivesSpace, we took time to conduct a Before Action Review. A BAR is not as typical as an After Action Review (AAR), which is when the work is completed and you reflect on what went well and what could have gone better. But I like the beginnings and endings of projects the best, because they can be the areas that receive the least amount of planning and time. They are often underestimated for their overall influence on project success and stakeholder satisfaction, and ensuring your work and choices are directly addressing the business need. I like this image for what it conveys about taking time to think things through.

I typically ask three questions during a BAR-What are we trying to accomplish? What do we think will change? How will we know if we are successful? These three simple questions generate invaluable insight into what people are thinking, what assumptions exist, what folks are scared about, or excited about, and how we characterize success. The PM should then continue to use the feedback to shape elements of the project. For example, here are some of the responses to What are we trying to accomplish in the PUI project?

  • Roll out a holistic and focused service, fully integrated with production
  • An improved user experience for discovery and access of archival materials

These are important objectives. They express the aging technical environment for archives and special collections at Yale, and they also express our professional and organizational values. They are aspirational, but still possible, if given the right amount of time. As a project team, including stakeholders and sponsors, we need to keep defining and refining what we mean when we say holistic and focused. Those words capture ideas and feelings about what we want, and a PM should help break them out into S.M.A.R.T. style goals. Reviewing the point about an improved user experience, leads to a need to examine current metrics on what the user experience is for discovery and access of archival materials. As we roll into production, we can’t qualitatively, or quantitatively, measure improvements if we don’t know where we started, and if we don’t define improved. If the project team states this as something we want to accomplish, the PM should revisit the project plan to include specific tasks and resources to address it.

Taking that a step further, the PM also must determine what’s in scope, and outline recommendations for what improvements can be made now, and which ones need to wait for post-rollout. The PM might use the project scorecard method to manage any objectives. This involves stating an objective, something like improved user experience for discovery, and identifying measures, targets, and either tasks or program initiatives, depending on the scale of the objective. A measure in this context is just as it sounds, an observable parameter, such as the number of monthly service desk questions concerning user difficulty in locating materials. Then you set several targets as reasonable to the scope and time frame of the project. Maybe the phase 1 target is a 5% reduction in this category of question, and a longer-term target is a 15% reduction. (These are examples). Finally, the project plan would include tasks to initiate this improvement, or if the effort is a greater scale, perhaps a program initiative is setup to increase end-user training and conduct more frequent usability reviews.

The “what do we think will change” question is particularly important to me. Sometimes I observe organizations discussing change on a meta-scale, such as what will libraries be like in 50 years? But this question in a BAR has a more immediate time frame of around 6 months, and the process and outcomes of change are likely to be felt more acutely by people here now. Earlier, I mentioned that the BAR could help suss out what folks might be scared about, or anxious, or unclear in a pending project. And that may not be the best business language to use, but it gets to the heart of our work and our feelings about our place in it. There’s lots I feel anxious about at work. Will we make our preferred upgrade deadline? Am I smart enough to be of service? What if I never fully understand EAD? And don’t even get me started on how CAS works! I know there are tokens involved, but not the kind you can use to buy pizza. If people are given an environment to state their concerns, and be heard, then the fear of change immediately begins to dissipate. If a colleague offers that they are concerned about having to learn a whole new way to process collections, recognize that staff training is an important step, and the PM should build time into the project for it. Make conversation about change a part of the project, the stakeholder registry, and communications plan. This also applies to assumptions. Asking folks what they think will change, is a bullet train to uncover assumptions. Find out what they are early in the process, while there is time for relevant course correction.

An interesting outcome of the “what do we think will change” question for the PUI, is how much feedback there was on anticipated changes for staff workflows. When implementing a public user interface, it’s possible that we could minimize the amount of focus on staff workflow, and think primarily about the user’s experience. 66% of the name is external facing, public user. But for legitimate reason. It is a public user interface. The “what are we trying to accomplish” question generated more user-based objectives, like the improved experience for discovery and access. I think it will be critical to balance the needs in both areas, within our preliminary project time frame. As Melissa Barton noted, “We can’t underestimate the effort required to teach users about what finding aids are.” I’m eager to continue this discussion with stakeholders, to see where there is alignment between these two aspects of the project.

As to the last question regarding, how will we know if we are successful, well that’s easy!