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  • Ian Showell

Libraries, bicycles and outsourcing…

Hiding in a side street between Leicester Square and the National Gallery in London is the Westminster Reference Library. I went there today to take a look at the collection of art & design books they have on offer, such as the usability classic by Don Norman The Design of Everyday Things (pictured).

Going to the public library has been a secret pleasure of mine ever since I first started working in central London. I find the experience of quietly browsing, reading and borrowing in this somewhat sterile, municipal oasis of calm very satisfying.

So after reading a chapter or so of what Don Norman had to say about door handles and masochistic coffee pots, I wandered back towards my client’s office, and my thoughts turned to why I like using the library so much. I knew it was about more than just the experience itself. There’s something about the philosophy of using the library that appeals to me. So what is it?

My first thought was maybe this is evidence of a political ideology on my part – perhaps a communist or socialist desire for common ownership. I had to rule this out though on the basis that I run my own business, which seems quite capitalist behaviour. Anyway, I don’t want to be an -ist unless its one of the harmless ones like a geologist or chemist.

My next idea was that I like it because it’s free. Maybe I just don’t like spending money.

At this point I walked past the ‘Boris Bike’ docking station. This is another thing I use very regularly in London and it gives me a similar level of pleasure to the library. It effectively is a library, of bicycles not books, and at less than £2 per week to use might as well be free. But cost didn’t feel like the real reason – I think I would be prepared to pay more for both of these things really.

Then it occurred to me that maybe I am just a bit old fashioned, or harking back to my youth in some way. I visited the library as a child every Saturday after swimming lessons, and I was always riding my bike. Or maybe this is my personal statement against technological progress in the form of Kindles and combustion engines. Trying to stand out from the crowd with my rustic ways, like the 25 year old flat-cap and beard wearers of Shoreditch. Or maybe not.

There are two things that people often say to me if I mention about using the library or riding Boris Bikes:

  1. You should get a Kindle

  2. You should get a Brompton (fold up bicycle)

And these statements are the key to the real reason that these things give me so much pleasure. It isn’t the political ideology, the cost or being backward that appeals. It is the fact that I do not own, maintain or manage these services myself. All I need is a library card or a Barclays Cycle Hire key and I have access to a very comprehensive and convenient product. There are no real costs of ownership, I do not have to buy and maintain any expensive equipment (like a Kindle or Brompton), and the services are very flexible – I don’t need to give them any thought until I need them.

Crucially, these organisations are offering me a better service than I could give myself. A wider range of books than I could ever download, with a sense of curation. And bicycles constantly maintained to a better standard than I would be able to maintain my own bike, and repositioned to where I need them, with no risk of theft etc.

The moral of the story…

The reasons that I like to use libraries and Boris Bikes are the same reasons why businesses choose to outsource certain functions. It is often much more effective (and cheaper) to use an outside company for specific tasks where:

  • The outside company can do it better because the task requires specialist knowledge and skills that your company does not have

  • Your company would benefit from deeper experience and wider industry perspective of an external provider

  • It is something the company only does once or periodically (like a project or annual audit), so you do not want the overhead of a permanent employee or team

  • The workload is variable – you want flexibility to only have the service when you need it

So the moral of the story is…if you have a travel business and need help with your processes or technology project from someone who really knows what they are doing, get in touch with 2 Aardvarks. But if its books or bikes you’re after, you may be better off visiting Westminster Libraries or Barclays Cycle Hire.

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