I think that the cross-cultural concept of “context” (Hall 1976) could be a really helpful way to think about effective liaison with clients. Let’s begin by considering the two types of environmental (& communication) contexts:
- Low context environments – “low levels of programmed language are used to provide context” & so “a large amount of information must be present to specify meaning” (Korac-Kakabadse et al 2001, p. 6)
- High context environments – “high amount of programmed information is used to provide context” & so “more time is required to programme & abstract meaning from a given set of rules” (Korac-Kakabadse et al 2001, p. 6).
When we are interacting in & with our client groups, we are in a high context situation because we are working in different discipline cultures, so we need to say & do in ways that let our clients make sense of what we are saying & why it is relevant & important to them. And, to ensure that we (as service providers) understand what our clients are saying & doing.
- Putting aside for one moment all the socio-cultural differences within the group I serve (Engineering, Surveying & GIS), I am working with relatively low context communicators. So, building trust, respect, etc is critical to the liaison role as we need to be able to understand each other & engage openly & honestly to work with the issues of mutual relevance.But, these issues are the focus of my role & not the focus of the clients’ role so the clients will not necessarily recognise them the way I do or prioritise them as highly as I do. So, as the service provider & the person responsible for progressing library-related issues, it is my responsibility to be the one to start building the trust, respect & understanding with the group as a whole & with individual clients.This means that I have to have a high context approach in a low context environment
- At the same time, many high context cultures are represented in my client group so there is an additional complexity on a more human level which adds another layer to the liaison role.
Although I have to be able to communicate to make meaning for & with the clients, I also can’t just be a high context communicator as the disciplines are low context communicators & not terribly patient with high context communication styles. So, I have to translate all of this meaning into a much lower context communication style than I would naturally use if I want my clients to work with me.
At the same time, in an organisational sense, I am the one with the least power & authority so I have to maintain the high context complexity approach over time as situations & working relationships with the client group change.
Could this lead us to some insights for liaison librarianship I wonder?
- To be effective, liaison librarians need to be communicating within a high context framework whether or not their clients are high context communicators
- Depending on their personal professional style & the clients with whom they work, liaison librarians may need to operate with communication context that does not come naturally to them.
I’ve discussed this with a liaison librarian in Education & the high/low context environments speak to him too. Education disciplines are incredibly different to my disciplines – they use different tools to understand the world & they use different words to talk about the world – so I wonder if there is something in this way of framing liaison work?
My experience with mega weeding & subscription cancellation projects is that they are wonderfully positive opportunities to develop client relationships:
- Clients have a big stake in these activities so they place the “library stuff” higher up their list of priorities & take the time to engage where they normally would not when “library stuff” is lower down their list of priorities
- So, if I’m communicating well, they get to think about the library stuff in different ways & so we get to work together differently towards mutual goals. So, clients begin focusing on what non-use means in a world of Google & finite library space, what that reality means for the use of their own space, & how information literacy may be relevant
- Not everyone engages and not everyone thinks about all of these things, but a good number of people do start thinking & talking about these things when they never would in the standard settings. And, all this engagement leads to the development of new relationships between client & librarian & stronger existing relationships between client & librarian.
Korac-Kakabadse et al 2001, ‘Low-and high-context communication patterns: towards mapping cross-cultural encounters’, Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 3-24.