Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The Impact of IMPEL

Jim Huntingford reviews IMPEL, an eLib project.

FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS IMPEL2 [1], an eLib Supporting Study, has investigated the organisational, social and cultural impacts of educational and technological change on people, specifically on information providers and users. The aim has been to reach a better understanding of the depth and complexity of change and its effective management.

This large project has focused on case studies carried out in a range of 24 UK Higher Education institutions, targeted to form a purposive sample and to provide rich data. The methodology has been qualitative, with thousands of questionnaires distributed and over 300 in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with staff in the chosen institutions. QSR.NUD.IST software, a data analysis package, is being used for textual analysis of the information on current practice and views.

The final report is not due until March 1998 but the findings to-date have been disseminated at a series of regional workshops for library and related support staff, designed to help validate and extend the results through shared experience.

The underlying causes of seismic and rapid shifts in the structure, function and culture of HE organisations are now well-known: the expansion of an increasingly heterogeneous student population demanding an ever-greater level of IT provision; the expectation that these students will take a greater responsibility for their own learning; financial stringency; increased accountability and, crucially, developments in information, educational and networking technologies.

More specifically, IT continues to be the catalyst for changes in organisational structure and purpose. Many Information and Computing Services have been radically restructured or converged on both an organisational and operational level. Different levels of convergence, from informal co-operative groupings to the creation of single services, emerged from the study. In some instances restructuring may be motivated as much by cost savings as by a desire to create an improved service. No one model has appeared as an indicator of successful joint working practices.

The management of massive restructuring like convergence presents great challenges: the issue of ‘culture clash’ has been raised as few staff at operational levels are used to working directly with colleagues in other services, resulting in poor or non-existent communications in the new service. There may also be uncertainty about how to effectively deploy staff across former departmental demarcations. These and related problems highlight the training and support required by staff before, during and after convergence.

IT also continues to effect changes in the duties and responsibilities of individuals, freeing some from routine tasks and blurring categorisations of ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’. Professional staff can be seen taking on a more managerial role while a para-professional grade has emerged with the same level of responsibility as the assistant academic librarian of 10 years ago.

Resistance to such changes and/or uncertainty as to present and future roles is common. While ‘professionals’ jealously guard duties they consider to encapsulate their status, lower grades are called upon to acquire a greater variety and number of skills. If hierarchical career and payment structures don’t provide opportunities for recognition of upskilling then morale will inevitably suffer.

IT continues to fuel a growing demand for staff training. Skills are required to facilitate basic use of the technology, use of the exploding number of electronic information resources and in the creation of electronic resources. But increased training requirements are not limited just to better IT knowledge. Multiskilling or re-skilling for converged services staff is a prime example, with a requirement for training in customer care and teamwork. The need for training to support the management of change is also strong at all levels, not just amongst senior staff.

Skills are also needed to support staff in changing roles resulting from the closer integration of information, computing and teaching. Librarians are continuing to take a greater responsibility for supporting and training their own users in transferable information retrieval skills. The need to support librarians in improving teaching skills has already been recognised in the EduLib project. But will the direction and content of degree and postgraduate courses for Information and Library staff change quickly enough to take the new skills into account? Hopefully, the findings of IMPEL2 will provide a knowledge base for teachers of information and library science as they equip students for work in the electronic library.

In such a dynamic and uncertain environment policy makers may struggle to effectively manage and predict change and to provide improved services. IMPEL2 has found examples of a ‘cultural lag’ in which the most rapidly changing part of an institution, often the Library and Computing services, forges ahead, leaving the rest of the organisation struggling to cope with the changes left in its wake.

But what do the findings of IMPEL2 tell us about the institutions which have most effectively managed the move to the world of electronic learning?

Fundamental to success is an understanding, at the highest institutional level, of the potential benefits of information, educational and networking technologies to institutions and HE in general. Such understanding may be realised more quickly in institutions where the top librarian has status in the senior management group. Strong central initiative and support helps to facilitate the design and operation of a more coherent and effective service. Without top-level support IMPEL2 found that initiative and direction were commonly felt to be lacking.

The crucial factors were perceived to be institutional support, access to technology, a comprehensive information strategy, communication at and between all levels, project management and teamwork. As in all change management a commitment to learning and training and the on-going support provided by a specific staff development budget were seen to be essential.


[1] Impel 2

Author details

Jim Huntingford,
Academic Librarian
University of Abertay Dundee.