Thursday, March 22, 2012

Brimhall and Verkler, Part 4

Dennis Brimhall and Jay Verkler at RootsTech 2012At RootsTech I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with FamilySearch outgoing CEO, Jay Verkler, and with incoming CEO, Dennis Brimhall. I asked each the same set of questions. The similarities and differences in their responses make interesting reading. I’ll present the interview, a couple of questions at a time, throughout this week. Click to see all the articles in this series.

The Insider: What are FamilySearch's biggest strengths?

Dennis: There may be other people that have more records on line but nobody has more images than we do. By an order of magnitude we have more images than anybody else. One of our strengths is simply the repository of our images: 2.4 million rolls of microfilm. And [the number of images] is growing every hour. We've got cameras out their collecting these images, getting the digital rights to them. That ability to collect and preserve images is a hugely important part of what we do.

Another advantage is that we have volunteers. Every day we have 100,000 indexers doing a million indexes a day. That's a strength. When it comes time to do the 1940 census, we can turn 100,000 indexers on that task. Why? Because they like doing it.

We have the ability to marshal more resources and so as we begin to think about doing the 1940 census, the number of people doing indexing needs to go up to 150 to 200 thousand. We have the ability and the infrastructure to do that, the scale, the size that we can work, the ability to do a project like the census and say we'll get this done and then get it available for everybody.

Another advantage is that we're neutral. We're not for profit. We love the people that are in this area. We love the commercial companies that are here and are making money. We love that because we're all doing the same work. People find a name on our tree versus their tree; we're happy with that either way. We can have that neutrality where we're not threatened by anybody. We're happy when anybody succeeds.

Jay: I think we've already talked about most of them. The position we operate from [is a strength]. Probably its biggest strength is that its focus is really for the good of the industry. If the organization can continue to have that focus, it will make the right choices, not competing or hurting things. Also not being a wall flower, having a direction, having a focus. "These are the things we need to accomplish." A long term focus, the ability to execute in incremental steps, those I think are its greatest strengths.

Insider: What are FamilySearch’s biggest weaknesses?

Dennis: It’s a very large enterprise. To keep it focused and moving and the flow from images, to records, to indexing, to a tree, at that scale is a very big thing. Trying to make sure that we can use our volunteers properly. The worst thing that you can do is to have a volunteer that's not tasked in a way that they're comfortable and happy. Trying to keep 250,000 volunteers feeling like they’re really contributing and doing something meaningful is an issue.

The larger you get as an organization, the more bureaucracy you get, the more difficult it gets to adjust or move when we expect to do that rapidly. We talk about making the elephant dance. That's a tome that's used organizationally to say how do you take something organizationally that's ponderous and make it nimble. That’s one of the things in which I have a lot of interest in and some experience in. Those are some challenges we have in those areas.

Jay: When you're as diverse as FamilySearch is—and it needs to be in my opinion—it can be difficult to keep all the plates spinning. I think in many cases we need to keep those plates spinning for various conscious reasons. And we have to keep the ability to do so, but that can slow us down if we don't manage it well. It's a leadership challenge and can become a weakness if we're not careful.

Insider: The 1940 Census indexing project is coming up. Do you plan on taking time out of your busy schedules to help out?

Jay: I would argue that I've helped out quite a bit, and helped out more in the things that I've been doing than if I took the same time and indexed. I plan to do some indexing because I think it's important to have direct contact with the experience so I do plan to do some indexing, but I probably won't spend hundreds of hours indexing.

Dennis: You know, I'm going to do it. Now my wife does a lot of indexing. I haven't been doing it but I've absolutely made a personal commitment that I'm going to index the 1940 census. The wonderful thing about indexing is that you can do it even if you are busy. You can be sitting in the doctor's office with your iPad and you can do it. So absolutely, I'm already signed up. I want to be ready.

So I'm not a foreigner to it; I just need to get caught up with the technology and get ready to do it online.


Friday: “Will you commit to add something to the FamilySearch Wiki?”

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