The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities

Chapter Seven

The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department

7.1 The Interviews

The forty-four HoDs interviewed were asked about the management information they thought they required in order to meet the critical success factors and organisational goals they had earlier identified. The results from these statements of information need were subsequently classified into the previously used interview groups, namely: newer and older universities; W, X, Y, & Z; and sciences, social sciences, arts, and medical disciplines. Additionally, given this project's focus on the role of the library and university administrators, it was considered appropriate to explore the HoDs' perceptions of the role, if any, played by their university library and their university's financial and management information systems in meeting their information needs.

7.2 The Broad Picture

However, before turning to these analyses, it is important to consider the broader picture of management information described by the HoDs and the various sources and agencies - internal, university and external - concerned with such management information, summarised in Table 11.

7.3 Staff Management

Given the number of CSFs they attributed to internal needs, it is not surprising to find that HoDs ranked staff management information as their most important requirement. Information to support this came exclusively from within the department and was collected by a variety of means both formal and informal. HoDs used such techniques as staff meetings, 'away-days', 'walking about', having an 'open-door' policy, and discussions with senior members of staff to determine how individual members of staff were performing. In terms of teaching, HoDs were becoming more sophisticated in their management of staff, as resources shrank and student numbers increased. As the emphasis on the need for information on teaching opportunities suggests, HoDs were beginning to use such practices as peer assessment, mentoring, and teaching qualifications for new staff to improve the productivity of their colleagues. These schemes were often introduced with help from the university's staff development office which, in some cases, distributed information on courses that could help staff to meet the challenges of, for example, teaching and processing large numbers of students, and provided possible funding opportunities for developing teaching programmes that used, for example, as computer assisted learning and teaching facilities. Such developments, some HoDs hoped, would ease the transition to student-centred learning. For research, as the stress on formal/informal performance indicates, HoDs were using formal meetings with individual staff members to negotiate research targets and thereby set performance levels for the coming year. This, as has been demonstrated, has increasingly led to HoDs' having to make tougher choices each year.

Table 11 Ranked list of information needs and sources
  Number of respondents
Information Types Total Internal University External
Staff management information 41 41 0 0
Competitor intelligence 27 0 0 27
Research funding alternatives 27 0 10 24
Formal/informal performance 24 24 0 0
Employer's needs 23 0 0 23
Current student needs 21 21 0 1
Teaching opportunities 21 5 17 3
Government policy 19 0 5 18
Resource availability 19 5 12 2
Financial management 17 11 14 0
University policy 16 0 16 0
Student recruitment 16 2 5 12
Potential students' needs 15 1 1 15
Marketing information 15 3 8 9
Staff recruitment information 13 0 4 10
Potential research sponsors 10 0 0 10
University research policies 6 0 6 0
Advice/assistance 2 0 2 0
Needs of disabled students 1 0 1 0


7.4 Competitor Intelligence

While information to aid staff management was critical, many HoDs also stressed the importance of competitor intelligence in meeting their information needs. They saw competitor intelligence as vital because it kept them up to date with developments in the field and allowed them to access research funding opportunities. A variety of means was employed to gain such external information, of which the most important were the informal contacts they had built up. This network, or "invisible college" as it is often called, was maintained through meeting people at conferences, sitting on various local, regional, and national bodies, joining various societies, and, with developments in IT, exploiting news groups, e-mail lists and similar means of communication. In addition to meeting external examiners, scanning journals, and keeping abreast of competitors' publicity materials, HoDs felt, as one put suggested, that " was important to be on the inside".

HoDs also placed a premium on their network of informal contacts and their help in gathering information on research-funding alternatives and potential research sponsors. Again, they considered it important to be on the relevant committees, whether within their university, in their discipline or on the relevant funding agency, and to have strong informal links with the other 'key' gatekeepers in academia or amongst possible research funders such as commercial organisations, charities, the NHS, local authorities, or industry. These links were undoubtedly more important to HoDs than the information that was supplied to them by their university through its industrial liaison office (ILO) or the information received directly from the relevant funding council. This, however, is not to say that HoDs did not value the function of their ILO in acting as a source of research-funding information. For instance, they regarded the information supplied to them by their ILO in relation to European Union funding as a valuable additional source of information to backup information they might have overlooked or failed to notice themselves. Also, some HoDs considered that in terms of patents, technology transfer and the administration of research grants, ILO's were a very important source of support. Along with this, though, academic Heads were concerned that they received too much information on research activities. They would have preferred to have the information much more precisely targeted at individual academics rather than arriving on their desks en masse.

7.5 Employers' Needs

A number of HoDs thought that information about potential employers' needs was an important element in their overall information needs. Much of this information was again gleaned informally through the HoDs' informal contacts in industry, commerce and the professions, but they also relied upon student sandwich placements, staff visits to these placements, part-time students' bringing in contacts from their employment, contact with alumni and consultancy work in developing their links with employers.

7.6 Students' Needs

More internally, a number of HoDs saw the need to be informed about current student needs. One reason for the number identifying this was the awareness that, with the move to mass education, students needed greater support and departments had to become more accountable to them. Thus, HoDs had, to a varying extent, implemented monitoring and evaluation procedures such as student questionnaires, output statistics from courses, student representatives on departmental meetings, staff-student liaison committees, and an appointments system to improve relations between the student and staff communities either as the consequence of general university policy or departmental initiative.

This urge for internal information on current students differed dramatically from the concerns some HoDs had about gaining external information on potential student needs. Here, they used their informal networks in their discipline, profession or in such organisations as the NHS, the views of present students, other university prospectuses, and conferences they attended to build up a picture of what they imagined potential students might desire from their course. The collection of this information was important for these HoDs as they wanted to recruit students on to their teaching programmes (whether full-time or part-time, undergraduate or postgraduate) and wished to market their courses and opportunities more effectively to attract students with disabilities, women, mature students and students from ethnic minorities. HoDs used a variety of means to get their message across to these constituencies, including the information provided by UCAS on student applications; direct marketing to schools they already had contacts with; using the university's School Liaison Office to give careers talks on the department at fairs and schools; working with the university's marketing and PR department to produce departmental videos, brochures or leaflets; advertising in student guides and local and national newspapers; arranging opening days, visiting schools; and arranging meetings with teachers. For those HoDs interested in attracting postgraduate students advertising in student guides and newspapers was important but so too was sending information to competitor departments on any opportunities that were available. As for attracting more women, mature students, students with disabilities or students from ethnic minorities, they saw it as important to market courses to local people and increase the links their departments had with further education and access courses.

Despite the battery of information sources available, many HoDs felt that not enough was done centrally by their university to attract students. One, for example, who was interested in attracting more mature students and part-time students to the department felt said: "I think that our marketing strategy could be re-thought and could be far more intensive than it is. The university just tends to sit back". Others wondered if they really understood the needs of potential students. Unfortunately, the HoDs had no way of assessing the validity of their information strategy except by the number of students they were able to attract.

7.7 Staff Recruitment

Again, HoDs largely relied on their informal networks to provide them with information about potential staff. Some sought to recruit staff on the basis of information gained at conferences, through informal discussions, personal recommendations, or knowledge of potential staff's work. Others relied on advertising in the local and national press, while others still relied on university search committees to look for staff.

7.8 University Policy

University policy in relation to departments has become increasingly important for many HoDs. As the reliance on the university as a source of information on resource availability indicates, this is due to the major role that the university already plays in the activities of many academic departments. Heads of Department attempted to stay abreast of developments in university policy by attending committees at either university or faculty level, using their informal network of contacts, reading university committee reports and papers, and having direct meetings with senior personnel, and, in some cases, attending Heads of Department conferences run by their own university. In doing so their hope was, as has already been mentioned, to convince the university of the validity of the head's request for additional funding either to improve the capital base of the department or fund particular projects which they felt were important to the well-being of the department. For example, one HoD, keen to demonstrate that his department was currently under-funded, felt that it was vital to remain close to the policies of the university; this required the HoD " nurture relationships at the centre with people who own the information (our emphasis)".

7.9 Financial Management Information

In addition to information on resource availability and the central policies of the university some HoDs also required detailed financial management information. While the broader aspects of this are discussed later, what is immediately interesting about this requirement is the extent to which such information was collected both by the university and the individual department. Heads of academic departments tended to receive information from their university in the form of a monthly print-out of their recent spending. As this did not always provide full details of total spending to date or the amount left available, HoDs often supplemented this information by keeping a record of financial transactions. This information was either collected by departmental administrators or the HoDs themselves. Usually, when HoDs required information to back up their claims for greater resources from the faculty or the university, it was to this in-house information they turned, since they felt that it was more accurate and up-to-date than the computer-generated information supplied by the centre.

7.10 Government Policy

Some HoDs also need to keep abreast of developments in government policy. For a minority, their desire for such information was related to potential research-funding as they were aware that in medicine, or example, it was important to be aware of current government thinking on health service provision. In order to satisfy this particular information need HoDs again relied on personal contacts built up through attending relevant committees and on scanning the literature produced by the government on its policy directions. The majority of HoDs who identified this specific information need were, however, more concerned about the shape and direction that the forthcoming research assessment exercise was likely to take. Given the timing of the interviews this is perhaps not surprising. Heads were anxious to find out as quickly as possible the proposals for the exercise and saw it as important to be on the relevant committees for their research assessment area, that they read the literature supplied by bodies such as higher education funding councils, and used the university, either formally or informally, to gain information on what the likely direction of the exercise would be.

7.11 Differences between Information Needs in Newer and Older Universities

The differences between the CSFs cited by HoDs in 'newer' and 'older' universities were also reflected in their divergent information needs. While both groups ranked such information types as staff management information and employers' needs equally, it is clear from Table 12 that there were major contrasts between the information needs of those in 'newer' and 'older' universities.

Chief amongst these was the comparatively greater need amongst HoDs in older universities for externally-sourced information about, for example, research-funding alternatives, potential research sponsors, competitor intelligence and staff recruitment information. This, again, as the CSFs results suggested, was indicative of the externally-focused attitudes and behaviour of many HoDs in older universities in the sample.

The information needs of HoDs in newer universities appeared more internally-focused and directed rather towards the types of information which they felt they needed in order to manage their departments more efficiently and effectively. There was a tendency, that is, to identify information and information needs closer to the departmental and university interface than to the external environment. Thus, as Table 12 illustrates, HoDs in these universities ranked such information needs as university policy, formal/informal performance assessment, teaching opportunities, government policy, financial management information, resource availability, and university research policies higher in percentage terms. The only real exception to this was in terms of employers' needs. Here, while both groups of HoDs gave this information type a similar weighting, it was also clear from the interviews with some HoDs in newer universities that they preferred research that was applied and involved, preferably, links with industry and commerce.

Table 12 Information needs of academic Heads of Departments: newer and older universities interview groups
  1Number of respondents
  Newer Universities Older universities
Information Types Total % Total %
Staff management information 23 95.8 18 90.0
University policy 11 45.8 5 25.0
Employers' needs 13 54.2 10 50.0
Research funding alternatives 13 54.2 14 70.0
Formal/informal performance 15 62.5 9 45.0
Teaching opportunities 13 54.2 8 40.0
Competitor intelligence 12 50.0 15 75.0
Current students' needs 12 50.0 9 45.0
Government policy 12 50.0 7 35.0
Financial management 12 50.0 5 25.0
Resource availability 11 45.8 8 40.0
Marketing information 9 37.5 6 30.0
Student recruitment information 8 33.3 8 40.0
Potential students' needs 7 29.2 8 40.0
Potential research sponsors 5 20.8 5 25.0
University research policies 4 16.7 2 10.0
Staff recruitment information 2 8.3 11 55.0
Advice/assistance 1 4.2 1 5.0
Needs of disabled students 1 4.2 0 0.0

The groups were also broadly similar in terms of current student needs, marketing information, and student recruitment information. This, again, suggests that, regardless of how successful or how externally-focused a particular department might be or feel itself to be, a large minority of HoDs in both groups felt there was a genuine need for information to help them cope with the many changes in both undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses in recent years. If anything, as the greater need for information on potential student needs and student recruitment information suggests, this was a live issue for many in the older universities.

7.12 W, X, Y, and Z Interview Groups

As the results from the CSFs analysis of this interview group may, perhaps, have suggested, it was not surprising to find that the information needs of HoDs in all four interview groups reflected such varied and individual results. These are illustrated in Table 13. What the diversity again suggests is that institutional setting rather than a department's research rating or mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, was a greater influence on how HoDs perceived their information needs. Research rating and the nature of student populations did, however, in some measure affect the way HoDs perceived their information requirements. Beyond the almost universal concern for staff management information, it is clear that Groups X and Z (the two groups with the higher research ratings) did emphasise more strongly than Groups W and Y the need for competitor intelligence and student recruitment information. Apart from these two types of information need, however, it is clear that the information-seeking behaviour of HoDs in all four interview groups does not clearly fall into neat and easily explicable patterns. One reason for this is the different information behaviour of HoDs in newer and older universities, another is that for HoDs in Group Z the challenge was not necessarily to improve their research-rating but to maintain at least its present standing. Thus, HoDs in this group were principally concerned about the activities of their competitors, recruiting students in a challenging market and adapting their teaching programmes in the light of greater awareness of teaching opportunities and potential student needs.

In the case of HoDs in Group X, with smaller postgraduate populations than Group Z, there was, comparatively, less stress placed on the need for information to adapt their existing teaching programmes. Instead, HoDs in this group were particularly concerned to expand their activities. Hence, their information-seeking behaviour tended to be concentrated on locating external information such as

research-funding alternatives, competitor intelligence, government policy and employers' needs to further their research; marketing information to improve their status amongst their competitors; and, in conjunction with marketing information, student recruitment information to expand the numbers taking up their undergraduate and postgraduate courses. This activity was not simply confined to outside agencies. HoDs in this group were also enthusiastic about receiving information on university policy and resource availability. Internally, as Table 13 suggests, this group increasingly recognised that these activities had to be managed and they thus emphasised the need to be aware of the formal/informal performance of staff and the financial management of the department.

Table 13 Information needs of academic Heads of Departments: W, X, Y, and Z interview groups
  Interview Groups
Information types No. % No. % No. % No. %
Staff management information 18 100.0 10 90.9 8 88.9 5 83.3
Current student needs 11 61.1 3 27.3 6 66.7 1 16.7
Research funding alternatives 11 61.1 9 81.8 5 55.6 2 33.3
Formal/informal performance 11 61.1 5 45.5 7 77.8 1 16.7
Teaching opportunities 9 50.0 4 36.4 5 55.6 3 50.0
Employers' needs 10 55.6 5 45.5 6 66.7 2 33.3
Financial management 8 44.4 6 54.5 2 22.2 1 16.7
Government policy 8 44.4 5 45.5 4 44.4 2 33.3
Competitor intelligence 7 38.9 10 90.9 5 55.6 5 83.3
University policy 7 38.9 6 54.5 3 33.3 0 0/0
Resource availability 7 38.9 6 54.5 5 55.6 1 16.7
Potential student needs 4 22.2 4 36.4 4 44.4 3 50.0
Potential research sponsors 5 27.8 3 27.3 0 0.0 2 33.3
Marketing information 4 22.2 6 54.5 4 44.1 1 16.7
University research policies 3 16.7 2 18.2 1 11.1 0 0.0
Student recruitment 3 16.7 6 54.4 4 44.4 3 50.0
Advice/assistance 2 11.1 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0
Staff recruitment information 2 11.1 4 36.4 4 44.4 3 50.0
Needs of disabled students 1 5.6 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0

The intensity of this information-seeking was also reflected in Group Y. However, while HoDs in this group were interested in seeking external information such as that about research-funding alternatives, employers' needs and government policies, their main pre-occupation was with seeking out information from their university and within their department. For example, with their large postgraduate population, they were concerned about current and potential student needs, teaching opportunities, marketing and student recruitment information, and recruiting appropriate staff. Besides being obviously interested in staff management information, HoDs in this group were also clearly interested in measuring formally and/or informally the performance of staff, and seeking information, largely from their university, on resource availability.

The information-seeking behaviour of HoDs in group W was perhaps more varied than that of HoDs in the other groups. While concentrating on information on staff management and keeping tight control of resources through formal or informal performance measurement and financial management, HoDs in this group were also concerned with identifying external sources of information on research- funding opportunities, government policy and employers' needs; information on university policy and resource availability; and internal issues such as current student needs and teaching opportunities.

7.13 Sciences, Social Sciences, Arts and Medical Interview Groups

The information requirements of HoDs in these four subject groups again illustrate some of the opportunities and challenges faced by those seeking to meet their CSFs and organisational goals. It comes as no surprise that HoDs in sciences, social sciences and arts disciplines ranked staff management information highest, as Table 14 shows. This is not true of the Heads from medical departments, but as has already been shown, a proportion of HoDs in these disciplines did not have teaching commitments. What Table 14 shows, at least in percentage terms, is that HoDs in this group were particularly concerned with research-funding alternatives, competitor intelligence, staff recruitment information, resource availability, university research policies, government policy, and formal/informal performance measurement. This suggests that this interview group primarily sought information from external sources and that much of their activity was directed to improving their research performance.

Table 14 Information needs of academic Heads of Departments: Sciences, Social Sciences, Arts and Medicine interview groups
  Interview Groups
Science Social Sciences Arts Medical
Information types No. % No. % No. % No. %
Staff management information 14 100.0 11 91.7 12 100.0 4 66.7
Research funding alternatives 10 71.4 8 66.7 4 33.3 5 83.3
Employer's needs 10 71.4 8 66.7 3 25.0 2 33.3
Current student needs 6 42.9 7 58.3 7 58.3 1 16.7
Student recruitment information 7 50.0 3 25.0 4 33.3 2 33.3
Resource availability 7 50.0 6 50.0 3 25.0 3 50.0
Competitor intelligence 8 57.1 7 58.3 8 66.7 4 66.7
Government policy 6 42.9 7 58.3 3 25.0 3 50.0
Staff recruitment information 7 50.0 3 25.0 1 8.3 2 33.3
Formal/informal performance 7 50.0 7 58.3 7 58.3 3 50.0
Teaching opportunities 7 50.0 6 50.0 6 50.0 2 33.3
Potential student needs 5 35.7 4 33.3 4 33.3 2 33.3
Marketing information 5 35.7 1 8.3 7 58.3 2 33.3
Potential research sponsors 4 28.6 2 16.7 1 8.3 3 50.0
Financial management 5 35.7 4 33.3 6 50.0 2 33.3
University research policies 2 14.3 1 8.3 1 8.3 2 33.3
University policy 2 14.3 5 41.7 7 58.3 2 33.3
Advice/assistance 1 7.1 1 8.3 0 0.0 0 0.0
Needs of disabled students 0 0.0 0 0.0 1 8.3 0 0.0

Such an interpretation can also be extended to HoDs within the sciences interview group who were concerned to gain similar externally-focused information. However, as has been demonstrated in relation to CSFs, HoDs in this subject group were seriously concerned about the future of their teaching programmes. This is borne out in their prioritisation of information needs which stress the importance of current student needs, student recruitment information, teaching opportunities, resource availability and, on the academic side, the importance of seeking out suitably qualified and able staff.

Some of these issues also concerned HoDs in social sciences although, given the expansion of numbers in this area, they seemed more concerned with gaining the information required to meet and cope with current student needs than with seeking out more students. Above all, however, as with others in all the subject groups, social sciences HoDs were keen to maintain close contacts with external sources of information, including information that would help them manage staff effectively.

Heads of Department in arts subjects also emphasised the importance of access to external information, although this took a different form from that found in the other three groups. Instead of stressing the importance of research-funding alternatives, these HoDs were more focused on competitor intelligence, perhaps owing to the more limited opportunities for funding and the intensive competition within the humanities. In terms of information needs in relation to students, HoDs in the arts, like their colleagues in social sciences departments, were more concerned with coping with the pressures on resources and staff arising from increased student numbers. As in the social sciences departments, it is clear that this was having a substantial effect on the nature of information-seeking amongst these HoDs since they were having to look for new ways to meet student needs while remaining in effective control of their departments' staff and finances.

7.14 Heads of Departments' Perceptions of Libraries, Financial Information Systems and Management Information Systems

In addition to examining the information needs of academic Heads of Department, the project also attempted to look at how, as far as their management information needs were concerned, they used and perceived their university's library, financial and management information systems, and how, if at all, they felt such services could be improved.

7.14.1 Library Services

All forty-four HoDs interviewed saw their library as primarily a teaching- and research-related resource. Its role and purpose was, as far as they were concerned, to meet the research needs of individual academics within their departments and the learning needs of the department's undergraduate and postgraduate students. It was there, as one HoD said, "...essentially as a depository of books and journals". The HoDs were generally happy with this role for the library and felt, on the whole, that their library did its best with the resources at its disposal and was trying, mainly through the relevant subject specialist in the library, to meet departments' teaching and research needs. There were, however, exceptions to this view. Six HoDs felt that the library could do more with its available resources to support their department's needs by buying more monographs or continuing to maintain or increase the number of relevant journals that the library held.

In terms of their management information needs as Heads of Departments, however, they felt that the library had only a minor role, if any, in meeting such needs. As one HoD stated: " I don't see the library in the context of management at all. They are there to provide learning tools for students". Heads of Department did welcome the statistics that the library produced on such factors as library usage. Generally, however, except when the library proposed cuts in support to departments, any information produced by the library was considered to be either irrelevant to the needs of the HoDs in their departmental management role or it was felt to contribute adversely to their sense of information overload. As one put it: " I don't think that there is anything the library does that is particularly relevant to me as Head of Department". What HoDs did use the library for was their own personal research and teaching. However, since it was unlikely, in many cases, that HoDs had adequate opportunities or time for research or teaching during their period in office, it was not surprising to find that, as one commented " [I] scarcely use it at all".

This is not to say, however, that HoDs were oblivious of the changes currently taking place in the electronic provision of information and the transition towards a more fully-fledged access culture within libraries. Given the opportunities that these changes present, a minority of HoDs (4) felt, as one put it, that "...the library has got to become something much more fundamental. The library should be a pivot of information gathering and support". Thus, these HoDs wanted the libraries to play a more proactive role in such things as the scanning of relevant literature and support for the development of information skills throughout their institutions. These modest desires cannot, of course, be said to be concentrated on meeting the management information needs of the HoDs themselves. In general, where HoDs did want to see IT developments used was for their department as a whole not just for themselves. And, despite the recent opportunities that IT had presented to HoDs, what they generally wanted to see was more print-based materials.

7.14.2 Management Information Systems

Academic Heads of Department were also asked for their views on the management information they received from their university administration in relation to such matters as applications for courses, the administration of courses and students, and information on staff. This produced a variety of responses. Nine HoDs felt that it was not appropriate for them to comment on the nature of this support. One reason for this was that for some of them it was not really an issue, since they did not have a sufficiently strong teaching programme to warrant expressing an opinion on their university's management information system. For others, such management information was less of an issue because it was not something they were particularly concerned about, delegating such matters either to another member of staff or the administrative support team.

Twelve HoDs, in both older and newer universities, felt that the management information they received from their university was good and believed that the university provided appropriate support by producing up-to-date and accurate information to meet their needs. Administrators, especially in the registry, were also approachable and if they needed any further information it was available on request. Six other HoDs, while less satisfied with the management information they received, also felt that the university was doing its best, given the effect such recent changes as modularisation and semesterisation were having on the university's management information systems. Also, these HoDs believed that it was too early to form an opinion on the nature of the support they received since their university was implementing new management information systems such as the Management and Administrative Computing (MAC) initiative which they hoped would be able to alleviate difficulties with current systems.

This optimism was not shared by some seventeen HoDs who were deeply unhappy about the nature of the management information support their university provided to them. Comments such as "appalling" and "What management information?" were not uncommon. This group felt that, far from being the recipients of management information, they were, most of the time, net suppliers of management information. As one put it, with some feeling: " I spend more time providing management information to the management information systems than I receive from them". These HoDs also felt that the quality of information they received was poor and that the actual information they received either electronically or on paper was usually inaccurate and out-of-date. This necessitated the duplication of information gathering at departmental level. One HoD, for example, complained that "...if you want the correct information you have to go to departmental offices rather than academic registry who are way out of date". Academic Heads of department resented having to duplicate this information and having constantly to provide information for the university. While they recognised that the central administrative staff had a job to do and that much of the information they had to supply was for the consumption of external bodies, these HoDs felt that supplying management information for current management information systems was a distraction from their work. One felt, for instance, that: " The central departments are doing their jobs the best they can but I continually have to provide information for them or continually comment on what they do which takes a lot of my time. In a utopian world they would get on and do it and I would get on with doing the teaching and research".

Academic Heads of Department were keen to provide solutions to such problems. Some of them wished that responsibility was closer to the department and that the administrators within the department were given formal responsibility for tasks they were already doing. Others felt that their university ought to upgrade the existing management information systems while at the same time listening to the requirements of those who used the management information systems. Thus, they advocated a fully integrated electronic management information system that gave HoDs accurate and up-to-date information that met their requirements. One HoD even offered a vision of what such a system could look like:

If we had a proper integrated approach to what people needed it would make a huge difference to lecturers' lives and help with the administration of courses. I think I would be able to sit here and tap into my computer and get all the names of the students doing any particular module in our modularity system. I would like to be able to tap in and get what their marks were, directly enter the marks on to computer, see who had not handed things in, and see which member of staff was responsible for which class.

7.14. 3 Financial Information Systems

Academic Heads of Department were similarly unhappy about the financial management information they received from their university. Only five of the forty-four interviewed felt that the financial information they received could be described as appropriate for their needs, and for one of them this only came about by "...investing a lot of time over the last two years to make sure that information was correct and it was in a format that we wanted". A further ten felt that their university's financial information system was adequate while others felt that they were not in a position to respond because they were either uninterested in it or, more commonly, were content to leave its complexities to their departmental administrator.

The remaining twenty or so HoDs, however, were highly critical of the financial information systems with which they had to deal, using such terms as "crap", "rubbish", "a disaster area", "cumbersome" and "inappropriate" to describe them. One reason for this is that, in a majority of cases, the financial information supplied to HoDs came in a paper format that merely listed, retrospectively, every departmental transaction. The information did not advise HoDs of the current state of their departmental budget, what their commitments were and or how much they had left to spend. Even when such information was delivered electronically it was still unclear to the HoDs what the actual up-to-date financial position of their department was. Again, as with management information systems, HoDs felt that they were compelled to duplicate the financial information they received. This, for one HoD in an older university, was exasperating:

One counters that [poor financial information] by setting up a system centred on the departmental superintendent which monitors the movement on accounts but this is not the proper use of departmental resources. One should be able to get absolutely up to date literally at the touch of a key and I believe the university has the hardware to do this and the network to do it but it seems to lack the will. The most amazing thing to me as I come back in to the headship after an absence from it of eight years is that nothing seems to have changed on the financial side.

These sentiments were shared by a HoD in a newer university who said: "It is crazy to have a computerised budget system but feel impelled to keep a paper account in order to find out where the money has gone". This inability to obtain appropriate financial information was compounded in some universities by a policy of restricting access to information on staff costs for security reasons, which obviously made financial planning extremely difficult for HoDs and reinforced the need for departments to maintain their own financial records. As one HoD said: "We are operating in a time warp as far as the service element of the university is concerned. They still think we are in the 1950s. The thought of releasing sensitive financial information is more than they can bear. Thus, all budgeting is gleaned from other sources and I put an internal budget together".

Other HoDs, besides encountering problems with the quality of the financial information they received, also felt it was appropriate to duplicate such information since they believed that their department was not best served by the resource allocation model used by their university in distributing income. Hence, they collected information to demonstrate the actual position of their department and to support their argument that the resource allocation model was unfair.

7.15 Summary

The management information needs of HoDs are determined by a number of factors, including the external environment, institutional setting, relative position of the department and departmental culture and these factors undoubtedly affected their information-seeking behaviour. In terms of external information, it seems clear that those HoDs in charge of the more successful departments felt that informal contacts they and their staff had built up were vital in gaining access to information that allowed them subsequently to bid for external funds and keep up with developments in their discipline. This "invisible college" was also important for the other HoDs, although there was a greater tendency on their part to rely on formal sources of information whether within or outside their own university.

Within universities HoDs further emphasised the need to locate information at the interface between the department and the university. Again, this was partly achieved by the HoD's informal network of contacts at senior level, but also by remaining aware of university policy and of any developments of which they were informed by, for example, the Registrar's Office or Finance Department. In terms of internal information, HoDs also used a variety of informal means to gather information relevant to staffing and student needs. However, these informal links were increasingly being overlaid by more formal monitoring and evaluation systems which afforded HoDs a broader picture of particular needs than might, perhaps, be gained from more anecdotal sources of information.

Beyond their own informal networks and the more formal systems they had adopted to search for management information, HoDs did not feel that university libraries were, or were likely to be, a viable source of such information. For HoDs, libraries were still essentially an academic support service charged with the mission of supporting the teaching and research needs of academic departments, despite the recent changes brought about by information technology. Furthermore, HoDs felt that libraries should not look to offer the sorts of information they required in order to manage their departments, partly because of the HoDs' reliance on informal sources of information and partly because, in any case, such services were already supposed to be delivered by other agencies within the university. Thus, to add to the existing role of the library was to further burden it, and create a further opportunity to overload HoDs with information.

A sizeable proportion of the HoDs, however, felt that the management information support offered by their university was poor. Often, it was late, cumbersome and failed to deliver what they wanted. This obviously presents a serious problem to universities. Outside the work of such agencies as the Industrial Liaison Office or the Schools Liaison Office, it seems unclear how universities can support the information needs of HoDs other than by providing them with effective management and financial information systems. Part of this reason for this, according to one HoD, is that, despite the urge to move towards a more managerialist culture in universities, "...we still have got a situation in most British universities where we have a kind of individual ethos but we are actually in a mass production age". Another HoD suggested that the universities' failure to meet the needs of HoDs in this respect was due to the nature of the relationship between central services and departments:

Central services have a very imperious relationship to the academic departments. They basically are the providers of resources or services as and when they see fit. There is no market relationship between the two. We have got to change their internal organisation so that central services like the registry, like the faculty office and finance relate to departments on the principle of provision.

It was, perhaps, surprising, given the amount of time and money spent on it, that the MAC (Management and Administrative Computing) initiative appeared to have made little or no impact on the HoDs' perception of management information systems if, indeed, its existence had ever been drawn to their attention.

Front Page Contents Chapter 8

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