The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Executive Summary

This report summarises the findings of an investigation, funded by the British Library Research and Development Department, of the management information needs of academic Heads of Department in universities and the role that university librarians and administrators play or might play in satisfying those needs.

On the basis of a pilot study (Pellow and Wilson,1993), a sample of sixteen English universities was developed, based on their age, history, size and geographic location. From each of these universities, two or, in some cases, three academic Heads of Department were chosen for interview. All were selected on the basis of their department's research rating in the research assessment exercise in 1992 and the mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students within their department. Departments were also chosen to reflect the range of disciplines currently found in universities.

Academic Heads of Department were interviewed using a semi-structured interview schedule based on a Critical Success Factors (CSFs) approach. Academic Heads were also asked about the role which the library and other central services played in meeting their management information needs, their views on mission statements and strategic plans, their perception of their roles in their department and institution and about developments in institutional management styles and practices.

The university librarian and a number of university administrators in each of the sixteen universities were also interviewed, using separate, semi-structured interview schedules. Again, the intention was to determine the nature and range of management information support currently found in universities, and the types of service offered to academic Heads of Departments by administrators and librarians.

The results of the interviews with the academic Heads of Department indicated that their perception of their role varied according to how long they had been in office, the basis on which they held office (for example, elected, contracted or permanent), and their status. In general, the results suggested that, where the Head of Department was elected and a professor, there was a tendency to see the role as being that of an academic leader rather than an academic manager. However, even amongst this group it was clear that the corporate culture now prevalent in many universities required that academic Heads of Department should become much more managerial than hitherto.

The results also showed that the academic Heads of Department had little regard for mission statements, preferring instead concrete strategic plans. Of the twelve departmental goals they suggested, teaching and research, not surprisingly, were the most frequently identified. Other goals, such as maximising staff potential and generating income, were ranked as important, reflecting the growing need among the academic Heads of Department to direct and target the efforts of their staff more stringently and the need to develop a much wider range of sources of income.

Amongst the Critical Success Factors identified by academic Heads of Department a clear distinction was drawn between internal and external factors. It was found that the balance of internal and external factors was dependent upon four key influences: political and economic environment; institutional setting; relative position of department; and departmental culture. While each of these factors interacted with all the others it was evident that successful research-led departments in older universities were more likely to be externally focused than largely teaching-oriented departments.

Such factors were evident in the management information needs identified by individual academic Heads of Department. It was equally clear, however, that they 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. Management and financial information was, however, another matter. Heads of Department felt they were poorly served in this respect, with information that was usually provided too late, was often inaccurate and too intricate or cumbersome to use.

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, librarians, on the whole, did not 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. Where support was given, it was invariably in an ancillary or ad hoc format.

University administrators did offer more tailored services to academic Heads of Department. These included attempts to improve Heads' awareness of external funding opportunities, the policy of the funding councils such as HEFCE 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 academic Heads of Department. One reason given for this was that, since academic Heads of Department were a disparate group with individual concerns, it was difficult for administrators to focus upon their needs. Moreover, there was also a distinct cultural dissonance between administrators and academic Heads of Department, since neither group sufficiently appreciated the pressures under which the other worked.

Administrators also found it difficult to target precisely the information needs of academic Heads of Department because their own primary concern was to meet the information needs of the university's senior management team. In a situation characterised by a rapidly changing environment, strong external pressure for accountability, and the need to manage corporately, administrators did not have, despite academic departments' being the 'productive' parts of the university, the time or resources to devote to what to them seemed essentially second-order information needs.

Front PageContents

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