Information Research, Vol. 1 No. 3, March 1996

Investigating the management information needs of academic Heads of Department: a Critical Success Factors approach

Francis Greene and Brendan Loughridge
Department of Information Studies
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK


This paper describes a current research project in the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield. With funding from the British Library Research and Development Department a critical success factors-based investigation of the management information needs of academic Heads of Department in an number of English universities was undertaken in 1994/1995, following publication of the results of a pilot study by Pellow and Wilson (1993).

Senior academic staff, university administrators and librarians in sixteen universities were interviewed between December, 1994 and March, 1995. Collation of data and analysis of results have been completed; the final report on the project is currently being edited.


Changing patterns of university financing and management strategies and practices have obliged academic Heads of Departments in higher education institutions to assume greater responsibility for both human resource management and traditional academic matters. At the same time, university libraries are having to come to terms with alternatives to traditional resource procurement and deployment methods and, in some instances, have begun to devolve responsibilities for decision-making on some aspects of budget allocation and expenditure and prioritisation to academic departments. New teaching and learning strategies on the one hand and, on the other, an increasingly competitive environment for student recruitment and research funding, have accentuated the need for more sophisticated "intelligence" services about potential markets, competitors, sources of support and technological and other developments. Detailed information about and analysis of competing units, funding agencies and opportunities, the identification and profiling of important decision-makers, external assessors and the preparation of briefings on topics of special interest or current interest to the individual university are further aspects of the "intelligence" service increasingly seen as vital to the success of both the university as an institution and its constituent parts.

As indicated by Allen (1995: 12) this combination of factors, together with the HEFCsí change of emphasis from information technology strategies to information systems and information strategies, has focused attention on the need for institutions to "plan strategically for the gathering, storage and dissemination of their information resources". The problems some universities have experienced in implementing and running management information systems may, at least in part, be attributable to insufficient consideration of what managers in universities actually require from such systems. Sometimes, information requirements may not be considered at an early enough stage in the development process, little attention may be paid to information that is "external", qualitative or subjective, and solutions to problems may often be technology-led rather than information-led.

The Critical Success Factors Approach

One possible solution to the problems referred to above has been suggested by Rockart(1979: 85), namely that a critical success factors (CSF) analysis may be beneficial in identifying "the limited number of areas in which results, if they are satisfactory, will insure successful competitive performance for the organisation". These key areas of activity - usually three to six factors - would need careful and consistent attention from management if organisational goals were to be attained. By concentrating on the factors that were vital if a company were to meet its objectives Rockart demonstrated that a CSF approach could be used to identify managersí information needs and thereby give direction to the development of any computer- based information system. The identification of CSFs can help to clarify the amount and nature of information that must be assembled and permits an organisation to concentrate its efforts on meeting its needs rather on what the available technology will allow. The CSF methodology enables concentration on a core set of issues and their refinement in a way that permits the design of an information system to be examined iteratively for validity and completeness.

The CSF methodology has shown itself to be an attractive methodology for analysing overall organisational information needs in widely different environments; it has been used, for example, to examine strategic planning at British Rail (Mainelli & Miller, 1988), and information centre managers (Mogal, 1988). It has also been used in higher education, as Pellow & Wilson (1993) indicate; more recently, Sabherwal & Kirs (1994), in a study of 244 large academic institutions, have shown that aligning CSFs to information technology capability can improve the overall performance of an institution. The fact, however, that most examples of applications of a CSFs approach have tended to be focused on commercial organisations raises questions about, for example, the validity and value of applying what has been essentially a commercial approach to a type of organisation, such as a university, that has usually been regarded as adding value to its customers rather than generating profit for itself or its shareholders, the difficulty of identifying organisational goals in a university and the appropriateness of a CSFs approach for all levels of manager. Boynton and Smud (1990: 24), for example, felt that the Head of a careers placement service within a university responded well to the CSF factor but found that lower level managers found the method difficult since they

"...tended to react to day-to-day events within their individual responsibilities, rather than to adopt a more proactive, conceptual orientation to their and their organisationís working environment. This suggests that the managers who do not approach their responsibilities from a planning mode may find the CSF method frustrating."

The pilot study by Pellow and Wilson (1993) and the research project described here attempt to address these questions. In particular, the current project is concerned with examining the extent to which senior academic and administrative staff can identify organisational goals and the factors critical to their achievement and with determining the relevance and effectiveness of a CSF-based approach to their identification.

The Pilot Study

While the research project described by Allen (1995) is primarily concerned with Information Systems Strategy (ISS) formation in British higher education institutions the research project described in this paper is more narrowly concerned with the specific management information needs of senior academic staff and the extent to which these needs are or can be met by other units or sections within universities, and with their responses to the CSF approach. The one- year project developed from a pilot study conducted within the University of Sheffield for a steering group which was examining how more effective management information systems might be developed in the University (Pellow & Wilson, 1993). That pilot study attempted to identify and define the management information requirements of twenty academic Heads of Department in areas critical to the achievement of organisational goals and to explore the relationship between such critical success factors (CSFs) and information needs. Those Heads interviewed were able to identify their organisational goals, critical success factors and information needs and ranked the improvement of research performance and provision of high quality teaching as their most important goals and, as critical success factors, they identified "external" factors such as availability of funding for research and students, response to external needs and the policy of external bodies and "internal" factors such as resource management, course design, student recruitment, exploitation of new technology and teaching and research expertise as important in servicing their organisational goals. The study confirmed that Heads had a wide range of information needs, including competitor intelligence, research funding alternatives and opportunities, potential student needs and student employment needs and the performance and marketing of new courses.

The results of the pilot study suggested that a more extensive examination of CSFs and related information needs would be likely to provide the University with a better idea of the information it needed in order to support its wider goals and to improve communications between departments and the centre, especially about the overall direction of University policy, as well as to improve the implementation of and support given to University policy- making (Pellow & Wilson, 1993: 435-436).

The Current Project

In view of the findings of the pilot study it was decided to undertake a much more extensive investigation of Heads of Department and to extend the coverage of the survey by including university librarians, senior administrators such as registrars and academic secretaries, industrial liaison officers, finance officers, and management information officers. It was believed that the findings of the investigation might lead to:

Universities surveyed

Following the collection and analysis of data from a number of sources, including HEFCs, the Department for Education (as it then was) and the universities themselves, it was decided to confine the project to a stratified sample of 16 universities in England, based on size, age, status, subject mix and geographical location and ordered according to Sumsionís (1994) typology. This provided a good geographical spread and ranged institutions into one "large", three "pre-Robbins", three "post-Robbins" and nine post-1992 institutions (Table 1).

Table 1: Universities in the sample
Staff and full-time/ part-time student numbers
Group A: >12000
Group B: >9000 <12000
Group C: >6000 <9000
Group D: <6000

Information was gathered on the numbers of undergraduate and postgraduate students and their mix in all departments in each institution in order, as in the pilot study, to distinguish between departments on the basis of the proportion of undergraduates. Within universities departments were also chosen on the basis of their rating in the latest Research Assessment Exercise (Table 2) and to reflect the range of disciplines found in the universities (Table 3).

Table 2: Departments in the sample
Staff and full-time/ part-time student numbers
Group 1: research rating 1, 2 or 3, more than 80% undergraduate
Group 2: research rating 4 or 5, more than 80% undergraduate
Group 3: research rating 1, 2 or 3, less than 80% undergraduate
Group 4: research rating 4 0r 5, less than 80% undergraduate

Table 3: Distribution of disciplines selected
Science subjects14
Social Sciences subjects12
Arts and Humanities subjects12
Medical subjects6

In all, forty-four Heads of department were interviewed; these were fairly evenly divided between the former polytechnics sector (24 interviews) and "older" universities (20 interviews)

University librarians and administrators

In addition to those with academic Heads of Department interviews were held with the chief librarians of 15 of the universities and with the deputy librarian of the remaining one. Interviews were also held with 19 senior managers and administrators: two Registrars and Secretaries, one Secretary of a medical faculty, three finance officers, five administrators with management information responsibilities, three Heads of industrial liaison offices (including research funding administrators and EU officers), two Heads of student services, one Head of a careers information service, one Head of a marketing and PR office and one Head of a science park.


  • Allen, D. (1995) Information systems strategy formation in higher education. Information Research News 5(3), 12-19.
  • Boynton, A. & Smud, R. (eds) (1990) Management Information Systems. Glenview: Scott and Foresman. p.224.
  • Mainelli, M.R. & Miller, D.R. (1988) Strategic planning for information systems at British Rail. Long Range Planning, 21(4), 65-75.
  • Mogal, S.R. et al. (1988) Critical success factors for information centre managers. MIS Quarterly, 12(3), 1988, 413-425.
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  • Rockart, J.F. (1979) Chief executives define their own data needs. Harvard Business Review, 57, 81-93
  • Sabherwal, R. & Kirs, P. (1994) The alignment between organizational critical success factors and information technology capability in academic institutions. Decision Sciences, 25, 301-330.
  • Sumsion, J. (1994) Survey of Resources and Uses in Higher Education Libraries: UK, 1993. Loughborough: Loughborough University of Technology, Library and Information Statistics U nit, 1994.

  • How to cite this paper:

    Greene, Francis and Loughridge, Brendan (1996)   "Investigating the management information needs of academic Heads of Department: a Critical Success Factors approach".  Information Research, 1(3) Available at:

    © the authors, 1996.

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