The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter Ten


10.1 Introduction

This examination of the management information needs of academic Heads of Department (HoDs) in universities and the role that university librarians, other university service units and administrators play in meeting these needs has provided a number of insights into the problems currently faced by all these categories of university staff.

10.2 Academic Heads of Department: roles

HoDs' perceptions of their role tended to vary according to the length of time they had held office, the basis on which they held office (for example, by election for a stipulated period, by contractual arrangement or on a permanent basis), and their academic status within their institution. Where the HoD had been elected to the post and was a professor, there was a tendency to see the role as that of an academic leader rather than manager. Even within this group, however, and certainly amongst the remainder, it was generally accepted that, owing to pressures from within the university or, perhaps less immediately, externally from funding bodies, HoDs had been increasingly obliged to be much more managerial in attitude and behaviour than hitherto. For some, especially those in 'older' universities, this directly challenged their perception of how academic departments should be run. However, most of those interviewed felt that, in an expanded higher education sector dominated by outside assessment, it was now more appropriate to see the majority of universities not as collegial institutions but as organisations responding to corporate imperatives.

10.3 Academic Heads of Department: goals and Critical Success Factors

Amongst the HoDs there was little regard for mission statements; concrete strategic plans, on the other hand, were viewed with greater interest. Of the twelve departmental goals suggested by HoDs, teaching and research, not surprisingly, were the most frequently identified. Other goals, such as maximising staff potential and generating income, were ranked as very important, reflecting the growing need to direct and target the efforts of their staff more effectively and the need to develop a much wider range of sources of income.

The number and variety of goals identified suggest that HoDs have had to be prepared to accept a considerably more extensive portfolio of responsibilities and duties than hitherto. While teaching and research were obviously central to departmental activities, HoDs also recognised that attention had to be given to the management of resources, maintaining or developing external links, responding to external demands, attracting students, and positioning their departments accordingly.

While there was initially some reluctance amongst some of the HoDs interviewed to attempt to identify Critical Success Factors (CSFs) and, in some cases, initial misunderstanding of what was meant by the term, it was eventually possible in all cases to elicit useful and relevant lists of CSFs. Among the (CSFs) identified by HoDs a clear distinction can be drawn between internal and external factors. The balance between these internal and external factors depended, in turn, on four key influential factors: political and economic environment; institutional setting; relative position of the department both within the university and vis--vis comparable departments; and departmental culture. While these factors interacted it was evident that successful research-led departments in older universities were more likely to be externally focused than historically largely teaching-oriented departments. While it may be evident that the first of these influences - the political and economic environment - has assumed greater prominence in the minds of HoDs, it is also clear that the other three factors - institutional setting, relative position of the department, and departmental culture - may lead to different sets of circumstances. This was found to be particularly true of highly successful departments within 'older' universities. In such departments HoDs were found to place great emphasis on maintaining and defending 'traditional virtues' such as academic freedom and autonomy from the external environment within their department. Such behaviour, though, was less evident amongst HoDs in newer universities where there was a closer interface between the university and departments and a generally more managerialist culture.

10.4 Academic Heads of Department: sources of information

One factor common to all HoDs was their reliance for management information on extensive networks of informal contacts. This was then supplemented by more formal sources, depending upon whether the information required was internally available, university-based or external.

Generally, HoDs did not expect their university libraries to provide them with management information. This was just as well, since it became clear from the interviews with the university librarians that, for the most part, they had little interest in this aspect of academics' information needs and no intention of using already stretched resources to meet needs which, on the whole, they felt should be met from other agencies inside or outside their universities. 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 notwithstanding, the librarians, on the whole, did not feel that they had very much, if anything, to offer HoDs. The majority of them felt that they had neither the expertise nor resources to meet the information needs of HoDs. Where support was given, it was invariably in an ancillary or ad hoc manner. The librarians in general saw their services as being directed primarily at students and at the research and teaching needs of academic staff though, in a small number of cases, it was recognised that, with the development of campus-wide information systems and growing interest and involvement in electronic text and document storage and delivery systems, the library had increasingly to be seen as an integral part of a university information system.

As far as management, particularly financial management, information, supplied to HoDs by the universities' central administration was concerned, HoDs generally felt that they were poorly served, the information in question often being inaccurate, too intricate or cumbersome to use and out-of-date.

Some HoDs suggested that there was a real need to improve the management and financial information systems within their university. This would allow them to concentrate much more on their primary activities and spend less time meeting the bureaucratic needs of the university. They felt that such needs were not being adequately met by the university largely because the main central administrative departments were not geared up to their needs.

10.5 Administrative Officers and Information Provision

The administrative officers interviewed, particularly the Secretaries and Registrars, tended to agree with the sentiments expressed by HoDs regarding the poor quality and timeliness of management information provided centrally, although they felt that their own main role was to meet the needs of their institution's senior management team and external bodies rather than those of HoDs. They did, however, attempt to offer services more specifically tailored to the requirements of HoDs. These included efforts to improve HoDs' awareness of external funding opportunities, the policies of the research councils and funding councils, and the provision of financial and management information. Such services seemed, however, to be impaired by the difficulties many university administrators experienced in trying to identify the needs of the HoDs. One reason given for this was that, since HoDs were such a disparate group with individual interests, concerns and priorities, it was difficult for administrators to identify and focus closely on those needs in a consistent and helpful way. Moreover, there was also a distinct cultural dissonance between administrators and HoDs, since neither group sufficiently understood or appreciated the pressures under which the other worked. Administrators also found it difficult to target precisely the information needs of HoDs because their own primary concern was to meet the information needs of the university's senior management team. In a rapidly changing environment, with strong external pressure for accountability, and the need to manage corporately, administrators, despite academic departments' being the 'productive' parts of the university, did not have the time or resources to devote to what to them seemed essentially second-order information needs.

Front Page Contents Chapter 11

The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities: a Critical Success Factors Approach, by Francis Greene, Brendan Loughridge and Tom Wilson
British Library Research and Development Department Report 6252 1996
Grant no: RDD/G/254