Managing Information For Managers
1. Executive Summary
In Autumn 1996 Edge Hill embarked on a pilot project to use GroupWare and Intranet technologies to manage preparation and provision of access to documentation and corporate data for the Senior Management Group (SMG) and some School Board meetings, and the subsequent publication of such information to the wider College community.
Justification for the project was based on: existing 3 year corporate objectives to move to an electronic information base and continue to embed IT as a tool to support learning, teaching, research, management, administration and operation; the
need to provide easier and earlier access to documents for SMG; a desire to reduce the volume of printing required for SMG meetings; provision of a single source and repository for all documents required by SMG; a desire to provide better
access to SMG documents for all staff and students.
The following describes the information management process that Senior Managers followed during the pilot, with brief reference to the technology, and outlines the benefits obtained, the main issues that have arisen during implementation, and the lessons that will inform future planned roll-out across the organisation. It will highlight: the persistence of paper and associated ways of working; the critical role of staff development in relation to unforeseen areas; the message that the technology must be kept simple, but is peripheral to the real change; the way that changes in the process lead to questioning of the value of everything involved in the process, from information to the role of meetings and management structures themselves; the key lesson that the benefits arise not from the application of the technology but from the changes in working practices that it enables.
The Information Management Pilot was set up in Autumn 1996 in order to contribute towards meeting two Objectives from the Strategic Plan for 1996/7- 1999/2000;
5.1 `Pilot an Application of Document Processing'
3.3 `Introduce and monitor internal communications strategy'
The specific aims of the Pilot were to:
- Review how information was currently circulated and stored within Edge Hill
- Propose ways in which current practice could be improved through a more effective use of IT systems
- Review current IT systems regarding access and usage and identify any skills training required.
- Identify possible performance indicators for use within any new Information Management System proposed.
As part of the Pilot two committees agreed to participate in collating, circulating and storing their papers in an electronic rather than paper form; School Board of Management and Social Sciences and SMG.
The Pilot was based on the use of software and hardware already available within Edge Hill, consisting primarily of the Microsoft Office Suite for the production of original documents, Novell GroupWise 4 for submission, collation and distribution, and standard DOS/Windows directory structures for storage. Latterly as phase 2 is developing Netscape is being used as the front end to all facilities, using various viewers to access documents, and moving towards full indexing and search facilities.
Some additional IT training has been provided to SMG members and their Personal Assistants by Computer Services and Guidelines were produced by the Quality Unit and Computer Services and circulated to those staff submitting and receiving SMG documents.
The School Board of the School of Management and Social Sciences held three meetings during 1996/7 which all used electronic means for the submission, storage and circulation of documents (wherever possible). SMG held 13 meeting between January and June 1997 which used electronic means for the submission, circulation and storage of documents (wherever possible). SMG processed a total of 114 documents. Every School and Service area within the institution submitted at least one document to SMG using the electronic system. As a result a range of staff beyond SMG members and their PAs were involved in the pilot including Departmental Secretaries (who submitted Academic planning documents), School Administrative Officers and administrative staff from the Modular Programmes Office, Personnel, Marketing and Educational Liaison. All staff using the system were provided with Guidelines on request. Supplementary one-to-one guidance and advice was provided by the Quality Unit and MIS Help desk.
The two committees used a slightly different approach to information management;
- Internal documents were submitted via email to the secretar
- External documents or those not available as electronic documents were either scanned or circulated separately as hard copies
- The Secretary formulated the agenda, referenced the documents and collated them into one single Word document
- The Word document was then circulated to Boards members as a Groupwise attachment
- Board Members printed their own document
- Internal documents were submitted via email to the SMG Pilot Groupwise address
- External documents were submitted as hard copies and scanned centrally
- The Quality Unit formulated the agenda and referenced the documents
- The Agenda and documents were saved onto a Shared Directory on the network which is accessible to all SMG members and their PAs.
- The documents were available as either separate documents or within one single `meeting' file.
- The Quality Unit advised SMG members by email when documents were available for the next meeting, citing only the document locations.
- SMG members accessed all relevant documents for a meeting, and printed as necessary
Essentially in this model SMG used more of a pull approach to the technology, where more responsibility was placed on individuals to go and 'get' the documents, rather than in the School Board model where the documents were printed as attachments.
The following process model describes the approach adopted in relation to SMG.
Key : QU = Quality Unit, the department responsible for managing the documentation.
SMG = Senior Management Group, the University College's senior management team
It should be noted that this model includes a recent revision, which is the storing of documents as agreed at SMG meetings in a public area accessible by all staff; agendas are also now accessible to all staff prior to meetings.
- Improved speed of circulation of documents to members (where documents have been submitted within the deadline SMG members have normally had access to documents in the shared directory within 5 hours)
- Improvement of access and reliability in storing and circulating documents (the system now forms the basis for setting up and maintaining an up to date electronic bank of policy papers)
- Improved awareness of available IT capability in the Institution and therefore the possibilities for its use in other areas (Personnel are currently considering making information available on the network)
- Improved capacity to disseminate committee documents to non-committee members within the Institution through either Groupwise or Shared Directory (as a result confirmed SMG agendas and minutes are now available to all staff within a shared directory)
- The need to adopt a common format, header and layout for internal documents to make collating and storing documents more efficient.
- The need to address the shift in staff resources required in the Information Management process between Print Unit, School Offices and Quality Unit who collate and circulate and store documents and other staff who submit and print documents.
- Local' printing of documents by committee members - this has raised a variety of issues including the following; gaps in IT awareness/skills, difficulties in access to printers, awareness by members of need to print documents in advance of the meeting, concern regarding the cost of printing documents `locally' within Schools/Service Area and Subjects rather than centrally without related shift in printing budget.
- Limited use of the flexibility of the electronic format by some committee members who are not reading/scanning documents prior to printing and therefore not being selective in what they print.
- A general need for more training in IT skills for both teaching and non-teaching staff in Windows, Word, Excel and Groupwise
- The need for a more user-friendly interface for staff accessing documents
The overall conclusion of the pilot project has been that the benefits that may accrue from the application of such technologies in managing information for managers arise not from the technology itself, but from the changes in working practices that application of the technology enables. Those managers who used the technology according to the principles of the pilot - accessing information prior to meetings, printing only what was required for meetings - gained the most benefits. Others who simply printed everything, achieved little but a change in the location of where the printing took place.
Particular areas to be taken on board in the next phase of development, rollout across the organisation, are as follows:
Push v. Pull. Traditionally, Edge Hill has deployed a push method of providing information both for meetings and in general. Typically, a pile of paper, of lesser or greater size, arrives on a member of staff's desk, and they then read it as and when. There is no onus on the individual to 'get' the information - in theory, if they need it, it will arrive; neither is there any particular expertise required on the part of the recipient, other than the ability to read and interpret. Under the new pull method, an individual is simply made aware that some information that may be relevant to them, either for a specific meeting or more generally, is now accessible on the network. The onus is then on the individual to access the information, evaluate its relevance, and print all, part or none of it as they see fit. This move from push to pull has a number of implications, some of which are addressed below.
Training in electronic as opposed to paper document preparation. Edge Hill has an extensive staff IT training programme, and most staff engaged in the pilot had participated in this at some time. However, what the pilot revealed was that staff had really only learnt to produce paper documents and had developed various strategies for doing this which involved drafting, redrafting, test printing and so forth. Now that they had to produce documents for circulation to others electronically, a number of gaps in skill and understanding emerged.
The Persistence of Paper. The attachment of individuals to paper should not be underestimated or demeaned, and there are a number of persistent behaviours that derive from it. Whether these behaviours result from the technology, or whether the technology is chosen to fit these behaviours, would require more extensive analysis. They can however be characterised as follows:
- Haven't got time/taking it home/reading it over the weekend. Typically here a set of documents, usually for a meeting, is printed in its entirety, the grounds for this being that the individual, usually a senior manager, doesn't have time to read them at work. This undermines the principle the project is trying to promote, which is the on-line scanning of documents prior to printing. Significantly, those individuals who have derived most benefit from the pilot have changed their working practices to include time for scanning prior to meetings, and have begun to print only short sections of documents as required. Various 'technical' solutions to this have been sought, including suggesting portable equipment and modems for all senior managers, and promoting the use of executive summaries for all documents to encourage the individual printing of these only, the theory being that a full set of documents can then be lodged with the secretary of the meeting for reference. It should be noted that these solutions require at least the scanning of documents prior to the meeting - which leads on to
- Reading them during the meeting. Some staff reported a major difficulty with printers as being that they were shared and everyone tried to use them just before the meeting. Assuming that papers for meetings are actually intended to be read, this suggests the meeting as the time for reading them. A cynic might suggest that this would at least provide the individuals with something to do; however making another assumption, that the purpose of meetings is to discuss pertinent issues and then arrive at some actions, or put another way, that at the end of a meeting there should at least be the potential for the world, or at least some small part of it, to be in some way different from how it was before, reading papers for a meeting at the meeting would not seem to be the best way of preparing for or contributing to the meeting. This leads to the next major implication of the project.
Application of the critical faculties - or, why do I need this junk? A further unanticipated result of the pilot, particularly amongst those who were guided by its principles, has been increased criticism of the value of documents, meetings and even management structures. Where the arrival of a pile of paper, to be scanned, read, binned or whatever as required prior to a meeting, is something with which all managers are familiar, the need to exercise some additional skill in accessing on-line documents, together with encouragement to read and reflect on them prior to meetings, encourages individuals to be more critical of the content of the documents, divorced as they are from the authority invested in the printed word. It is a short step from this to questioning: the need to attend meetings to discuss irrelevant documents; the need for managers who wish to produce and discuss irrelevant documents to attend anything at all; the way we do things around here. As stated above, the true benefits of application of technology to managing information for managers will only be realised when managers change the way they work for the benefit of the organisation. It will be interested to see if this occurs as the technology is further embedded during the next stage of the project.
MIMEO - Managing Information for Managers - the Electronic Office
Following a successful application for government funding, the project, renamed as above, will be expanded over the next 18 months, both to build on progress to date, and also to incorporate workflow and access to corporate data, invest more resources in analysis of user requirements and user feedback, and investigate more fully similar applications of technology in other sectors, environments and countries.
Head of Computer Services
Edge Hill University College,
St Helens Road, Ormskirk,
Lancashire L39 4QP,UK