Information is the foundation on which any strategic plan is based" stated Gareth Roberts, Vice- Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and Chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), opening a conference of University Librarians, Computing Centre Directors and Directors of Information Services in Sheffield last month. Universities, like many large companies, now recognise that information is a resource which can be used to strategic advantage. While it is clear that no planning document could ever appear without it, it is only recently that universities have begun to develop strategies for the management of information in its own right. "Within the set of strategic plans of an institution, it may be considered to be the glue" said Derek Law, Director of Information Services & Systems at King's College London.
Some senior information managers remain cynical about the value of strategies for information, believing that their use for competitive advantage in the business world does not fit the HE model. The concept was first raised in the Follett Report, which appeared in December 1993, seized upon by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in a circular to English universities in the summer of 1994, and adopted seriously by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in 1995. JISC commissioned management consultants Cooper's & Lybrand to assist with the development of guidelines for sites wishing to prepare information strategies. Many universities believed then that the writing was on the wall - that future funding council income would be linked to the existence of information strategies. "Of all the reasons to have an information strategy" said Derek Law "that of keeping the Funding Council quiet is the least defensible."
Easy to say, perhaps, but for smaller institutions which perceive themselves to be more vulnerable in the case of sudden drops in funding council cash, the risk could not be ignored. Some admitted quite candidly that their information strategies had been 'made up' simply to keep the funding council quiet. Others had completed the exercise quickly, often as a trigger for the convergence of library and computing services. Some of these had found the arrival of JISC's guidelines in December 1995 an unwelcome distraction.
Convergence emerged as a strong theme running alongside information strategies throughout the conference. Derek Law announced that in the previous week the UK's fiftieth Director of a converged library and computing service had been appointed at the University of Sussex. Size was an issue here. Alun Hughes, Head of Information Services at the North East Wales Institute of Education (NEWI), had found convergence relatively straightforward. "Some people ask whether Cambridge should converge its library and computing services. Of course it shouldn't."
JISC is currently running a pilot scheme involving six sites of different sizes, ages and funding constituencies across the UK. Peter Ford, Chair of JISC's Information Strategies Steering Group, stated that the newer universities were in general progressing more quickly, "due to more focussed management structures."
The typical approach involved setting up a steering group chaired by a university manager at the level of Pro Vice-Chancellor, to which a working group reported. Functional analysis of the university's information flows would then be undertaken, using various survey techniques, including Business Process Re- engineering (BPR). Many involved stressed that the process could not be undertaken without some resource being made available. A common view was that it was the process itself which mattered, creating collaboration and acknowledgement of inefficiencies in the use of information which would lead to healthy change.
Contributors emphasised repeatedly the importance of having the Vice-Chancellor supportive of the process if it is to be successful. Few participants seriously doubted the value of the exercise, though fewer still knew how to prove that it could deliver value for money.