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SLA Courts Controversy With New Communications Platform
Posted On July 12, 2016
When the Special Libraries Association (SLA) rolled out SLA Connect on June 1, 2016, it informed members by email that the traditional discussion lists hosted via listserv would be discontinued on July 1. The sunset date was later changed to Aug. 1 to give SLA unit leaders more time to notify their units about the new platform’s capabilities and to transfer their members. All SLA members were automatically subscribed to the SLA Connect Open Forum, where they can participate in discussions. Dues-paying division members were subscribed to their divisions.

According to Tom Rink, SLA’s president, the board approved SLA Connect in 2013, and implementation began in early 2015. “As part of the decision to move forward with implementation, it was discussed and agreed upon that due to the substantial features available with this platform, [SLA] Connect would eventually replace the multi-channel communications that are not able to be supported and maintained by the limited staff we have,” he says.

SLA Connect “will revolutionize the way you interact with fellow members,” writes David Stern, chair of SLA’s Technology Advisory Council, on the SLA Connect Open Forum. It is built on “a cloud infrastructure that is more reliable and has many more features and capabilities than the prior discussion list and wiki infrastructure,” writes James King, SLA’s secretary, in his own Open Forum post.

Tools Available in the First Phase

Stern says that “this platform creates an archived threaded discussion that is dynamic and can be integrated with and stores any attachments as part of that discussion.” He says the following tools are part of the first phase rollout:

  • DiscussionsMembers have control over an always-open central meeting place to collaborate, ask questions, give answers and discuss the hot topics of the day
  • Resource Library—Communities build a private knowledge base of best practices, with sample documents, spreadsheets, meeting minutes, pictures, videos, podcasts and more—enabling our members to contribute to its growth
  • Directories—Creates the foundation for the SLA networks, where members manage their industry profiles, form their own communities and connect with friends, colleagues and mentors
  • Membership History—Members are directly connected to their SLA and unit membership history with one single sign on
  • Wiki GlossaryHelps community members speak the same language by allowing them to create and edit a user-generated dictionary of industry terms
  • Event CalendarProvides a single source of updated information for all types of industry events, in which members can view, add, edit and find the events that are most relevant to their needs

Planned Enhancements

According to Stern, enhancements under consideration for future phases include the following:

  • Microsites—Lets staff and volunteer leaders easily create and manage branded websites for committees, chapters, councils, ad hoc groups or special events
  • Volunteer CentralPromotes volunteer opportunities directly to those looking for them. Members can search the volunteer database for people with the skills, time or location needed
  • Event Manager & CalendarOffers community leaders the tools to schedule and administer any type of meeting or event, from free webinars to complex multi-day conferences with paid registration
  • Mentor MatchConnects experienced mentors and ambitious mentees to share skills and advice across generations, and facilitate professional development
  • Speakers BureauSearch for and reach out to industry experts and speakers for any of the organization’s events, meetings and conferences
  • Mobile AppsEngage members while they're mobile, letting them search contacts, participate in discussions, check their messages and stay current with association news
  • Widget BuilderCommunity administrators can share their best content anywhere, and highlight the value of both users and the organization. Selected content can be embedded on other websites and found through most browser searches

On June 28, Stern announced a new feature, Networks, via the SLA Connect Open Forum: “Networks allows you to make connections to others with similar interests based upon words in your job title.”

Rink explains, “Upon the migration to our new headquarters space, we learned that the server SLA has maintained for the Wikis was not PCI compliant, and its integration was adversely impacting SLA and other clients of our association management firm. So while our original intent was to slowly rollback these platforms and transition the relevant content to SLA Connect, this technology breach made us severely accelerate the timeline for this transition.” SLA notified the volunteers responsible for maintaining various platforms via email and through the Connect interface and carried out a “deep-dive discussion with webmasters and listserv managers onsite at [the] SLA2016 [conference].”

Members’ Reactions

Despite communications via email and at annual conferences during the past 2 years, the rollout surprised many members who, until June 1, had not been aware that the traditional listservs would be gone. Moreover, a controversial new policy emerged wherein only dues-paying division members were subscribed to their division’s discussion forum, counter to some divisions’ policies that allow non-dues-paying SLA members—and in some cases, non-SLA members—to have access and participate. In the past, such policies have varied from division to division. The new policy automatically and immediately excluded non-dues-paying listserv members, who had belonged to several divisions based on interest or a wide swath of professional responsibilities. Unlike under traditional policies, they would be required to join multiple divisions and rack up unexpected costs, which for some is a financial burden. A student member pointed out the value of access to many discussion lists when she explained the importance of learning about various career options reflected in access to diverse divisions.

One effect of the quick and immediate change was that unit leaders were left to figure out how to continue member-inclusive policies, but without direction from SLA headquarters. Some scrambled to use workarounds after learning that SLA had no objection to their forming separate discussion lists outside SLA. One division established a Google Group, and another set up a university-sponsored listserv as a temporary solution. Some members threatened to drop SLA membership entirely. Others wondered about cost differences between traditional listservs and SLA Connect.

Rink says, “The decision was not made as a direct cost issue (the monthly fees for both are about equal in cost), but instead providing more value for a platform that could serve the membership as the listserv previously had done while providing additional engagement benefits such as being able to directly communicate with all SLA members, and share and store resources. In addition, with SLA Connect we were able to reduce the staff time needed to manage to three different platforms (websites, listservs and wikis) and increase staffing in areas of program development and member engagement.”

Based on member feedback, SLA leadership did a turnaround. “An unintended side effect of the SLA Connect configuration that wasn’t realized until it started rolling out beyond individual unit testers was that the platform was not configured to allow for interaction with other SLA unit communities unless you are a member of that unit. Recognizing that collaboration is at the heart of this platform and of SLA, the SLA staff, SLA Board, and the Technology Advisory Council … worked together … to implement some tentative changes, and … [now offer] several options to the unit leaders to determine how their individual community will exist on the SLA Connect platform,” Rink says.

Unit Community Options

According to King, the following community options are now available to units:

  1. Closed: This community is only open to your formal members and only those members will be able to see the activities of the community including discussion titles and membership lists. In addition, the existence of the community will be hidden from the All Communities list. Membership is automatically maintained by the SLA staff based upon formal membership and this is the default configuration for all leadership (board of director) communities. We’re exploring having a stub record show up in the All Communities list so that there is at least a record of the group existing without revealing details.
  2. Open for Viewing Only (DEFAULT): This community is automatically configured for full interactivity by formal members only. Other SLA members within SLA are able to browse into the community through the All Communities list to see the membership list, titles and content of discussion posts, and look at resources loaded into the community’s library. However, only formal members of the community will be able to respond to posts or receive email alerts.
  3. Hybrid Moderated (new): This community, if selected, would be an additional community that is initially populated with the formal unit membership but is also open for other SLA members to join. Requests from non-community members to join this “hybrid” community will be sent to the community admin(s) for approval. Once approved, the membership status of the “non-unit members” will need to be manually updated by the community admins and will not be tied to the SLA unit membership information found in the membership database.
  4. Hybrid Unmoderated (new): This community is similar to Option 3 but the join option is automatic and unmoderated. Community admins will still need to update the status of the “non-unit members” to allow interactivity and the membership will not be tied to the SLA unit membership information found in the membership database.

Non-SLA members who previously participated in discussions are encouraged to join SLA. At this time, at least three divisions (and possibly more) continue to be available to non-SLA members through alternative discussion platforms established by their respective unit’s leadership.

After a somewhat rocky start, the SLA board listened to members and acted quickly to resolve the policy that required joining multiple divisions, which is now a decision that will be left to each unit as in the past. SLA Connect’s benefits are clear, and the hardworking volunteer board members deserve our congratulations.

Amelia Kassel is president and owner of MarketingBase, a global business research firm since 1982, specializing in industry, company, and competitive and market intelligence research. Amelia holds a master’s degree in library science (UCLA) and combines expertise about the internet and premium databases with knowledge of business and marketing strategies. A recognized author and international speaker, Amelia conducts seminars for associations and conferences and gives workshops onsite for companies and organizations. She is also known for her successful one-on-one email-based Mentor Program in which she trains business searchers how to conduct research and aspiring independent information professionals how to successfully develop and grow their businesses.

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