from VCCA Journal, Volume 5, Number 1, Summer 1990, 38-42
© Copyright 1990 VCCA Journal
New River Community College, located in Southwestern Virginia, serves over 155,000 citizens of the New River Valley who reside in the counties of Floyd, Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski, and the city of Radford. It has a current enrollment of 3,800 students and slightly more than 2,000 full-time equivalent students whose average age is 28 years.
The Learning Resource Center (LRC), an essential component in the educational efforts of the college, operates the college library and provides services in the areas of independent/extended learning, audio-visuals, faculty development, distance education (including teleconferencing), tutoring, and note-taking.
The Model Program
ln January 1986, efforts were initiated to improve the level, quality, responsiveness, and adaptability of LRC services to meet the changing needs of the college's students, faculty, staff, and the community. Central to these efforts is a theme of employee involvement and empowerment. Employees are urged to participate in the problem solving and decision making process, to take ownership of their jobs, and to reach their potential as contributing members of a team.
At the heart of employee involvement and empowerment efforts is a firm belief that people make a difference. The human resources of the LRC are considered the organization's most valuable assets and the only ones which appreciate in value. When people are empowered to use their human potential, improvement in the performance of the organization can occur. Based on this belief, a climate was established and is continuing to evolve that is intended to create an atmosphere of trust and teamwork, enhance the problem-solving and decision making capabilities of employees, better use the unique skills and talents of employees, and improve communication between employees and among departments. We also aim to push decision making down to the lowest possible level, improve job satisfaction, increase employee knowledge levels, and improve the level and quality of products and services.
The process of involving and empowering employees of the LRC is ongoing and composed of a variety of activities which have substantially improved the level and quality of services and products.
The first step in the process of empowering people was to believe in the process and commit to seeing it through. Change is never easy; giving up power is sometimes disconcerting for managers, and accepting power and responsibility makes some employees uncomfortable. However, for the process to work, everyone in the organization needed to be committed to its success. Meetings were held with LRC managers, all LRC employees, and top college administrators to review the process and to gain commitment from those involved.
A major step in creating a new sense of service and quality in the LRC was to re-examine the center's purpose and to establish a vision of what employees wanted the LRC to be. Discussions on the mission of the college and the LRC were held during weekly staff meetings as a means to identify the potential of the LRC. Center managers focused on medium- and long-range needs of the college and on opportunities for the LRC. Activities stressing the importance of quality service and customer satisfaction were held to reaffirm the LRC's service orientation. Finally, two half-day mission and visioning sessions involving all LRC employees were conducted to discuss the purposes and responsibilities of the LRC and to establish an employee-based vision of what the LRC would be. These sessions resulted in a mission statement and the following goal: the Learning Resource Center of New River Community College will be recognized nationally as a model for community college learning resource programs in providing quality resources and services.
The human resources of an organization are the only resources that appreciate in value, all others depreciate. Considering this, the staff development effort, a major emphasis of the empowerment process, featured seminars and workshops conducted for LRC staff in personality style, listening style, teamwork and problem solving. Employees were encouraged to learn more about themselves and about each other so that they could better work together as a team, and they were encouraged to attend seminars, workshops and conferences off-campus as well as visit other colleges to gain insights into how other organizations operate.
To become effective, the LRC's structure must reflect its oppor- tunities as well as its responsibilities. Consequently, four units were encouraged to expand their services and operations, with each unit taking ownership of its particular services and enhancing the level and quality. Each unit also sought to complement the other units, making for a united and comprehensive organization. As a result, productivity in all four units increased. Employees are encouraged to solve problems and make decisions when possible.
Since effective communication is important to the empowerment process, great effort is made to insure that everyone is aware of what is going on not only in the LRC but also in the college and at the state level as well. Shared information is shared knowledge. Management Team meetings are held every Monday to review the status of current projects and the week's plan of action, and to discuss any problems or concerns that need to be addressed. Weekly staff meetings are also held with the entire staff to review activities and discuss problems. Emphasis is placed on listening so that people understand what is being said. To obtain feedback from users, the LRC regularly surveys clients and patrons.
In addition to the enhanced problem solving and decision making skills, employee involvement has also generated a greater understanding of roles and responsibilities; this has increased understanding of the total operation and has provided a caring and concerned organization.
Specific employee involvement and empowerment activities included the introduction of a Circonference Quality Circle in February 1986 which established special project teams. The first project was to improve the level of LRC evening services. Twenty-five reasons why LRC evening services were not as effective as day services were identified. Solutions were suggested and implemented. Today the current evening operation is rated as much more effective.
Faced with a shortage of personnel, Circonference initiated a comprehensive program to more effectively obtain, train, and retain college work-study students. This program resulted in a savings of almost $42,000 and a national award from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) and the USX Foundation. Of equal importance was the transfer of involvement and empowerment from LRC staff members to student assistants. The Circonference Quality Circle has shared its efforts with other colleges and made a presentation at the 1987 Virginia Community College Association convention.
ln addition to the Circonference Quality Circle, the LRC has also established special "project teams" to place concentrated effort on solving critical problems. Because the LRC is functionally aligned into three specialized units--Audiovisual Services, Library Services, and Independent Learning Services--care is taken to assure that each unit is represented on a project team, regardless of the problem area. Each project team addresses a specific problem, over a specific time, and makes specific recommendations for solving that problem.
The efforts of one project team, the Redwood Project, have resulted in a five-year plan to improve the collection and over $110,000 in funding raised through private sources. The Cypress team developed a master plan to automate operations of the LRC via microcomputers, and as funding is available, components of the plan will be added. The LRC recently converted to a computerized circulation system of its library holdings based on the team's recommendations.
The involvement of all employees in as much of the planning and decision making process and in as many LRC activities as possible has been the primary thrust of effort. Since a goal is to establish an organization of thinking employees where teamwork is the norm, employees are also encouraged to participate in college committees and activities to gain a better understanding of the entire college.
To become more effective, the operation of the Learning Resource Center was examined for appropriateness and efficiency of service. Wherever possible, the structure was simplified enabling more employee involvement and better service to customers. Bureaucracy was reduced and destructive conditions, such as unnecessary authorizations, paperwork, and privileges were eliminated. As much as possible, the LRC became a flexible organization, able to respond to changing demands and situations. The four departments of the LRC are structured to maximize their potential while complementing each other.
Employees have also developed a five-year plan of action which reflects the college's master plan and is based on the LRC mission statement. Each year the entire LRC staff reviews the accomplishments of the past year and establishes an action plan for the coming year, which reflects the college goals for the year and serves as a basis for additional planning and decision making by LRC employees. The plan takes into account the LRC's critical needs and requirements to provide services. Quarterly evaluations ensure that the LRC is focused on achieving its desired results. An evaluation at the end of the year provides data to determine how well goals and objectives are being met.
lt is important to the success of the LRC that employees believe their work has meaning and purpose and that it is something in which they can take pride. The LRC produced its own brochure as an identity piece and produces a college-wide periodical dedicated to the teaching and learning process. The LRC also looks for success, rewards it, and enjoys it. Within the past three years, the LRC has received four national awards: three for video production, and one for cost-reduction activities. The LRC also received a state award for outstanding achievement in education for its "Video Store Connection" project. ln addition, the LRC continually receives letters of appreciation from clients. These letters are shared with all employees.
To insure that the empowerment process continues, it is important to nurture the process. Readings are taken through activities such as "management by walking around" and careful listening to employees. Employees are continually encouraged to use their skills and knowledge to solve problems and make decisions. Ex- cellent work is rewarded through recognition. The process is supported through presentations to top college administrators and presentations by employees at conferences and seminars.
The employee involvement and empowerment program is successfully accomplishing its objectives. Employee feedback from the August 1988 retreat indicated a real sense of trust and teamwork. Front- line employees are making decisions, consciously questioning methods, and seeking better solutions to problems. Employees are recognizing latent talents and putting them to use, communication is more open, and leaders are emerging. Employees recently indicated a high sense of job satisfaction, and the level and quality of products and services has improved.
Specific results achieved since the implementation of the employee involvement and empowerment efforts include improved evening services, an improved security system, a collection development plan which resulted in an asset growth from $15,665 in 1986 to more than $81,000 in 1988, and over $110,000 in private funding to support library collection development. We have also seen a 36% increase in circulation, a 27% increase in the number of clients served, and the initiation of an independent learning program resulting in 229 students completing course work during the first year of the program. Furthermore, we have a 242% increase in the enrollment of independent learning students from the first year to second year of the program, a new college teleconference service resulting in 375 individuals being served during the program's first year, a self-sufficient copier system, and a training program for work-study students resulting in an annual savings of almost $42,000. The list goes on and on.
Employee involvement and empowerment efforts will continue to be nurtured, and as new employees enter the LRC, they will become part of the process. Hopefully, as employees leave the LRC, they will carry the seed for employee empowerment with them. The process itself will be continually examined, tuned, and adjusted to maintain a flexible, adaptive, and responsive organization designed to meet the changing needs of community college education.
A Model for Employee Participation and Empowerment
The Learning Resource Center of New River Community College uses a basic 12 part plan to encourage employee participation and empowerment that can be implemented by any organization to enhance its level of quality and production.
Tom Wilkinson is Director of Learning Resources at New River Community College.
Peggy Atkins, Bridget Franklin, and Carol Smith are with New River's Learning Resources Center.