The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter Eleven


11.1 Introduction

The range of critical, and, in some respects, contradictory views of management information needs expressed by academic Heads of Department (HoDs), senior administrators and the directors or managers of other information-gathering and distribution units in universities, and the variety of ways in which these needs are catered for, suggest that current attempts to provide specifically for the HoDs' needs in this area differ considerably from institution to institution and may depend on a number of factors, as summarised in Chapter Ten. In these circumstances, any recommendations as to how the provision of management information might be made more efficient, effective and consistent must be considered in relation to the specific academic and management environments in which the HoDs discharge their responsibilities. For example, as was obvious from many of the interviews with HoDs and others, HoDs have had, in many instances, an increasingly burdensome managerial role thrust upon them in addition to their academic and pastoral responsibilities while the administrative and other backup or support services necessary to enable them to discharge these additional duties efficiently and effectively have in many instances been inadequate, disjointed, cumbersome or piecemeal. Similarly the age and corporate structures of the individual institutions have an impact both on the nature of the HoDs' managerial duties and responsibilities and on the extent to which appropriate backup is available. The recommendations which follow are, therefore, confined to those which are believed to be of some general relevance to all universities, whether 'new' or 'old', irrespective of the extent to which particular management styles or corporate structures have been adopted within them.

11.2 Recommendations

Recommendation 1

It is recommended that universities, when planning and developing their information strategies, should take into account the perceived or anticipated management information needs of academic Heads of Departments to a much greater extent than the findings of the present review suggest is currently the case. Academic Heads of Department should be afforded greater opportunities to familiarise themselves with the issues involved in management information systems, for example, the limitations of such systems, and with what they might realistically expect from a system designed to serve the needs of a variety of potential users. As a matter of information strategy development policy more attention should be devoted to consideration of ways in which academic Heads of Department might also be much more closely involved in consultations on the actual design of management information systems; questionnaires, focus groups and one-to-one interviews are possible ways of involving them in this process.

Recommendation 2

It is recommended that universities should take steps to ensure that members of their senior management teams develop a better understanding of the needs of academic Heads of Department, particularly of their management information needs, and of the appropriate role they may need or wish to adopt in order to satisfy those needs more effectively as an integral part of their institutional information strategy. As the findings of the present review and other studies suggest, many senior management and administrative staff in universities are, to a great extent, primarily concerned with their own management information needs and those of senior management teams rather than of academic staff and, in some cases, find it difficult to understand the specific needs of academic Heads of Department in this area. It is difficult to see how any institutional management information system could be expected to meet the management information needs of academic departments effectively without better understanding of departmental activities and appropriate commitment and strategic direction and leadership from senior management.

Recommendation 3

It is recommended that universities should, where possible, take steps to clarify and simplify the structure of their information provision pathways. As indicated in this study, management information of potential value to academic Heads of Department may be collected, stored and made available (if not always distributed effectively) by a variety of units within each institution, ranging from central administrative departments such as Registrars' Offices, Finance Offices and Management Information Offices through Industrial Liaison Offices, Student Services and Marketing and Public Relations Offices to the University Library. As the interviews with representatives of these units suggest, there is often considerable duplication of effort and confusion about the specific aims and objectives of individual units and the relationships between them, as far as those providing the services are concerned and, on the part of the academic Heads of Department, often equally strong reservations about the quality, value and effectiveness of the services they provide. The range and complexity of the management information required and available may preclude the development in the short term of a 'one-stop shop' approach to the satisfaction of academic Heads of Departments' management information needs but there does seem to be some scope for better coordinated 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.

Recommendation 4

It is recommended that universities should consider more closely the extent to which their formal library services might better be integrated into their overall strategy for information provision to academic Heads of Department. It was disappointingly clear from the interviews with librarians in this survey that few of them saw any role at all for their libraries as far as meeting the management information needs of academic Heads of Department is concerned. A number of factors suggest, however, that university libraries could or should reconsider how they might assist more consistently and effectively than hitherto in satisfying the information needs of the particular user group represented by academic Heads of Department in their managerial as opposed to their research or teaching capacity. For example, the devolution of budgetary control to departments (including control of the department's 'library budget') may in turn give rise to demands from departments for greater attention to management information provision as the convergence of library and academic computing services, the emergence of the 'virtual library', and the growing availability and accessibility of electronic publications and datasets impact on and change the nature of the library's collection management activities generally and academics' use of new media and formats in particular. A case might also be made for integrating some of the ancillary information units such as Industrial Liaison Offices with conventional library services, either organisationally or physically, as a means of reducing duplication of effort and staffing and simplifying access to information for academic Heads of Department.

Recommendation 5

It is recommended that universities should consider ways in which they might provide more effectively structured training not only for newly appointed academic Heads of Department and those returning to the role but also for those wishing to refresh or update their managerial skills. The findings of the present investigation suggest that effective management training and guidance for Heads of Department, though provided in some form or other in most institutions, generally leaves much to be desired. As suggested by many of the Heads of Department interviewed such courses should cover, in particular, strategic planning, financial planning and management, staff appraisal, and delegation skills.

Recommendation 6

It is recommended that university finance officers or directors, in conjunction with other members of their institution's senior management teams and with academic Heads of Department, should re-examine the relevance of the financial information they supply to academic Heads of Department, the form and manner in which such information is communicated and the frequency with which it is communicated. It is clear from the interviews conducted with them that many academic Heads of Department have either very limited financial management skills or have considerable difficulty in understanding or interpreting the financial information provided to them, or both, and that they were dissatisfied with the timeliness and relevance of much of the information distributed to or available to them.

Recommendation 7

It is recommended that the conditions and manner of appointment of individuals to the post of Head of Department should be more closely examined and rationalised and that, in particular, the potential value of providing formally for longer periods in office should be considered. In the ten years since the Report of the Steering Committee on Efficiency Studies in Universities (Jarrratt, A., 1985) there has been a growing tendency in most universities to treat the role of the Head of an academic department as, primarily, that of a manager. In the course of this investigation the variety of terms and conditions governing the appointment, nomination or election to the post of Head of Department, the academic status of the post-holders, the length of period for which they hold the office and the effects which these varying conditions have both on their perception of management information needs and on their attitudes to central institutional requirements have been noted.

Recommendation 8

It is recommended that universities should consider the balance between the administrative or managerial role of Heads of Department and their teaching and research roles. As was evident from many of the interviews with academic Heads of Department their growing managerial responsibilities, not least the need to meet the growing demands made upon them by their university's central administration, have substantially encroached on time which many of them would rather devote to teaching and research. Since it is unlikely that such demands from central administration will decrease, given that central administration itself is subject to similarly growing demands from elsewhere, there is an increased need to rationalise administrative responsibilities and activities. Universities have to decide where, in the future, most of this work should be done. If it is within central services, it is evident that there will be a greater need for a heightened understanding of the needs of academic Heads of Department and, particularly, of the management information Heads of Department will require in order to satisfy central administrative demands. If it is to be at faculty or school or departmental level more consideration should be given to funding and developing administrative personnel such as academic support officers, as is already the case in some universities.

Front Page Contents

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