Adaptive competence

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You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you belong to any of the LIS professional associations (and if you don’t, join one now!), you’ve probably seen discussions about “core competencies,” otherwise known as those skills and areas of expertise in which all professionals in a specific discipline are expected to excel.

For example, the Special Library Association’s 2016 Core Competencies Statement establishes standards in six areas: information and knowledge services; information and knowledge systems and technology; information and knowledge resources; information and data retrieval and analysis; organization of data, information and knowledge assets, and information ethics. (See a list of multiple LIS association Core Competency Statements here.)

Static vs. responsive competency

As an SLA member involved in the Core Competencies Statement revision, I completely supported the goals of the effort but, as an LIS career specialist, I was struck by the fact that all such statements of competencies faced an impossible task: while they could describe the skills needed today, they simply had no way to identify what skills would be needed in a discipline whose future is unpredictable at best. Based on that experience, I’ve come to believe that there is one overriding, all-encompassing competency that we all need in our information careers: adaptive competency.

Brad Rogers, Director of Recruiting and Client Services Manager for LAC Group, has come to the same conclusion in his work with hundreds of clients and the information professionals he recruits. “The ability to adapt to new or changing circumstances is simply critical to remaining competitive, whether to LAC as a company or to our clients or the information professionals we work with.” And, according to Brad, somewhat unlike the associations’ core competencies, “adaptive competency is as much about attitudes as it is about skills.”

Defining adaptive competency

One definition of adaptive competency I particularly like is former SLA president and current Romainiacs president’s Cindy Romaine, who described it as “the ability to respond positively to a rapidly evolving environment and come out better for it.” I would suggest it’s also the ability to not just bounce back, but instead bounce forward, to anticipate the opportunities in change, match those opportunities up with your information skills and create solutions to move your organization–and your career– in a positive new direction.

Some of the attitudes I’ve found central to adaptive competency in my own highly eclectic career:

A focus on solutions rather than obstacles

There are a million ways to say no: we’ve never done that, we tried it before and it didn’t work, that’s not how we do things. Or the famous and ever-popular I can’t see how that would work, who’s going to pay for it, not my responsibility, and my personal favorite, are you nuts??? When someone poses a new challenge for you to deal with, it’s easy to focus on all the potential obstacles and raise these as reasons not to move forward. But a solutions-focus gives you the opportunity to use (and demonstrate) your analytical skills, your ability to think strategically and perhaps even your project management capabilities.

By taking the initiative instead of ducking under the desk, you become a professional who has contributions to make and value to add. And your career efforts will focus not on the obstacles blocking your way, but on the solutions moving you forward.

An understanding and acceptance of change

No matter how crazy change can make most of us, the reality is that change is non-negotiable, and your goal is to focus on the energy rather than the fear inherent in change.

In order to do this, it helps to explore how you usually react to change (if you’re like most of us, not well)–and then practice more positive responses. This will help you become comfortable with your change process, and consequently more confident in dealing with the ongoing changes of the LIS profession.

A willingness to adapt your skills to the environment

Whether in a business, public library, association information center, government agency or any of the other environments LIS professionals may find themselves in, your ability to move easily among them depends in large part on your flexibility. Can you adapt to the language of your organizations, align your processes to support theirs, develop systems that use your knowledge to suit new goals?

How well you read environments and how effectively you transfer your skills to them determine how readily you succeed in new opportunities. The world is not going to adapt to us, we need to be willing to adapt to it.

Interview and opportunities

A willingness to look for opportunity

Opportunities are all around us yet, if not paying attention to them, we’ll miss most of the moments when our careers–if not our lives–could have opened up.

French biologist Louis Pasteur asserted that “chance favors the prepared mind,” and careers are no different. If your mind is focused on finding or creating opportunities, then you will be positioned to move quickly with new solutions or products or services when an opening arrives. Just as chance favors the prepared mind, opportunity favors the prepared skill set. Be ready to pivot your skills to new opportunities.

An ability to anticipate

The old assumption was that librarians waited to be asked. Their role was a passive, reactive one. No longer. LIS professionals must have an eye out for what will be needed next and be there in advance. Often your most effective role is scout, riding ahead of the troops to see what’s coming over the horizon. Your research and analysis skills uniquely equip you for this spot; it’s your ground to claim.

“I think success lies at the intersection of preparation, determination, and opportunity,” suggested Edward B. Stear in his now-classic Online article “Predicting the Future Is Important, Navigating the Future Is Essential” (November/December 2003: 16-18). Add to that intersection a focus on anticipating the needs of your clients, customers, colleagues and communities, and you have insured a key role for yourself as an adaptable LIS professional, no matter what your career path.

A willingness to take risks 

All growth involves risk. Every new opportunity demands that you move from what you know into the unknown, with all its potential risks. It’s critical to accept the complementary relationship of risk and reward; doing so often determines whether or not you can continue to move toward your goals and adapt to new circumstances.

It’s often said that men make decisions driven by a desire for gain, whereas women’s decisions are based on a fear of loss. If we, men or women, remain mired in a bad situation based on this latter choice, then we’ve already lost. Learning how to take risks in such a way that you’re not paralyzed by fear means you’ll have the confidence necessary for large (and well-thought-through) risks later.

A commitment to continuous learning

We graduate with an MLIS based on the information universe—and its tools—of the moment. Within a few short years the tools and technologies of that universe have changed, or unforeseen opportunities have taken our careers in new directions. Continuous growth calls for continuous learning; without it, we’re stuck with what very quickly becomes yesterday’s skill set.

Staying abreast of new ideas, processes, technologies and tools is one of the most effective ways to ensure ongoing career adaptability, as well as your continued ability to contribute strategically to your organization.

An ability and willingness to continually reinvent ourselves

This last point comes from information entrepreneur and coach Mary Ellen Bates, who identified it as among the key traits needed by newly graduated MLIS students during a personal discussion we had after she had been a guest speaker in my Alternative LIS Careers class. Mary Ellen exemplifies the success that comes from this level of adaptability: her career includes being an information broker, columnist, book author, business consultant, research trainer, seminar speaker, guest lecturer and international keynoter, among other activities. She has grown into these roles by continually reinventing herself, what she is capable of and the value she’s able to create for her clients and constituencies.

Adaptive competence…and confidence

Einstein once said that the measure of intelligence is the ability to change. To paraphrase Dr. Einstein, I would argue that the measure of LIS career intelligence is the ability to adapt.

It’s what will keep you employable (and employed) as the coming wave of automation reconfigures your workplace. It’s why you’ll be chosen to lead that cool new project that requires the ability to master and apply new Knowledge on demand. It’s what will make you the team leader of choice for the organization contemplating a major change initiative. And it’s the skill that will enable you to endlessly reinvent your career and continually position yourself in the path of opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, it takes confidence to be able to adapt to new circumstances and challenges. Fortunately, life usually supplies an abundance of “teaching moments,” otherwise known as unanticipated events that turn our well-ordered lives and careers upside down. That’s great news! Because with each disruption comes a new opportunity to practice your adaptive skills and attitudes.

At first a change might simply feel disruptive and disorienting (okay, and annoying), but now’s the time to start reframing your reactions and building your adaptive capacity. Try to handle at least one aspect of a given change a bit better than you might have previously, and you’re already on your way to achieving adaptive competence and confidence. Remember, as with all career growth, you’re aiming for progress, not perfection. But the more practice you have, the easier each new challenge becomes. So don’t just accept changes in your workplace, try to embrace them if you can–pretty soon, your adaptive competence will be opening up terrific career opportunities for you.

Kim Dority

Kim Dority

Kim Dority is a library and information science (LIS) career adviser and consultant. As Adjunct Faculty at the University of Denver's Library/Information Sciences Program, she teaches graduate courses on alternative MLIS career options. Special Libraries Association (SLA) has awarded Ms. Dority the Rose L. Vormelker Award for her commitment to teaching and professional development.
Kim Dority
Kim Dority

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