The Management Information Needs of Academic Heads of Department in Universities
9.1 The Interviews
In all, nineteen senior administrative staff were interviewed. At least one senior administrator was interviewed in each of the sixteen universities, while two universities allowed access to two or more administrators. Those interviewed were: five Management Information Officers; two Secretaries and Registrars; the Secretary of a medical faculty; three Heads of Industrial Liaison Offices (including EU officers and research funding administrators); three Finance Directors; two Heads of Student Services; one Head of a Careers Service; one Head of a Marketing and Public Relations Unit; and one Head of a Science Park. It was hoped that interviews with such a wide range of administrative staff and managers would help to provide as comprehensive a view as possible of the range and nature of management information supplied or available to Heads of Academic Departments.
Using a semi-structured interview schedule, the organisational structure of each administrative department or unit, its role within the university, its relations with the academic community and the nature of its management information support to HoDs were examined.
9.2 Head of a Science Park
The Science Park visited had begun as a partnership between the university, a bank and the local city council, all of whom were keen to stimulate the growth of small high-tech and knowledge-based companies in the area. The three collaborators created a holding company to manage and promote the work of the companies. The Head of this company felt that, since the Park was the result of a collaboration between the university and the private and public sectors, it was important that the Park should have and develop close links with the university. Unfortunately, although the Vice-Chancellor of the University was a member of the Park's liaison committee, the Head felt that the ties between the university and the Park were not very close. This was also true of the Park's relationships with the HoDs in the University. The Head of the Park, while believing that there was not much general co-operation between the Park and the HoDs, did, however, endeavour to supply some management information to the latter. However, the only regular and consistent help given to the HoDs by the Science Park was in relation to possible alternative sources for research-funding. This information was distributed by a newsletter that promoted the activities of the companies in the Park. More ad hoc information, such as support for ongoing research, performance indicators, support with sandwich courses, links with industry and extra-mural bodies, was promoted through the informal links the staff of the Park had with HoDs in the university. The Head of the Science Park felt that these were a good way of promoting the activities of the Park, although he believed that the HoDs would have to become more outward-looking if they were to interact more closely with the commercial developments on the Park: "I am not too sure that departments have been all that outward-looking in the past".
9.3 Director of Marketing and Public Relations
The Marketing and Public Relations office visited in the course of the project was responsible for: marketing of the university as a whole; external public relations; market research on student applications and for new course developments; university publications; the alumni society; and university events such as open days. The Director felt that it was the role of the department to facilitate the work of the academic community generally. This was done through building up strong customer relations which, it was hoped, would soon be formalised into service level agreements.
As for HoDs, the Director felt that the Marketing and Public Relations Office did have a role to play in meeting their information needs, principally their external information needs. In part, this was achieved by the service's working closely with admissions tutors. Thus, the service supplied competitor intelligence on the state of student recruitment nationally, individual departments' share of this market, and information on the position of rivals. The service also supported admissions tutors in attracting students to departments. Through market research the Office helped to identify the kinds of courses potential students required and gave marketing and public relations support to help attract students to courses. All this information was regularly made available to HoDs through admissions tutors, although the Director felt that the information was not always passed on by admissions tutors.
The Director also used informal contacts, built up through regular meetings, to facilitate the work of HoDs. In conjunction with the university's Department of Corporate Affairs, the Director used informal contacts to pass on information about developments in industry and the public sector. Additionally, since the service was responsible for developing links with the city's twin town, the Director was able to keep HoDs informed about any new resource developments that might result from this.
More formally, the Office produced a fortnightly newsletter devoted to external developments in higher education, and passed on to HoDs information on possible sources of funding for student scholarships and awards. While this was not directly targeted at HoDs, and might be duplicated by other support services in the university, the Director felt that it was important that HoDs should receive the information.
Where the Office did work directly in supplying management information to HoDs was in support for the development of new courses. Here, the Office provided the results of market research on the state of the market, possible threats and opportunities, and marketing support. Such support had become part of the validation process for new courses, although the Director felt that the service was not always involved early enough in the process.
The Director, however, considered that the supply of information to HoDs could be improved and that, for example, "...the flows of information [would] have to be more regular and smooth". That it was not so already was attributed to the cultural gulf between academics and administrators: "The senior managers think they are running some sort of education factory and the actual workers haven't actually been informed about this fact or [do not]accept this fact".
9.4 Heads of Student Services
Two Heads of Student Services and one Head of a Careers Service were interviewed about their role in supplying management information to HoDs. Though broadly similar, the three units had different structures and different responsibilities within their universities. One of the Student Services Heads had responsibility for: the chaplaincy, child care provision, personal counselling, careers, medical services, a learning support unit and an AIDSs research officer. Similarly, the other Head's responsibilities were: personal counselling (including academic staff); the university's nursery; careers; medical services; and recreational services. The Careers Service in the third university worked as part of a range of student services.
All three Heads of the services identified their primary responsibility as meeting the needs of students rather than staff. However, one of the Heads of a student services department felt that the service did have a wider institutional role. Thus, although the service had no specific remit from the university to supply management information to academic departments, the Head of the service stated that "...we are trying to enter into a more formalised and structured way of sharing the information that we have with departments". This situation was not replicated in the other two services where there was considered to be a lack of contact between the careers service and the work of academic departments. This, unfortunately, tended to lead to their having a low profile in their respective universities. There was, as the Head of one of the Student Services put it, a "...tendency for student services to be marginalised". The management information which the three services did supply to HoDs is summarised in Table 15.
All three Heads of these services commented that the most important information they supplied to HoDs was the externally-focused 'first destination' data. This they considered to be a valuable performance indicator, a good source of competitor intelligence, and a vital contribution to information on students. This was supplemented by other forms of information on students. One of the student services produced statistics on the use of the counselling service, figures on numbers applying for access funds and, more generally, the financial situation of students. The services also used their contacts with other parts of the education system to attract students to courses run at their respective universities. Furthermore, they gave external support, on an informal ad hoc basis, to HoDs in developing their links with industry and extra-mural bodies and helped with the placing of sandwich course students. This largely took the form of using their contacts in the private and public sector to make HoDs aware of any opportunities they had come across for strengthening the profile of departments.
The services also provided support for meeting the internal information needs of HoDs. This took the form of producing a staff development handbook to
make HoDs aware of the opportunities offered by the services . The student service departments also tried to inform HoDs of the special needs of certain students. In both cases this was a formalised role and each service was endeavouring to raise the profile of students with special needs either through special needs tutors in departments or by raising the profile of the university's access centre. These activities notwithstanding, the Heads of Student Services still felt that they had little part to play in support of HoDs. This was partly due to the student focus of the services and partly to the poor light in which HoDs regarded them. The Head of the Careers Service, for example, believed, that even with first destination data, HoDs "...like receiving it but don't have time to think about it a lot".
9.5 Registrars and Secretaries
Two Registrars and Secretaries and one Secretary were interviewed. The role of the Secretary, who was responsible for the administration of a Faculty of Medicine, was primarily one of supporting senior managers such as the Dean, the Dean of Teaching and the Dean of Research. The Secretary was, thus, a member of a senior management team and thought it important that this group should be given information on such matters as the administration of undergraduate courses, admissions, examinations, student problems, appeals, clinical placements, postgraduate recruitment, finance and development and committee servicing.
The two Registrars and Secretaries had more of a responsibility for the administration of the university as a whole. As members of their institution's senior management team, they had wide-ranging responsibilities. For one, the administrative head of an older university, these responsibilities, within an integrated system, were: planning; estate management; finance; PR and Marketing; Media and Printing; information services; servicing academic committees; the research and consultancy office; and the Vice-Chancellor's office. The principal function and objective of this senior manager were to "...service the decision-making bodies of the university" and to "..ensure the long term viability of the institution".
The second Secretary and Registrar, in a newer university, was responsible for managing university services such as admissions student records, academic appeals, the performance unit and servicing university committees. Besides having authority over fewer functions than his counterpart in the older university, this Secretary and Registrar saw the administration's role as managerial. With a stronger tradition of 'top-down' management in the newer university, and with limited resources, this Secretary and Registrar believed that, though it was important to involve academics, decisions had to be made managerially: "When it comes to decisions about how we implement the general direction that we have agreed to go it really has got to be done to a large extent managerially". The Secretary and Registrar in the older university also felt that this was the direction in which all universities were being pushed. Pressures from the funding councils had forced the administration to become more managerialist. This Secretary and Registrar, while considering such changes unfortunate, further suggested that there was a tendency amongst academics to castigate the administration since this was the agent implementing the auditing of academic teaching and research performance.
All three administrators felt that they played an important role in meeting the management information needs of HoDs. Largely, this was mediated through the work of the officers in the various sections of the administration, though informal links were also important. The Secretary and Registrar of the older university, who had been in post a considerable time, felt that, over time, close working relationships had been built up with the HoDs. The Secretary of the medical faculty also saw this as a useful way of supplying information since a great deal of advice and support for HoDs was provided by telephone or through meetings. The Secretary and Registrar of the newer university, however, had little contact, formal or informal, with HoDs and tended to delegate responsibility to the various line managers responsible for sections of the administration. The range of information and support delivered to HoDs by these administrators is summarised in Table 16.
What is immediately interesting about Table 16 is how important the three administrators were in supplying information to HoDs. For virtually every type of information suggested, they seemed to have some role to play. Partly, this may be explained by the comprehensive nature of support that the Secretary and Registrar in the older university provided. In that university the admissions and research office gave HoDs regular monthly reports detailing the university's admissions performance vis-à-vis a selected group of competitors and information on the research performance of comparable departments. Similarly, HoDs were given support in attracting students to departments through the administration's management of university publications and organisation of visits by the schools liaison staff to schools and careers fairs. Externally, the administration strove to build links with industry, developing exchange programmes and research funding alternatives through the research and international office by distributing information, organising symposia and general marketing and public relations activities.
The administration also supplied vital, internally-generated information to HoDs. An annual digest of performance indicators and student statistics was produced. In the light of the pressure on student-staff ratios, the administration was also keen to promote opportunities for staff development by providing regular information updates on possible courses and sources of funding. For new courses, the administration provided the market research gleaned from admissions data and played an important part in assessing the viability of proposed courses. The administration, through the admissions office, also saw a role for itself in promoting the requirements of students with special needs. An equal opportunities policy had been introduced and there were moves to improve the estate strategy so that the university could become physically more user-friendly. Informally, the Secretary and Registrar, through regular meetings, was able to keep HoDs aware of developments in higher education and foster, albeit in a fragmented way, links with extra-mural bodies.
Not surprisingly, the other Secretary and Registrar, with a somewhat narrower range of responsibilities, was less involved in meeting the information needs of HoDs. Through the Schools Liaison Office, this Secretary and Registrar gave HoDs information, gathered from UCAS and the CVCP that would be useful in attracting students to departments. The distribution of internally generated information on students was also an important function. Through the Academic Schools Registrar, the Secretary and Registrar tried to encourage information links between the centre and the academic units. Support was further given for students with special needs; the university had a HEFCE-funded worker trying to promote awareness of student needs. More tightly focused were attempts to improve teaching skills and develop new courses. This university, in common with many others, had a policy of sending new staff on teaching courses and every proposed new course had to be shown to be financially viable before being approved.
The Secretary of the medical faculty, managing what was in effect a 'mini-university', met many of the internal information needs of HoDs. Chief amongst these was information on students: for example, on the administration of undergraduate courses, monitoring student performance, clinical placements and dealing with students' problems. The Secretary was also keen to help HoDs with information helpful for attracting students, although support for this was increasingly being provided centrally through the university's graduate school. Furthermore, the faculty office provided financial management information to HoDs on their funding position, the state of their budgets and had a faculty accountant to help sort out queries that HoDs might have. In a more ad hoc manner, the Secretary kept information on internal and external performance indicators which could be accessed by HoDs on request. The Secretary also acted as a liaison between the faculty and the various NHS Trusts. The Secretary saw it as the role of the faculty office to supply information in both directions, through meetings, in order to co-ordinate the activities of academics in the faculty. Course development was another area in which the Secretary sought to meet HoDs' information needs. As with developments in higher education generally, the Secretary circulated information about developments and any prospective changes to the medical curricula being mooted by the General Medical Council.
However, the Secretary did not believe that there was any point in spoon-feeding HoDs. Partly, this attitude was attributable to an unsuccessful attempt to provide academic departments with an electronic system for the administration of student records. The problems with the installation and operation of such a system had impaired the Secretary's willingness to extend electronic information services to HoDs. More importantly, the Secretary considered that the faculty office was only one of many possible sources of information for HoDs. It was just as likely that HoDs would obtain the information they needed from the university's Registrar's office or from their informal contacts and networks within the university, the Trusts or in the wider medical world. The Secretary suggested that a major problem facing HoDs was not accessing relevant information but that they were suffering from information overload: "The vast majority of Heads of department in this faculty are bombarded with a lot of paperwork from the university but if that is not bad enough they also get bombarded with paperwork of an even greater amount from the Trusts".
The problems caused by the quantity of information received by HoDs was also recognised by the Secretaries and Registrars interviewed. They were, however, more concerned about the need to improve the quality of the management information provided to HoDs. The Secretary and Registrar in the older university felt that the information could be simplified and that, as far as financial information was concerned, HoDs had a right to be critical about the value of the monthly print-outs they received. On the other hand, however, HoDs, who held their position for a limited period of time, did not always make proper use of the information supplied to them: "At any one time there is about a quarter of them who make extremely good use of information, a quarter of them who just let the stuff flow across the desk, and the average head will make reasonable use of information but not fully effective use".
In addition to information overload, and poor management information systems for HoDs, there is a suggestion that, amongst academic staff, there is a great deal of resentment, albeit difficult to quantify, of the influence of central university administrative officers on the management of the traditional academic concerns of teaching and research. This was certainly the case, according to the Secretary and Registrar at the newer university. Dissatisfied with both the quantity and quality of the information provided, HoDs felt it necessary to duplicate the centre's information on students. There was a clear cultural gulf between academic and administrative units in the university, as one senior administrator stated :
There is one major problem of perception and I think there are large areas of the centre who have absolutely no conception of what is being faced in the departments. Similarly, the people in the departments have no concept of why these things are coming from the centre. They see the centre as some sort of parasitic thing that just sits there and is constantly growing and providing inadequate services: the departments don't understand the problems of the centre and the centre doesn't understand the problems of departments.
It would be tempting, but misleading, to suggest that this problem was due to the top-down management style employed at the university in question, although it is clear that such a management style goes against the concept of professional autonomy that academics may have felt was one of the reasons they entered academia in the first case. What is more persuasive is the argument that, while all three Secretaries and Registrars wished to meet the information needs of HoDs, their primary concern was to meet the information needs of senior managers and to comply with advice from external authorities. Unfortunately, trying to satisfy these rapidly changing primary needs left little time or resources to concentrate on the concerns of middle managers such as HoDs.
9.6 Industrial Liaison Officers
The three Heads of Industrial Liaison Offices (ILOs) interviewed were responsible for service departments similar to each other in structure and mission. Each had major responsibilities for providing information on research opportunities to academics, administering research contracts, patenting and technology transfer and, in general, co-ordinating their university's industrial and commercial links. In each case, too, the activities of research administrators, European Union officers, technology transfer officers, and industrial liaison officers had been centralised.
The ILO Heads felt that they had an important role in meeting the management information needs of HoDs, as outlined in Table 17. Of all the administrators interviewed, the ILO Heads were perhaps the closest to identifying with and meeting the specific management information needs of HoDs. They saw their mission as one of facilitation, by which they hoped to provide timely and accurate information to academic staff and then back this up with effective support in administering research contracts and developing patents. Although much of their work was focused on the more scientific and technological departments, all the ILO Heads interviewed contended that their services had been used successfully in Arts and Social Science departments as well.
As Table 17 illustrates, most of the information HoDs received from the ILOs was externally focused. Regular competitor intelligence about comparable research departments in the United Kingdom was delivered by one ILO, while another passed on information, on anad hoc basis, as the Head or staff of the ILO came across it. All the ILOs provided comprehensive information on research-funding alternatives. This was mediated through regular research bulletins and e-mail messages to individual academics, including HoDs. Once funding proposals had been developed, the ILOs provided internal support to ensure that proposals were financially viable and fell within what the university considered a proper return. Once funding had been obtained, the ILOs liaised between the academic and the sponsor, and advised on any technology transfer opportunities that might arise from the contract. While projects were running, the ILOs supplied project leaders with information on the state of the budget for their projects. One of the ILOs had the additional responsibility of co-ordinating purchasing agreements with academic departments. Here, HoDs were given information on preferred suppliers and possible savings to be gained in car hire, office furniture and office supplies. The ILOs also provided HoDs with performance indicators using a dedicated database which detailed applications for funding, grants held, and the value of grants received.
As far as external relations were concerned, the Heads of the ILOs attempted to develop links with industrial organisations, the funding councils and the public sector. Through their industrial liaison officers, the ILOs tried to match potential sponsors of projects with potential academic partners. Although this was an important role for the ILOs, it was often based on knowledge of the research interests of academics accumulated informally by the ILOs. This was formalised in the ILOs bythe creation of research databases outlining individual interests. Similarly, collection and dissemination of information on student scholarships and awards were seen as part of the role of the ILOs. In one ILO, the Head claimed an important role in passing on information on opportunities while in another, the Head played a leading role in administering the university's scholarship programme. Besides these responsibilities and activities the three ILOs, as the research eyes and ears of the universities, played a part in passing on information on travel awards, developing other resource alternatives, and making arrangements for other financial support if, for example, academic staff wished to set up companies.
While this information support is extensive and sophisticated, the Heads of the ILOs did not perceive any real advantage in specifically targeting the information needs of HoDs. Their services were directed at all academic staff. Heads of department were often given the information and support as a matter of course, but generally the ILOs preferred to work directly with project directors. Heads, while they received information, or were themselves project directors, only really became important when a research proposal had to be ratified. One reason for this is that the Heads of the ILOs believed that HoDs were in some instances more likely to exacerbate the problems of information dissemination than to help matters:
The problem is that it does depend on the Head of Department as to how efficient and reliable he might be in passing on the information. We get the impression that the more successful the department is the more diligent is the Head of Department in informing his staff as to what is going on....it is an enormous problem.
The Heads of the ILOs recognised that, with the extra responsibilities imposed on HoDs as a result of, for example, devolution of budgetary control, it was easy to over-burden them with information. One way round this, in the opinion of one Head of a ILO, was to give HoDs better training, longer terms in office, and, crucially, better support structures.
Overall, however, the Heads of the ILOs wished to be seen as facilitators, working in partnership with the academic community to foster better research performance. They recognised that this was met with some scepticism by some academic staff who were content with their own information channels, but, in general, as one put it:
The culture is changing. Like all large organisations these days we have been carried kicking and screaming into management efficiency and the use of management information services whereas in the past it was a more haphazard approach.
9.7 Finance Officers
Three Finance Officers or Directors were interviewed in the course of the project. All were members of their respective university's senior management group, with responsibility for ensuring the financial well-being and viability of the institution. Two had additional responsibilities: one for the university's business services (residences, catering and conference centre) and the administration of research funding, and the other for student administration and management information services. They did, therefore, supply information in these areas in additional to financial information, as summarised in Table 18. The Director with additional responsibility for student administration regularly provided HoDs with information on students (numbers on courses, value of funding and student problems) and also assisted HoDs by maintaining a staff database detailing staff qualifications, research interests and publications. Such staff development information was supplemented by organising occasional courses on financial management for HoDs. Similar courses were offered by both the other Finance Directors who were concerned about the financial management skills of HoDs; these Directors were also responsible for the financial administration of research contracts. This was backed up, in one case, with a database containing information on the number of research-funding applications made, success rates and the value of awards. Another role for one of the Directors was related to the development of new courses. The university had stipulated that all new courses had to be financially viable and properly costed and the Finance Director had, therefore, the responsibility for working out costings.
The main type of information provided by Finance Directors for HoDs was, of course, financial management information. Although the information was essentially the same in each of the three cases examined, presentation and style varied from university to university. One Director supplied monthly print-outs of amount spent, amount committed, and current state but this information was often out of date by the time HoDs received it. According to the HoDs interviewed it was also likely to be inaccurate, necessitating the keeping of internal accounts. One Finance Director attempted to alleviate this problem by providing HoDs with financial information electronically, on a real-time basis. This gave the HoDs the opportunity to interrogate budgetary information much more closely, in addition to data on staff costs, information on staff by category, details of charges to cost centres, and current expenditure. Another Director provided print-based monthly reports on the financial position of academic departments but also used this budgetary information to build a model detailing the financial performance of departments in terms of their actual income, expenditure and subsequently any excess or deficit. It was possible, therefore, for both the central administration and academic departments to see the relative positions of academic departments and take appropriate action to correct any shortfall or re-distribute any excess.
The products of these three different financial information systems were almost universally criticised by their respective university's HoDs. For HoDs the information was obscure, tardy, untargeted, and told them little of their present position. They were also unhappy about what they considered to be the unnecessarily restrictive security controls finance directors put on their budgetary information which, in some instances, made it difficult to interrogate staff costs, the largest element in many departmental budgets.
The three Finance Officers and Directors were well aware of the problems their financial information caused HoDs. Again, as with one of the Secretaries and Registrars, this was, in their opinion, partly due to a failure on the part of HoDs to appreciate what finance departments did and of finance departments to understand more fully the information requirements of HoDs. As one Finance Director put it:
What is really needed from me and my team is to go round and sell ourselves. It is just finding the time to do it. We need to be proactive in information interrogation from the system. We need to listen. We need to go out and tell them what they can get already.
The difficulty with this approach is that, given the rapid pace of change in recent years, the Finance Directors felt that it was difficult to afford the time; modularisation, the expansion of student numbers, and the need for better management of financial planning had all put considerable pressure on finance departments. Moreover, according to the three Finance Directors, their financial management information systems were aimed not at middle-ranking academic managers but at senior managers responsible for the university as a whole. Seen from this viewpoint, the financial information systems appeared to work. For example, the Finance Director who had built up a financial model of departmental spending claimed that the model gave the university a high level of control over finance whereas, at the departmental level, very little could be done with the information:
At the macro level it has served me well. From a user's point of view it is a sort of nineteenth century quill pen approach: they can't access the system; they can't download information and play with it.
Beyond that, the Finance Directors were extremely sceptical about the financial management skills or the commercial sense of HoDs. One was particularly scathing, commentating that "...academics have not got a clue about the commercial realities of running an organisation and just do not understand the needs of a big complex organisation and its financial controls". This made it difficult for Finance Directors to give them the sorts of information they required since, as far as the Finance Directors could perceive, HoDs were unable to gauge accurately their own activities. Two of the Finance Directors interviewed did wish to devolve more responsibility to HoDs but felt that this was impossible, given the low level of financial skills displayed by the HoDs.
The Finance Directors suggested that this lack of financial skills was partly due to the fact that many HoDs were principally interested in teaching and research and partly because many academics who became Heads of Department achieved this primarily on the basis of their research record rather than on any managerial skills they possessed. It was not, therefore, surprising that financially naive academic HoDs would underestimate the value of the information presented to them or fail to understand the difficulties Finance Directors faced. All three Finance Directors advocated better financial management training for HoDs. This was already offered to HoDs but much more needed be done if relations between the academic departments and the finance department were to improve.
9.8 Management Information Officers
Five Management Information Officers were interviewed; all had different responsibilities and performed different tasks within their university. One was responsible for managing the academic services within the university; this entailed responsibility for the library, media services, computing, network services and TV and graphics. Additionally, this officer had a lead role in the development and implementation of the university's teaching and learning strategy. These services were primarily aimed at meeting the needs of student customers, but the Director of the service felt that it did play a role in meeting the needs of HoDs. The remaining four services could more straightforwardly be described as management information services. One of those interviewed, Head of a university information systems service, had responsibility for ensuring the smooth running and optimal use of the university's network infrastructure. While this was essentially a background role, the Director of felt that the service did contribute to meeting the information needs of HoDs. Another of those interviewed had been given charge of implementing the university's MAC initiative. This project was on-going and, although the services for HoDs were limited to assistance in attracting students to departments, the project officer hoped in the future to offer a comprehensive set of information to the HoDs. The remaining two Management Information Officers could be seen as providing more 'mature' management services for HoDs. These five interviewees suggested that they supplied management information to HoDs in the areas summarised in Table 19.
One of the most interesting aspects of Table 19 is the variety of ways the Management Information Officers identified for meeting the information needs of HoDs. For the director of a university information service this was essentially a support role. By providing and maintaining the network infrastructure, it was possible to use the data generated by the system as the basis for the finance department's financial management information analyses for HoDs, to provide performance indicators, to contribute to the work of the Registry in attracting students to departments, and to provide information on students. The service's technical expertise and experience was also called upon by HoDs in developing computer assisted learning and teaching skills and helping academic staff to write research proposals.
However, since many of the services offered were of a background or back-up nature, the director felt that these activities were not really understood or appreciated by HoDs. The director felt this inevitably led to the service's having a low profile in the university and believed that this had contributed to the large budget reduction the service had suffered in the previous year. While recognising the need for resources to be targeted at teaching and research activities the director believed that this reduction in funding would ultimately be seen as a retrograde step for the academic departments since it would impair the quality of the service that information systems could provide to HoDs and their colleagues.
Similar problems faced the officer who was implementing the MAC initiative in another university. Since implementing the MAC initiative involved substantial expenditure, HoDs were concerned that these resources could have been better spent at departmental level where resources had already been devoted to stand-alone financial software packages. This, as the project director conceded, was a valid point of view, especially given the length of time the MAC initiative has been mooted and the comparatively little it had achieved. Nevertheless, HoDs had been pleased with the new on-line information on student applications although some were sceptical about the future proposals to develop a payroll/personnel system, a research and consultancy database, a financial management system, a student records and physical resource management system and a management information system as a "bucket at the bottom" for collating and summarising data for HoDs.
Beyond gaining the trust and confidence of potential stakeholders, this manager had also found it difficult to identify "...real requirements and not spurious ones and how to match expectations". Obviously, this problem was not confined to HoDs alone, but, according to the Head of academic services in another university, it was made doubly difficult by the relative lack of sophistication, in management information systems terms, of some academic HoDs. For this Director, "Heads of academic departments have not been particularly switched on to the concept of management information". Not surprisingly, therefore, especially for a service that was targeted towards meeting the needs of students, the information provided to HoDs by the Director of this service was limited in scope . Informally, the director passed on any research-funding or extra-mural intelligence that was considered potentially useful to HoDs. This was supported by ad hoc dissemination of competitor intelligence and a more comprehensive system of 'cold' searches and exploitation of a database of contacts for HoDs who wished to develop closer links with industry. Internally, since the director played a leading role in the development and implementation of the university's teaching and learning strategy, the service regularly liaised with HoDs to ensure that they were aware of the courses and opportunities available if they wished to develop their staff or improve their teaching skills. The service also had a role in developing new courses, since the director wished to see IT provision much more integrated with the university's academic activities.
The remaining two interviewees, who were more specifically Management Information Officers, saw more of a role for their service in supporting HoDs. One of them helped HoDs understand the university's financial management information and what it meant for their department. Thus, the service held seminars and informal meetings with HoDs on resource distribution information and gave advice on student forecasts and projections to aid their strategy for attracting students to departments. The service also produced performance indicators for HoDs on staff-student ratios and student numbers.
However, since the Management Information Officer was primarily responsible for meeting the information needs of senior managers, this support to HoDs can only be seen as a secondary role. Moreover, much of this information was passed through the Deans of Faculties and it was up to this level of management to pass on much of the information generated by the management information officer. Similarly, the remaining Management Information Officer's primary role was to meet the needs of senior managers. This role had evolved over time in response to the increased managerialism within a former polytechnic: "We are beginning to function much more as a business organisation with set objectives and concentrating on the delivery of those objectives; the soul of the institution has shifted with the times". Nevertheless, the management information officer did provide comprehensive management information support to HoDs. This was primarily achieved through an operating statement that encouraged HoDs to detail their links with industry and extra-mural bodies, asked them to track their development of alternative sources of income and provided them with the opportunity to identify their staff's strengths and weaknesses in order that they could plan staff development more effectively. This information was then relayed to HoDs on request.
This Management Information Office also provided a comprehensive breakdown of competitor intelligence with regional and national profiles of competitors, student profiling by geographical region and mode of attendance, and extensive performance indicators showing ratio analyses of ethnicity, gender, and age. Information on students with special needs was also brought to the attention of HoDs. Meetings with HoDs were held twice a year to explain likely developments in higher education.
This very impressive and sophisticated information support system had not been achieved easily and, in the management information officer's opinion, had been achieved in spite of academics rather than with their support:
In this institution quite a lot of time was spent with academic Heads and representatives of academic departments in structuring information to maximise the information they could get. I know that some of those debates, after nine months, were not completed because people kept changing their views and wanted to take what was essentially going to be an institutional system and bend it for every good idea that occurred to them between the last meeting and the next.
Such a system, which represents much of the information that was supplied to HoDs, is, as has been seen, being replicated in other universities keen to use the MAC initiative to deliver comprehensive and 'just-in-time' information to stakeholders. However, this is not an easy task for, according to one management information officer, it is unlikely that 'older' universities will see much benefit from the MAC initiative before the end of the millennium: "My only criticism of the older universities would be that we will get to the year 2000 and we will still be seeing little improvement as they don't seem, for whatever reason, to take it on and make it work".
Unlike the librarians who were interviewed, university administrators clearly do play a role in meeting the management information needs of HoDs. However, the nature and extent of such activity is dependent upon the individual administrator's specific role within the university and the degree of responsibility for meeting such needs delegated to them by the university . For some, such as the Secretaries and Registrars, Finance Officers and Management Information Officers, it is evident that the university feels that they do have a major role to play while for others, such as Heads of student services, the role is less well-defined and more likely to be fulfilled on an ad hoc basis.
Regardless of the level of involvement of university administrators with HoDs, it is clear from the results of this investigation that university administrators recognise that, for a variety of reasons, HoDs' management information needs are not being properly catered for. Firstly, there was a sense amongst administrators that HoDs were not always best placed to receive management information, partly because, in the opinion of some administrators, HoDs may actually be a barrier to the dissemination of information to colleagues in their departments. Recognising that HoDs already suffered from information overload, administrators felt that instead of overloading them even more it would be better to target specific individuals who appeared to require the information. Furthermore, administrators were also concerned that the effort invested in any attempt to supply management information to HoDs may be a waste of valuable resources because the HoDs were not sufficiently expert in management and financial techniques to take advantage of any relevant information developments offered to them.
A more important issue, however, was that university administrators had great difficulty in identifying the management information needs of HoDs. Partly, this was due to the difficulty that administrators faced in identifying HoDs within the range of interest groups in their universities. It was difficult for administrators to distil the available information to meet the specific individual HoDs since the latter, though a small group, represented variety of issues and departments. Also, the annual changes in personnel at Head of Department level complicated this process. Given these problems, it was easier in the end for the administrators to integrate the information needs of HoDs within the needs of the wider academic community.
These problems should, however, be placed in context. The administrators' relative ignorance of the management information needs of HoDs stems in part from the external focus of many administrative departments. Faced with external demands to be more accountable, to attract more students, to deliver efficiency gains (while, obviously, maintaining quality), university administrative departments have become much more oriented to meeting these needs. Furthermore, since in most universities policy is now directed by a senior management team, administrative departments have been charged with meeting the more global needs of this group. Given the administrative upheavals caused by, for example, semesterisation and modularity, it is not surprising that administrative departments cannot find the resources or the time to consider the needs of HoDs.
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