Information Research, Vol. 2 No. 2, October 1996

The management information needs of academic Heads Of Department in universities in the United Kingdom

Brendan Loughridge
Department of Information Studies
Univerity of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK


As previously reported in Information Research (Loughridge & Greene, 1995) a study of the management information needs of academic Heads of Department in universities, using a Critical Success Factors approach, was conducted in 1994/1995. This study has now been completed and a report submitted to the British Library Research and Development Department which funded the research (Greene, et al., 1996). The main findings and recommendations of the study are summarised here.

A sample of sixteen English universities was developed, based principally on age, history, size and the nature and range of academic disciplines represented within them. In each of the selected institutions, the University Librarian (or, in one case, a Deputy Librarian) and two or, in some cases, three academic Heads of Department were interviewed, as were a number of senior administrative staff such as Registrars, Secretaries and Finance Officers and the Heads or Directors of more specialised units such as Industrial Development Units. The academic Heads of Department were selected on the basis of their department's rating in the research assessment exercise in 1992 and the mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students within departments. Departments were also chosen to reflect the range of disciplines currently found in universities in order to produce, in a sense, a 'virtual' university. In all, 44 Heads of Department, 19 senior administrative staff and Directors or heads of specialised units, and 16 Librarians (15 Heads of library services and 1 Deputy Librarian) were interviewed.

The principal objectives of the study were to investigate the factors which academic Heads of Department considered critical to the achievement of their organisational goals, and the nature and range of management information support provided by central administrators, libraries and ancillary support services to enable them to achieve these goals. Academic Heads were also asked about their perception of their roles in their department and institution, about developments in institutional management styles and practices and about their views of mission statements and strategic plans.

Results: Academic Heads of Department

The interviews with the academic Heads of Department suggested that their role and their perception of their role varied according to how long they had been in office, the basis on which they held office and their status within their institution. In general, where Heads of Department were elected and of professorial rank, there was a tendency to see the role as being that of an academic leader rather than an academic manager. However, even amongst those who held this view it was clear that the corporate managerialist culture now prevalent in many universities required academic Heads of Department to become much more managerial in behaviour and outlook than hitherto. Some, especially in the older universities, felt that this directly challenged their perceptions of how academic departments should be run though most believed that in a higher education sector increasingly dominated by external assessment most universities could no longer be seen as collegial institutions but as organisations responding to corporate imperatives.

While there was little enthusiasm for mission statements considerable interest was shown in concrete strategic plans. Of the total of 12 departmental goals suggested by Heads of Department, teaching and research, not surprisingly, were the most frequently identified while maximising staff potential and generating income were also highly placed. It was also generally accepted that more attention had to be devoted to management of resources, maintenance and development of external links, and improved response to external demands, and that more needed to be done to attract students and position departments appropriately.

Some Heads of Department were at first reluctant to attempt to identify Critical Success Factors (CSF), and in some cases there was initially a misunderstanding of what was meant by the term, but it was eventually possible in all cases to elicit useful and relevant statements of CSFs. Heads of Department clearly felt that a wide variety of CSFs was needed in order to achieve their organisational goals. Among the twenty-four CSFs identified there was a clear distinction between internal and external factors, the balance between these being dependent on four key influential factors: political and economic environment, institutional setting, relative position of the department and departmental culture. Of the twenty-four CSFs mentioned ten related to factors 'external' to departments such as their relationship with various professional or academic communities and were generally oriented towards research and income generation while fourteen were more related to 'internal' goals such as teaching and personnel management. Successful research-led departments in older universities were more likely to be externally focused than historically largely teaching-oriented departments and, in the former, Heads of Department were found to place great emphasis on the maintenance and defence of 'traditional virtues' such as academic freedom and autonomy from the external environment within their departments. In the newer universities, on the other hand, there was a closer interface between the university centre and the departments and a generally more managerialist culture. However, there was considerable agreement amongst all Heads of Department interviewed about the importance of external relations, public relations, course design, teaching resources, monitoring and evaluation procedures and student recruitment. Relations between their department and their university seemed to be more of an issue for Heads of Department in newer universities than for their colleagues in older institutions, partly because those in older universities tended to have a greater degree of autonomy and the newer universities tend to have a more top-down managerialist approach to academic staff. There was also some divergence between these two groups on the importance attached to academic recruitment, information support and protection of the distinction between research and teaching time, with research and funding receiving greater emphasis in the older universities. There were also wide differences on the issues of resource management and staff development policies, with those in the newer universities placing greater stress on these.

In terms of their management information needs it was clear that the Heads of Department were all largely dependent upon their informal network of contacts for information. They did not expect to receive any management information support from their library; for them, libraries were essentially an academic support service for teaching and research and had only a minor role, if any role at all, in the provision of management information. They felt that libraries should not look to offer the sorts of information they required to manage their departments, partly because of the importance of the informal sources of information already referred to and partly because such services were already supposed to be delivered by other agencies within their universities. The development of management information services by the library would simply be a further burden on the library and create a further opportunity to overload Heads of Department with information. A substantial proportion of Heads of Department felt that the management and financial information support provided by their university was poor; it was often provided too late, failed to provide the kind of information they required and, when provided, was often inaccurate and too intricate or cumbersome to use effectively. Many felt that, far from being the recipients of management information, they were, for most of the time, net suppliers of such information. Too little notice was taken of the requirements of those who used the management information systems already in place.

Results: administrative officers and information provision

Senior administrators clearly do play a role in meeting the management information needs of academic Heads of Department, though the nature and extent of such activity is dependent on individual administrators' specific roles within the university and the level of responsibility delegated to them by senior management. Some, such as the Secretaries and Registrars and Finance Officers, obviously have a major role to play while others, such as Heads of Student Services, felt that their role was much less clearly defined and was more likely to be fulfilled on an ad hoc basis. Regardless of their level of involvement with Heads of Department, however, there was widespread recognition that the information needs of Heads of Department were not being adequately catered for. The senior administrative officers interviewed, particularly the Secretaries and Registrars, tended to agree with the Heads of Departments' views regarding the poor quality and timeliness of management information provided from the centre, although they felt that their own role in this respect was primarily to meet the needs of their institutions' senior management team and external bodies rather than those of Heads of Department. The administrators felt that Heads of Department were not always best placed to receive management information and might in some instances be barriers to dissemination of it; instead of overloading them even further it might be better to target specific individuals who appeared to need the information. The administrators were also concerned that effort invested in attempting to supply management information to Heads of Department might be a waste of valuable resources since the Heads were not sufficiently expert in management and financial techniques to take full advantage of any information developments offered to them. The services they provided seemed to be impaired by the difficulties many of them experienced in trying to identify the actual information needs of Heads of Department. One reason for this was that it was difficult to identify and focus on those needs in a consistent and helpful way because Heads of Department were such a disparate group, with individual interests, concerns and priorities. There was a distinct cultural dissonance between administrators and Heads of Department, with neither group sufficiently understanding or appreciating the pressures under which the other worked. With strong external pressure for accountability and the need to manage corporately they did not have the time or resources to devote to what seemed to them to be essentially second-order information needs.

Results: the librarians

Despite recent developments in information technology, closer operational convergence with academic computing departments in some cases and the funding councils' change in emphasis from information technology strategies to information systems and information strategies, the librarians interviewed did not, on the whole, feel that they had anything to offer academic Heads of Department in the way of support for their management role. In the current funding climate, with resources already stretched to the limit, the majority of librarians felt that they had neither the expertise nor resources to meet the information needs of academic Heads of Department and, if seen to be attempting to provide such additional services, might leave themselves open to accusations of "looking around for something to do and having spare resources to do it". Where support was given, it was invariably in an ancillary or ad hoc format. In one case, however, where the librarian had responsibility for both computing and library services, this entailed the need to ensure that any management information networked locally was in a form that could be understood and exploited by Heads of Department, though this was proving difficult to achieve because of the perceived managerial naiveté of the Heads of Department.


The number and variety of both goals and CSFs identified by Heads of Department suggest that they have had to accept a considerably extended portfolio of responsibilities and duties than hitherto. While teaching and research were obviously central to departmental activities the Heads of Department also recognised the importance of attention to management of resources, maintenance and development of external links, response to external demands, attracting students and repositioning their department in the market-place.

In attempting to fulfil these disparate duties they were, generally, not well-served by the management information support services in their universities. Universities, when planning and implementing information provision strategies, need to take into account to a much greater extent than they presently do the perceived or anticipated management information needs of academic Heads of Department. The Heads of Department themselves need greater opportunities to familiarise themselves with the issues involved in management information systems, particularly with the limitations of such systems, and with what they might realistically expect from a system designed to meet the disparate needs of a variety of potential users. Heads of Department need to be much more closely involved in consultation on the actual design of management information systems.

There is a need for universities to clarify and, if possible, simplify the structure of their information provision. Currently, management information of potential use to academic Heads of Department may be collected, stored and made available (if not always effectively distributed) by a variety of units within institutions, ranging from Registrars', Finance Officers' and Management Information offices through Industrial Liaison Offices, Student Services and marketing and Public Relations Offices to the library. There is often duplication of effort and confusion about the specific aims and objectives of individual units and the relationships between them and, on the part of Heads of Department, often equally strong reservations about the quality, value and effectiveness of the services they provide. While the range and complexity of the management information required and available may preclude the development of a 'one-stop-shop' approach to the satisfaction of Heads of Departments' management information needs there does seem scope for better co-ordinated use of existing information technology to support integrated information services rather than, as may be the case in some institutions, allowing the technology to influence or determine the information services provided.


How to cite this paper:

Loughridge, Brendan (1996)  "A selective review of knowledge-based approaches to database design" Information Research, 1(1) Available at:

© the author, 1996.

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