Information Strategy - a tool for institutional change.
1Andrew Rothery, 2Ann Hughes
This paper will outline the national development of Information Strategies in the UK and the approach taken at Worcester. In addition, we will consider claims made in respect of Information Strategies and comment on the effect of Information Strategy development on the role of IT/Computing Services in Higher Education (HE) institutions.
Information Systems and Information Technology Strategies have traditionally been the responsibility of IT/Computing Services but the Guidelines for Developing and Information Strategy, published by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the HE Funding Councils in the UK, pointed out the shortcomings of such strategies:
- “they tend to be technology driven” - an implication that expenditure can be wasted on irrelevant technical innovations
- “they tend to focus on the narrow fields of management related information rather than the academic information which provides the foundations for teaching and research”
- “they have a tendency to seek ways of using technology to improve current processes” - with an implication that this avoids the question of re-assessing the processes themselves
Information Strategies are intended to avoid these faults, and two claims are particularly significant in this respect:
1. An Information Strategy is a set of institution-wide attitudes and a process rather than a documentbrp> 2.Strategy should not be “technology led” but led by information users' needs. Information Strategy will dictate the IT Strategy, not the other way around.
In addition there is an expectation that the process of developing an Information Strategy may be a tool for institutional change at a level outside the traditional scope of an IT/Computing Service.
There is a widely held view that some IT uses have been developed `for IT's sake'. There is a tension here regarding the role of IT/Computing Services - to serve or to lead the way? The notion of an Information Strategy suggests that IT should serve - but we will return to this point.
The JISC Guidelines
In 1994 the JISC established the Information Strategy Steering Group to investigate the potential for developing Information Strategies within HE. Coopers & Lybrand was commissioned to undertake the research and produce a report. A questionnaire was circulated to all UK HE institutions and a number were visited for more detailed discussions.
This resulted in a genuine interest in the use of Information Strategies as a possible means of ensuring value for money from technology, exploiting technological advances, coping with increased numbers of students and reduced funds, and attempting to bring about a change in attitudes, especially towards the ownership and accessibility of information within the institution. The eventual outcome was the publishing of the Guidelines for Developing an Information Strategy in December 1995 (http://www.niss.ac.uk/education/jisc/pub/infstrat).
The JISC Guidelines are very clear that the type of Information Strategy that they are attempting to produce is not just a document, nor is it concerned only with computing or libraries. They define an Information Strategy as “a set of attitudes” and the Guidelines are therefore a guide to a process intended to achieve (or at least partially achieve) those attitudes. An Information Strategy Document is therefore not the most important output of the Information Strategy; that should be the changes in working practices throughout the institution.
The Guidelines break the process up into six stages which will now be described briefly.
This stage is designed to ensure top level commitment to an Information Strategy, to identify its scope and who is responsible for its development. It includes identifying previous related information and other strategies, resources for undertaking the work and informing colleagues of the process.
Setting the Context
The objective of this stage is to establish the context in which the Information Strategy would need to operate. This involves identifying the priorities, intentions, approaches to teaching, learning and research; and also the challenges facing the institution and its development plans. This stage also includes identifying a route for the Strategy to gain formal approval within the institution.
Defining Information Needs
This stage involves defining information groups within the scope of the Information Strategy, the development of standards for those groups, and an infrastructure to deliver them. Gaps and problems with any of the groups are identified and projects designed to resolve them.
Defining Roles and Responsibilities
In order for the Strategy to be on-going, it is necessary for people to be identified with active roles and responsibilities for its various aspects. There may be some overlap with those who developed the Strategy initially. The Guidelines identify the following main roles:
Information Strategy Committee
Information (Strategy) Manager
An important part of the process is to develop an understanding of the need for, and the essence of, an Information Strategy; and much of this should have been achieved during the process of development. However further work will be required to ensure that everyone within the institution is involved, to keep all colleagues up-dated as to progress (and changes) and to encourage those resistant to the ideas promulgated.
In addition, projects to resolve issues will have been identified and whilst these may not all be implemented at this stage, they will require planning for future implementation.
Monitoring and Review
This is essential to check the effectiveness of the Strategy, to assess the changing context and amend the Strategy when necessary. The Guidelines suggest that this should be built into the normal operating cycle of the institution.
The Guidelines were generally well received and in January 1996, volunteer `pilot sites' were sought. Out of 26 applications, six were chosen:
Bath College of Higher Education
The Queen's University of Belfast
The University of Glamorgan
The University of Glasgow
The University of Hull
The University of North London
Three main criteria were taken into account in their selection; they should:
reflect the diversity of HE,
represent all four funding councils,
demonstrate their commitment and enthusiasm to the project.
The pilot sites are expected to be open about their experiences in regard to the development of their Information Strategies. A JISC Conference was held in January 1997 at which each pilot site was represented and presentations given on various aspects of the development of the Information Strategy. Workshops on specific aspects of the development process have also involved pilot sites, as have conferences organised by other bodies. At the same time, other HE institutions started their own Information Strategy developments.
Progress of the Pilot Sites
The work of the pilot sites has been co-ordinated by a JISC-funded post. The Co-ordinator was appointed in July 1996 and included in her role was liaison between the pilot sites to encourage best practice and to assist sites where possible. Workshops have been held to enable the pilot sites to get together to discuss their projects and a mailbase list was also established to encourage discussion between them.
The pilot sites commenced work on their Information Strategies in June 1996 and by the end of July 1997 should all have produced draft strategy documents. In general the `Set Up' and `Setting the Context' stages were completed by September 1996. By far the greatest part of the project has been devoted to `Defining Information Needs', with most of the pilot sites taking around seven months to complete this stage. This involved workshops with staff to identify and prioritise information needs and to specify projects to satisfy those needs. Their strategy documents will include plans to implement those projects in the coming year.
Information Strategy at Worcester
Worcester College of Higher Education (WCHE) is a university sector institution with about 4,500 students. It awards a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
WCHE decided to develop its Information Strategy shortly after publication of the JISC Guidelines in parallel with the JISC pilot sites and decided to follow the JISC Guidelines in general terms.
However, in June 1996, at the `Set up' stage, WCHE set up a single development group rather than the two-tier approach, a Steering Group and a Working Group, suggested by JISC. Evidence from Worcester and the JISC pilot sites suggests that this is quite adequate for the smaller institution with a relatively compact and centralised organisation.
The membership of the WCHE development group was as follows:
Vice Principal (Chair)
Library and Information Services Manager
Director of IT
Learning and Teaching Co-ordinator
Head of Science
Head of Academic Services of an associated College
Overall information policy statement
JISC Guidelines do not explicitly recommend drafting a policy statement, keeping strictly within the spirit that an Information Strategy is not a document. However, pilot sites and WCHE have found it useful at the `Setting the context' stage to draft an `information policy' or `guidelines on the management of information'; or a vision of how information should be handled. For instance, the WCHE development group set out eight short statements which were called `information objectives' and these form a succinct statement on information policy.
The `Defining Information Needs' stage is the major part of the development process and should involve a wide range of staff within the institution. The Guidelines outline two possible methodologies: functional analysis and life-cycle analysis. In practice most of the pilot sites have used a variation of functional analysis; although one pilot site undertook a student life-cycle analysis which is likely to result in quite a radical change in the way student information services within the institution are organised.
The Worcester development group carried out its information analysis with an initial approach based around a `functional analysis' of the College split into eleven `information groups':
1. Institutional strategy/ 2. Quality - 3. Taught 4. Research activity information
5. Learning and teaching resources - academic knowledge as contained in teaching materials, books, software, web, and information on how they are organised or located
6. Student details
7. Staff details
9. Financial information
10. Physical assets - buildings, equipment
11. Marketing information
The scope extends beyond traditional management information, particularly Groups 3 and 5, which include curriculum and knowledge information.
Following the methodology suggested by JISC, each group was further analysed in terms of information items. For each item, the source of the information, its `custodian' and its users were identified. An initial evaluation of the quality of the management of the information was also made.
These initial analyses proved useful in finding some immediate recommendations for action and improvement. However, at WCHE it was apparent that the development group alone could not complete the initial analyses. Experience confirmed that really, the best way to carry out an information analysis in any depth would be to create a separate working group for each information group, with representatives from those who look after the information and those who use it. At Worcester it was agreed that a programme of workshops should be organised to take place during a second phase over the next two years. This will also have the effect of encouraging dissemination of the Strategy process more widely. There is clearly a question of resources - the organisation, co-ordination and putting into effect of such a programme requires considerable staff time.
The large scale of such an approach is very daunting and most institutions start by focusing on priority areas, with the intention of moving on to other areas at a later stage.
Lifecycle and process analysis
The WCHE development group found that systematic analysis by information group was not on its own the most productive way of identifying ways in which information management and communication could be improved. It carried out some pilot analyses of alternative approaches. JISC refers to `lifecycle analysis' but Worcester and the pilot sites distinguished between two slightly different types of analysis: one is the analysis of a very specific activity (`process analysis'); the second is the analysis of a `lifecycle', which in effect is a sequence of processes seen from a particular perspective.
The WCHE group investigated the lifecycle experience of a student registering at the College, some processes involved in doing research, and the process of writing an essay. Other examples would include the process of preparing a course, the lifecycle of recruiting staff, the academic planning lifecycle. Again, at Worcester, carrying out such analyses in full was included in the workshop programme for Phase II.
An advantage of this approach is that lifecycles and processes focus on the specific needs of an individual's or department's work or experience, so issues of quality of communication and access soon become apparent.
Clearly a disadvantage is that there are thousands of different processes and so it is not possible to systematically work through them all. However, a small selection of lifecycles or processes are enough to cover most information types and can be chosen to highlight a particular priority issue.
Attitudes rather than documents?
Our experience confirmed that creating an Information Strategy is clearly a process rather than a document - and one which could well become a permanent feature of quality assurance within institutions.
Documents are not absent however! An Information Strategy produces a whole box of documents. There is the overall policy document and there are documents and reports arising from information analyses. Recommendations for action emerge constantly as the process develops, and these have to be documented, as do action plans for putting improvements in place. Information Strategy documentation is a stream.
It is apparent that the Information Strategy can certainly transform the way information is handled and communicated - and since information includes academic information this has an immediate impact on learning, teaching and research as well as administration. A good claim for Information Strategy is that it can transform the way people communicate and work within the institution.
The role of IT/Computing Services
Finally what about the role of the Director of IT or other staff in the IT/Computing Service? Certainly they do not have a leading role. With a Chair at a senior level, broad representations on development groups and wide representation at workshops, there is a community wide approach.
Nevertheless, we found at Worcester and at pilot sites that most (but not all) recommendations had an IT requirement. Therefore IT Services will be involved substantially with the implementation of recommendations. Indeed, because of the focus on user and community needs, the developments which emerge will automatically come with a much stronger institutional commitment than if proposed by IT staff alone, and this is clearly helpful to IT/Computing Service departments.
In view of this, the IT/Computing Service must play a part in the Information Strategy process at Steering Group level and within workshops.
Furthermore, there is a role in creating vision. Just as progress cannot be made by merely applying new technology to existing practices, it cannot be made by applying existing technology to new practices. In order to escape the limitations of the current paradigm, there has to be an element of vision in both practices and technology. Though not exclusively so, it is IT professionals who are familiar with what might be possible and who might be researching into new possibilities. This resolves the “who leads” issue mentioned earlier. Technology should not dictate what people should do, but it should provide a vision to help in moving forward. So here is another role for the IT/Computing Service.
In conclusion, the role of the IT/Computing Service, though not central to the Information Strategy process is certainly essential. Indeed its role in implementing IT developments will be enhanced if its work carries the strong institutional commitment which emerges from the Information Strategy process.
1Director of IT,
Worcester College of Higher Education,
Henwick Grove, Worcester, WR2 6AJ, UK
2JISC Information Strategies Co-ordinator
, C35 Cherry Tree Buildings,
Nottingham University, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK