The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter Five

The Critical Success Factors (CSFs) approach

A possible solution to some of the problems arising from the implementation of management information systems, especially relevant with the widespread take-up of end-user computing, was suggested by Rockart (1979, 1982). Using ideas from Daniel (1961), Rockart suggested that the concept of critical success factors (CSFs) could be an effective way of defining the management information needs of managers. He suggested that a CSF analysis would be beneficial in identifying "...the limited number of areas in which results, if they are satisfactory, will ensure successful competitive performance for the organization" (Rockart, 1979, p.85). These few key areas of activity - usually three to six factors - needed to receive careful and consistent attention from management if the company wished to attain its organisational goals.

By concentrating on the factors that were vital if a company was to meet its objectives, Rockart demonstrated that a CSFs approach could be used to identify the information needs of managers and thereby give some direction to the development of any computer-based information system. This top-down approach to information needs was shown in case-studies by Rockart to generate user-acceptance at senior management level. By using skilled interviewers, the CSF methodology concentrates on a core set of issues and refines them in a manner that allows the design of an information system to be iteratively examined for validity and completeness. It has the advantage, as Earl (1989, p.73) suggests, that senior executives "...end up defining a workmanlike business strategy first without looking as though it was a business strategy exercise per se" .

The identification of CSFs may, therefore, provide a clear definition of the kinds of information that must be collected and allow the organisation to focus its efforts on meeting the needs of the business rather than what the available technology will allow. The method has the additional advantage that it may increase the collective understanding of senior managers of the company and its environment. This promotion of collective identity may be vital if, as Cotterell and Rapley (1991) show in their use of the CSF method at British Airways, Executive Information Systems (EIS) are to be successfully implemented:

The British Airways experience supports the view that having committed sponsors and active champions are important criteria for success...Organisational resistance need not be an important factor and technological barriers can be overcome.(Cotterell and Rapley, 1991, p. 71)

Lower down the organisational ladder, Boynton and Zmud have argued that while the CSFs method has undoubted strengths, it may not be appropriate for all managers within the organisation. They found, in their case study of a financial services firm, that the further removed managers were from the senior managerial level the less likely they were to be able to develop corporate-wide CSFs. Largely removed from strategic and even tactical planning, these managers "...tended to identify CSFs that were limited in scope (but which they viewed as being corporate-wide in nature)" (Boynton and Zmud,1984, p.23). It was concluded that "...the only individuals who were able to actually define concrete information measures were the senior managers." (Boynton and Zmud,1984, p.24).

Despite these concerns, the CSF methodology has shown itself to be an attractive one for analysing overall organisational information needs. Besides the studies already mentioned, the methodology has been used by in work with British Rail (Mainelli & Miller, 1988), to examine factory automation in Japanese corporations (Takanaka, 1991), in relation to Computer Integrated Manufacturing (Ramamurthy & King, 1992, in examining information technology (Pollalis & Hanson-Frieze,1993) , in studies of MIS executives (Mogal et al., 1988) and in a steel firm in America where the method was found to be crucial (Index Group, 1990):

It is apparent, then, that the CSF process is the dynamic and crucial first step in a company's movement towards greater management effectiveness. By generating clarity of vision, focus, and alignment - and by accomplishing these tasks in a fast, effective manner - the CSF process becomes the critical link between the recognition of a company's goals and the ultimate realization of corporate success. (Index Group, 1990, p.224)

The CSFs approach has also been applied in higher education. Sabherwal and Kirs (1994) have shown in a study of 244 large academic institutions that aligning CSFs to IT capability can improve the overall performance of an academic institution. Pellow and Wilson (1993), in their study of the management information needs of academic HoDs already referred to, have also shown that a CSFs approach can be applied with some success outside a commercial setting. Their work demonstrated that HoDs had little trouble in identifying their organisational goals, the factors critical for the achievement of these goals, and the nature of their information needs.

While this study, in itself, has validity, questions may still remain about the value and efficacy of applying what might be seen as an essentially business-oriented approach to a type of organisation conventionally regarded as being more concerned with adding value to its customers than generating profit for itself or its shareholders. It does, however, help to draw attention to the question of what the organisational goals of higher education actually are or should be. In business these may be easy to identify, rotating, as they normally do, around maximisation of profitability; in higher education, however, the organisational goals may not be nearly so clear cut. As Eisenhardt and Zbaraki (1992) demonstrate, the CSF method requires that "...actors enter decision situations with known objectives. These objectives determine the value of the possible consequences of an action. The actors gather appropriate information, and develop a set of alternative actions. They then select the optimal alternative" (p. 18).

The problem may not necessarily be that academics or academic managers are unaware of organisational goals or unable to articulate them, but rather that because academia has traditionally had a plurality of goals the applicability of the CSF method to any analysis of higher education may for that reason be weakened. This may be the case, as suggest, for all organisations, since:

"...goals are unclear and shift over time. People often search for information and alternatives haphazardly and opportunistically. Analysis of alternatives may be limited and decisions often reflect the use of standard operating procedures rather than systematic analysis"

(Eisenhardt and Zbarki, 1992, p.20).

This urge to satisfy rather than optimise may be particularly true of an organisational culture in which there is a plurality of goals.

Beyond this difficulty of focusing accurately on organisational goals, it may also be true, as Boynton and Zmud (1984) demonstrate in their case study of a large university, that a CSFs approach may not necessarily be equally appropriate for the investigation of managers at all levels within an organisation. For example, while they felt that the head of a careers placement service within the university responded well to the CSF method, Boynton and Zmud concluded that lower level managers in particular found the method difficult to work with:

A second observation consistent with the first case study was that lower-level managers and administrative personnel had difficulty in working with the CSF concept. In most instances, lower-level personnel tended to react to day-to-day events within their individual responsibilities, rather than to adopt a more proactive, conceptual orientation to their and the organization's working environment. This suggests that the managers who do not approach their responsibilities from a planning mode may find the CSF method frustrating. (Boynton and Zmud,1994, p.24)

While the pilot project already referred to (Pellow and Wilson, 1993) found that the HoDs interviewed were able to identify their organisational goals, CSFs and information needs Boynton and Zmud's findings on lower-level managers and administrative personnel raise pertinent questions about the validity of applying the CSF method uncritically to academic HoDs in general. In an increasingly corporate university culture, with senior management teams who may identify academic HoDs as middle managers, it might be conjectured that HoDs generally may lack the access to tactical and strategic modes necessary to effectively produce goals wide enough to be understood by their organisations at large. Also, in a period of managerial cultural transition many HoDs might be expected to be still largely amateur managers. They may often come into the post for a short or limited period, they may see the duties and obligations attached to it as a necessary (or, in some cases, unnecessary) evil and as a short-term hindrance to their academic work, but above all they come to the role largely untutored in the skills which the Jarratt Report recommended they should possess. These are issues which are considered in the following pages, where the roles and perceptions of HoDs, senior administrative and library staff are examined in more detail.

Front PageContentsChapter 6

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