Coalition for Networked Information
Institution-Wide Information Strategies
JISC Information Strategies Project Case Study
JISC Information Strategies Co-ordinator
JISC is the Joint Information Systems Committee of the UK. It is an organisation jointly funded by the four UK higher education funding bodies with the following mission:
“To stimulate and enable the cost effective exploitation of information systems and to provide a high quality national network infrastructure for the UK higher education and research councils communities.”
Further information on JISC can be found at URL http://www.jisc.ac.uk/
Early in 1994, JISC set up the Information Strategy Steering Group to investigate the potential of Information Strategies in higher education institutions. This arose, I believe, largely from a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the value for money being obtained from the large sums invested in IT. Consultants were commissioned to undertake the investigation and in December 1995 the JISC Guidelines for Developing an Information Strategy were published.
Whilst the Guidelines were generally well received, there was, and I believe still is, a fair degree of scepticism and a general lack of understanding of what is meant by an Information Strategy as presented in the Guidelines.
In January 1996 volunteer pilot sites were requested and from the 26 applications received, six were chosen. (See below) The same consultants were retained to assist the pilot sites and a co-ordinator was appointed to work with them and disseminate the results. In June 1996 they commenced work on their strategies, and Information Strategy Documents were completed by August 1997.
The development of the Information Strategy Documents is only the first stage of the project. The JISC Guidelines take the view that an Information Strategy is “a set of attitudes” or a way of working, and as such it is the changing practices of the organisation which are of greatest interest. Throughout the 1997/98 academic year the pilot sites will be working on a wide range of projects to achieve the aims and objectives of their Information Strategies.
B. Problem Statement
B.1 The Institution
The JISC Project actually involves six pilot sites. They were chosen mainly for their commitment and enthusiasm for the project, but in addition had to reflect the diversity of higher education institutions in the UK and also to represent all four UK funding bodies. They are listed below with very brief details, and their URLs, from which further information can be obtained:
Bath Spa University College (
) – a small (approx. 2,500 students) higher education college with the emphasis on teaching.
The Queen’s University of Belfast (http://www.qub.ac.uk/) – a traditional teaching and research institution with around 12,000 students.
The University of Glamorgan (http://www.glam.ac.uk/) – a new (post 1992) university with the emphasis on teaching and with many associate colleges covering a wide area, approx. 15,000 students.
The University of Glasgow (http://www.gla.ac.uk/) – an ancient, devolved, research based university with approx. 18,000 students.
The University of Hull (http://www.hull.ac.uk/) – a traditional research and teaching university with around 13,000 students.
The University of North London (http://www.unl.ac.uk/) – a new (post 1992) university with the emphasis on access, based in the inner city; many of its approx. 13,000 students are local and non-traditional.
B.2 The Situation
The JISC Guidelines were published towards the end of a period of rapid expansion in UK higher education. Most institutions were struggling with reduced levels of funding and increased numbers of students. In addition those students had varying expectations of higher education, and different previous educational experiences. No longer was higher education something you did between the ages of 18 and 21 if you were white, middle class, male and had taken a narrow range of advanced subjects at school. Higher education was becoming something anyone could take part in at any stage of their life. This expansion, and move from a relatively homogeneous student body to a very disparate one, resulted in a profusion of new courses in an ever increasing range of institutions, with a diversity of mission. The UK system began to move towards the American model with modularisation and CATS (Credit Accumulation and Transfer). Resources inevitably failed to keep pace with the growth, and doubt began to be expressed regarding the maintenance of the quality of UK higher education.Throughout this process hopes kept being expressed that “new technologies” would be the salvation of higher education and funds were diverted to numerous projects testing the application of various technologies to different areas of the university. In addition, the academic community itself was seeing a tremendous change in the way it operated, particularly with the development of the Internet and the rapid growth of electronic communication between scholars, for whom geographical distance ceased to be a problem.
However, despite the resources which were being expended in this area, and the pockets of excellent innovative work being undertaken, the higher educational community was not experiencing the major benefits which it was thought could be achieved. JISC therefore considered the development of Information Strategies by institutions as a means by which these major benefits might be achieved.
July 1997 saw the publication of the Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into HE (known as ‘The Dearing Report’ after Sir Ron Dearing who chaired the Committee). This was a very wide ranging examination of the UK higher education system and one of its recommendations is that “all higher education institutions in the UK should have in place overarching communications and information strategies by 1999/2000”.
The JISC Guidelines for Developing an Information Strategy were deliberately non-prescriptive, which, with the benefit of hindsight, may have been a mistake. They place the emphasis heavily on information – what is needed and how it is used – with technology in a supporting role. The Guidelines describe an Information Strategy as a “set of attitudes” in which:
information is available for sharing – unless specifically excluded
information is fit for purpose
all staff know and exercise their responsibilities towards information
there is a mechanism to identify and act on priorities.
Teaching and learning materials, research data, and management information are all included.
In following the Guidelines (which are available at URL http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub/infstrat/), the pilot sites have worked through the following six stages:
This involves gaining commitment to the concept, identifying your starting point, establishing a committee structure, identifying resources and informing colleagues.
Setting the Identifying the institution’s priorities, intentions, approach to teaching, learning Context and research, the challenges it faces and its future development plans. In addition Information Policies or Guidelines were drafted where necessary, an approval route identified and colleagues kept informed.
Defining This has been the major part of the project and involved identifying a methodology Information for highlighting the information needs of the institution, identifying priority areas Needs to investigate in more detail, collecting and analysing data, and identifying problem areas. Functional analysis and Life-Cycle analysis were both suggested in the Guidelines as possible methodologies. In practice most of the pilot sites used a variation of process analysis to define their information needs, although life-cycle analysis of a student was also used successfully. In addition, one pilot site made good use of projects which were already in hand within the institution to achieve this stage. Whichever methodology was used, the most successful form of gathering the data has been the use of workshops: these have involved a wide range of staff and students and therefore spread an understanding of the Information Strategy throughout the institutions; they also provide feedback as to the priorities of colleagues and students; and provide opportunities to – discuss common difficulties, consider information needs, and consider attitudes towards information.
Defining The Guidelines identify the following roles: Information Strategy Committee – this Roles and may be a continuation of the committee established to develop the Strategy; Response – Information Manager – this person would have responsibility for managing the ibilities Information Strategy, maintaining and monitoring its effectiveness and proposing changes to it; Information Custodian – this may not necessarily be the owner of the information but should be someone with a vested interest in maintaining its quality and with the authority to audit its use, suggest changes to it, and delegate responsibility of duty and care; Information Users – an unlimited list; Information Service – to provide access, advice and content.
Implement – This does NOT mean undertaking all the projects previously identified. ation. Rather it is concerned with the cultural changes required, and involves keeping colleagues up-dated as to progress; continuing to develop an understanding of the need for, and the essence of, an Information Strategy; planning prioritised projects; undertaking any “quick win” projects; and, drafting an Information Strategy Document.
Monitoring This is an integral part of the Strategy itself and will be on-going. It comprises and Review three components: monitoring the effectiveness of the Strategy; monitoring and assessing the external and internal contexts for the Strategy; reviewing and updating the Strategy in the light of the above.
The Guidelines make it very clear that what is being sought are changes in practices, not just a document; and that in order for this to happen, great attention must be paid to the process of developing the Information Strategy. This process must include communications with and involvement of as wide a range of staff and students as possible, all the way through.
The pilot sites have all found the development of their Information Strategies demanding and time consuming, but also enjoyable and valuable. It has brought about a far greater understanding of each others’ problems and concerns. In some cases problems have been solved in the course of the process, either by learning of how a colleague had overcome the same or a similar problem, or by discussing the difficulty and finding a solution with others involved.
B.3 Strategic Significance
The strategic significance of Information Strategy development varies across the pilot sites. Some had particular difficulties which they had to overcome, others were looking to improve their performance. The Guidelines acknowledge the importance of strategic alignment and much of the effort in the Setting the Context stage has been devoted to analysing the institutions’ strategic plans to enable those developing the Information Strategies to fully understand the priorities, challenges, strengths and weaknesses within the institution. Indeed this is an area to which some of the pilot sites found they had to return later in the project.
However, it is not as straightforward as it might seem. Some institutions do not have a strategic plan at all; others have one which is at the end of its life or in the process of being reviewed; and even where there is a current strategic plan the words in the document may not equate with the actual priorities and challenges being faced. In other words, for many reasons, there may be a mis-match between documentary evidence of institutional strategy and the actual strategy being played out.
It is essential therefore that the Information Strategy is developed in close consultation with those very senior members of the institution who are aware of its real strategic thrust. In this way, the Information Strategy can be developed to support the institutional strategic plan (whether written or actual) and thereby also ensure the top level commitment which is required.
In some cases it has been found that the imperative is operational necessity rather than strategic alignment and allowance has to be made for crisis situations taking over the prioritisation process.
In others, there has been some mis-match between the initial objectives of the Information Strategy (as identified by the development group in the context of the strategic plan) and the priorities indicated by the needs analysis (undertaken with staff and students). This in itself is valuable information for the institution – it will find it difficult to move forward if its staff/students have priorities which are at variance with those of the institution. As an example of this, some of the pilot sites which had initially prioritised teaching and learning for their Information Strategy, even when considering the information needs of a part of an academic process, found that the major perceived problems were with information at the academic/administrative interface. It is only once these issues have been resolved that further progress can be made. However, the aim of enhancing the learning experience could still be achieved by relieving the tutor of administrative chores thereby enabling more time to be spent with the students.
C. Objective: Desired Outcomes
The outcome of the JISC Project will be further guidance to UK higher education institutions on the development of Information Strategies. This will include the publication of some form of update to the Guidelines – probably case studies of the six pilot sites. In addition it is hoped that the experiences of the pilot sites will provide evidence of the benefits to be derived from the development of Information Strategies.
The variety of approaches and outcomes of the six pilot sites is particularly interesting. They all started with the same Guidelines but have been given a fairly free hand to develop their own strategies in their own way. The pilot sites do represent a wide cross-section of institutions within the UK and it will be useful to explore the correlation between the size, structure, management and philosophy of an institution with its development of an Information Strategy – the ease, or otherwise with which it undertakes this task, its methodology, the areas it prioritises and the outcomes. In this way we should be able to provide greater guidance to institutions as to what approaches might be most suitable for them.
D.1 Financial Resources
Initially the Pilot Sites were not granted any direct financial assistance for the project, although they did have 10 days consultancy time and assistance from the Co-ordinator, both of which were provided by JISC. The approaches at the Pilot Sites varied from relying on individual enthusiasm and hard work to undertake the work, to appointing two Information Managers specifically to deal with this work. In practice the development of the Information Strategies required little by way of financial resource, a small amount of hospitality and some training fees being the main items. JISC did later make available a small amount of funds (up to £5000 per site) but this was largely used to increase the human resource available.
There was some concern that financial constraints would be a problem when the projects reached implementation phase. In practice this has not been as great a difficulty as had been imagined. The total resources available for information functions of one sort or another is already considerable and most sites have been able to prioritise their current activities and new projects in such a way as to move forwards (if not always quite as fast as they would have wished).
D.2 Human Resources
The JISC Guidelines suggest a two tier committee structure to develop the Strategy and in most cases this appears to work well: the senior committee meeting approximately once per term to review progress, authorise next steps etc.; the working group meeting more frequently and actually driving the project forward. We have found that the bulk of the work does tend to fall to one or two members of the working group and that if they can be given a time allocation to undertake this task then progress is considerably smoother and faster.
Our smallest site, approx. 2500 students, has found that a single committee works well. This can have the advantage that decisions can be taken within the working group thereby speeding up the process. However, as more senior members of staff tend to be involved in more frequent meetings, there is increased pressure on their time, and although they may be able to attend the meetings they are unlikely to be able to undertake many tasks relating to the project outside of the meetings. Whilst this approach would still be advocated for a small college, it is especially important that there is at least one person who has a time allocation for the project and can drive things forward.
Looking ahead to the implementation phase, in most cases the committee structure is remaining, possibly amended slightly, as a monitoring and review facility. Additional members of staff are being brought in to assist with specific project areas in which they have expertise or a particular interest. In many cases this work is deemed to be a part of their standard role, additional manpower being required simply to co-ordinate the projects and provide general assistance – both administrative and technical. In some cases the project is in a completely new area for the institution and an additional post has been established, on a short term basis, to develop the work.
D.3 Policies and Practices
In all the Pilot Sites, the development of the Information Strategy has included a review of all information related policies within the institution. In many cases inconsistencies and gaps have been identified. Some of these have been addressed during the process of development, others form projects within the implementation phase.
Many of the “custom and practice” type policies differed between different sections of the same institution and in some cases simply learning from colleagues of an alternative way of doing something could solve a problem.
The overall result of the Information Strategy development, has been a fuller and more consistent set of policies within the institution.
D.4 Technology Resources
No special technology resources were required for the Information Strategy development phase. Indeed, in most cases, the projects for this year do not require significant additional technological resource. The Pilot Sites have found that by and large, their technology resources are not fully utilised, and, at least in the first instance, making full use of what they have, has been sufficient to cope with the prioritised needs. Where there have been additional technology requirementsit has often been to bring all sectors of the institution to a common standard.
In some areas a system has been found not to be meeting all the needs for which it was intended. It may be that the system can simply be enhanced to meet those needs, or alternatively that a new system would be developed or purchased. In these latter cases, additional technology may be required.
D.5 Mix and Balance of Resources
The main requirement at all the Pilot Sites to date has been for human resource – time to undertake the work. To a certain extent the provision of finance can alleviate this, but much of the work does need to be undertaken by someone with intimate knowledge of the institution. Conversely, certain tasks can best be undertaken by “a stranger” from outside, eg. information audit of senior staff.
The implementation phase is requiring additional resource. Again a combination of time and finance, with in some cases, some additional technology requirements. However, much of this resource was already allocated to information areas within the budget, and is therefore not “new” money etc.
Resource can be used as a crude indicator of the top level commitment to the project. Those institutions which firmly see the Information Strategy as an essential part of the structure, tend to have little difficulty in allocating the required resources. Where the commitment is less firm, this is often indicated by difficulty in diverting resources to the Information Strategy.
Although it is still early days for the Pilot Sites, the process of developing the Information Strategy has already brought about a number of changes and benefits. In particular, the use of workshops with staff and students has provided an opportunity to discuss common difficulties and for colleagues to learn from one another; an opportunity to consider information needs – what do you get that you don’t need, and what don’t you get that you need? And perhaps most importantly to consider attitudes towards information – why can’t you access what you need, and possibly, why don’t you feel comfortable allowing wider access to information for which you feel “responsible”.
In some cases, difficulties have actually been solved within the workshop situation – for example information not being available when required because it was incomplete – but incomplete information would have done! Again, most institutions will have examples of different departments doing things differently. Get people together and they find that what is a problem for one is not a problem for their colleagues because they do something differently.
Whilst not directly solving information issues within the institution, a further benefit of the workshop approach has been to involve a wide range of staff and students in the process of the Information Strategy development. This has brought about a wide understanding of what the Information Strategy is about and people have welcomed the opportunity of having their views heard and being able to contribute to the process.
In addition, the strategy development groups themselves often bring together colleagues who might not normally work closely. This process creates a far more co-operative environment and a wider understanding of the opportunities and constraints associated with the various sections of the institution.
The totality of these changes is a gentle cultural shift. A real understanding of the institution’s information needs leads to the realisation that information is a valuable resource and should be managed as such. Recognition that the answer is rarely more technology; that individuals must be aware of and accept their responsibility for information, share it, and use it efficiently. In other words, the beginnings of the change in attitudes which JISC is seeking.
As far as JISC is concerned, the experiences of the pilot sites have shown that in broad terms the six stages of the Guidelines do work as a process to develop an Information Strategy. There are some amendments to make and the style will be changed, but we do have the data on which to amend and republish the Guidelines in a more useful way.
Individual sites have had minor failures such as questionnaires that were inadequate, and a working group and steering group which had difficulty liaising effectively. In addition, a number laboured under considerable difficulties, including a senior management team whose numbers decreased suddenly due to retirement, death and career moves; resulting in a strategic vacuum for the institution. However, they have all developed an Information Strategy and founded a structure through which it can continue to be implemented, reviewed and advanced.
From JISC’s point of view, we failed to make best use of the consultancy available. There were a number of reasons for this: firstly, the pilot sites were not clear about how the consultants could best be used and were reluctant to use up time early in the project. Once they had a clearer idea of what they wanted the consultants to do, they were well into the project and timescales had become tight; the consultants were working on several projects at once and it was difficult to fit in conflicting schedules.
The project is not yet complete. The Pilot Sites are just commencing their implementation phase and the strategy will continue to develop and be reviewed. In addition, there are many institutions which have not yet started to consider the development of an Information Strategy and who will benefit from learning from the experiences of the Pilot Sites. Also, we have yet to evaluate formally the effectiveness of the Guidelines.
E.3 Unintended Consequences
The Pilot Sites were deliberately selected to be very diverse, the methodologies they used varied, and the character of the Information Strategy Documents are individual to the institutions. However, despite these differences, the problems encountered along the way, and indeed the areas covered by the documents, are surprisingly similar.
F. Lessons Learned
F.1 Advice to Others
In broad general terms the stages outlined in the Guidelines do follow through, although there are amendments to be made.
The first two stages can be merged and need not follow consecutively, but it is extremely important that they are completed in detail – one or two of the pilots had to re-visit this area later on in the project.
In particular, the committee structure must be workable, sufficiently senior, and linked in to the formal authorisation process of the institution. Smaller institutions can operate successfully with a single tier structure although there are dangers in this – such as ‘steering’ not ‘working’, and lack of time. Whilst there can be a small time saving, in that decisions can be taken more speedily, smaller institutions still require a comparable amount of time to undertake the development and this can lead to problems as the staff available to share that commitment are fewer.
It is important to know what you want to get out of the Information Strategy – why are you developing one? This will involve a full understanding of the institution’s strategic plan and an identification of how the information strategy will help with its achievement. There must be a common understanding of what it is you are trying to achieve and identification of measures of success.
Stage 3 – Defining Information Needs – is by far the most time consuming-part of the development. The ‘New Improved Guidelines’ will include another alternative methodology to the two already suggested. Essentially this involves using information initiatives which are already in process within the institution and ensuring that they maintain the information strategy emphasis on information. The output of this stage is not just the data on information requirements (important though this is) – possibly of greater importance is that undertaking the process does appear to bring about an understanding of what the information strategy is, and by involving many people in the process this understanding is spread more widely within the institution.
The most important lesson of all seems to be that it is necessary to start the process without being entirely sure of what it is you are doing, the process itself brings with it understanding. The pilot sites tended to waste time in the early stages trying to understand what it was they were trying to do and which methodology they should use. In practice it doesn’t matter. Simply choose a method with which you feel comfortable, and then get on with it.
E.2 Advice to Self… Plans for Change
The Guidelines will be amended in light of our experiences as outlined above. They will be produced in a far more practical and prescriptive format from which institutions can identify their current position and gain indicators of what actions they should take next.
The experiences of the Pilot Sites are being written up as a set of case studies, including the documentation and methodologies they used. These will be included in the new Guidelines pack.
In order to speed up the process across the entire HE sector, it is suggested that a number of lead institutions will be selected where staff could be trained to develop their own Information Strategies. They could then work with other institutions within the region to cascade out the experience.
G. Other Comments
The plans that pilot sites have established for the forthcoming year include a wide range of projects designed to meet the information needs they identified and prioritised; to fill gaps in policy and procedure that have been exposed by the information strategy development; to continue to widen awareness of their information strategy and bring about cultural change; and to develop new methods of learning and teaching.
The effectiveness of these projects will be monitored throughout and following the current year.
Meeting Information Needs: Information for Students
Information about Students
Strategic Management Information
Developing Policies and Procedures: Standards
Management of Information on the Internet
Management of Electronic Documents
Widening Awareness: Seminars
Embedding the Process in other Institutional Routines
Further Information Analyses
Teaching Information: Innovation in Teaching and Learning
IT as a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Resource
Good Metadata for Information Resources
Information Skills for Students
JISC Information Strategies Co-ordinator