The National Library Board of Singapore - Managing Innovation in a Service Organisation

Libraries probably aren't associated with entrepreneurship or customer centricity in most peoples' minds. But as Arnoud De Meyer, the Akzo Nobel Fellow of Strategic Management, and co-author Sam Garg explain, the National Library Board of Singapore managed in a few years to transform radically the state's library system, in keeping with the government's "knowledge-based economy" initiatives. The authors also detail the major Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) procedure that was integral to the Board's efforts to avoid service discontinuities while simultaneously promoting greater systemic efficiencies.

by Arnoud De Meyer, Sam Garg
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

"[A major] concern is how to optimise our limited resources. How can NLB continue to provide excellent services to the public, and expand the learning capacity of the nation? And if faced with tight resource constraints, can NLB sustain its current service offerings?" says Lim Soo Hoon,National Library Board of Singapore

Perhaps in the minds of many, libraries are not readily associated with concepts of customer centricity or overall dynamism. Such was the challenge facing the board of Singapore's National Library. But from 1995 to 2003, it managed to transform both the image and the functioning of the library from one of ultra-bureaucratic stodginess to that of a proactive, vibrant provider of knowledge in a rich variety of forms.

Arnoud De Meyer, the Akzo Nobel Fellow of Strategic Management, and co-author Sam Garg detail the NLB's effectiveness in remaking itself into what is now widely lauded as one of the most innovative public service organisations in the country.

The case serves to emphasise the eagerness on the part of the Singaporean government, beginning in the early 90s, to assert itself as an exemplary "knowledge-based economy". The Library 2000 Review Committee (L2RC), initially under the leadership of the then-chairman of the National Computer Board, was entrusted with what for some may have seemed a very daunting task: "to enhance the learning capacity of the nation".

In attempting to fulfil its remit, the L2RC began by attempting to answer the fundamental question of what the integral role of libraries should be in a society like Singapore. De Meyer and Garg describe the LR2C's considerations against a backdrop of contemporary government-led initiatives. On the basis of its interim recommendations, the high-tech Tampines Regional Library was opened in 1994.

The case offers valuable insight into the effective development of internal entrepreneurial concepts in a governmental milieu. The library management team, acting in close accordance with specific L2RC recommendations, was quick to develop an implementation plan.

While the members in charge of considering new developmental activities were responsible for entertaining some very innovative ideas, their lines of inquiry, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not always go over too well with some veteran librarians. Happily, many concerns were alleviated with the decision not to retrench any staff as a direct result of the planned transformations.

The authors also detail the major Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) process that was integral to the Board's efforts to avoid service discontinuities while simultaneously promoting greater systemic efficiencies. The BRP process's success is best demonstrated by the fact that by 2002, the NLB had become so familiar with the new, state-of-the-art radio frequency identification (RFID) system that this new system's installation took only three days from start to finish.

The case also offers an exemplary lesson in how to quell the types of panicking that may emerge when IT-based innovations do not sit comfortably with a good percentage of an organisation's staff - not least of all when there are fears of mass redundancies involved.

It also describes a very interesting example of "productising" internal capabilities. Most of the services that were gradually, but efficiently adopted throughout the national library system were designed to first be prototyped, then developed on a relatively small scale. As the authors state, "This process was no different for some of the services that were eventually marketed to institutional or corporate clients."

INSEAD 2005

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