Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Building on Shifting Sands: Information Age Organisations

Clive Field draws on his experience at the University of Birmingham to explore the issue of creating a flexible organisation.

This article does not tackle its subject from the theoretical perspectives and careful evaluation of the merits and demerits of different organisational models, such as one might find in a textbook on management. Rather does it seek to introduce some of the basic issues and concepts by drawing on the experience of organisational change at the University of Birmingham, where a fully converged Information Services has been in operation since October 1995, with an annual turnover of £12 million and 270 fte staff. Some earlier accounts of that process may be found in: “Implementing convergence at the University of Birmingham”, SCONUL Newsletter, No. 9, Winter 1955, pp36-37; “Converging academic information services; the Birmingham experience”, Open Access, Vol 40, No1 March 1997, pp1-2; and “Convergence in academic support services”, BLRIC Report No. 54, 1997, pp50-62.

Imperatives for Flexibility

It is hard to imagine that higher education in the UK has experienced a quinquennium of such far-reaching change, challenge, opportunity and instability, with the promise of yet more to come, as the years 1993-98. The Follett, Dearing and other governmental and sectoral reports have clearly set out the financial and structural pressures facing higher education in the UK, identified the need for organisational, cultural and pedagogic change in the sector in the light of emerging technological and market opportunities, and identified the ways in which library and information services should underpin that change. As a result, the sector is now subject to a degree of central admonishment, guidance and audit which would have been hard to imagine a few years ago and which is much greater than in many comparable first world countries. In addition to this national context, individual higher education institutions have often redefined their missions and modernised their academic and financial managements along lines that have profoundly affected the planning and delivery of library and information services. This has been notably so at Birmingham which, since the late 1980s, has been at the forefront of the sector in its quest to simplify institutional decision making and optimise financial and academic outturns. Developments include a complex process of delayering, devolved budgeting/management, internal accountability/quality assurance, and exploration of new teaching and research markets.

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The end result has been a long list of imperatives for change which would find echoes in much of the sector. The list includes: a substantial growth in taught and research student numbers but with declining units of resource, resulting in built-in and on-going targets for efficiency savings; a diversification of the student body with more part-time, more distance-learning, more overseas, more mature, more fee-paying and more self-financing students; a growing emphasis on resource-based/independent learning and on the acquisition of study, IT and other generic skills, necessitating enhanced learner support; a customer base more knowledgeable about its needs and rights, and more demanding, with a growing propensity to challenge (in law on occasion) those who fail to provide it with educational and support services; the emergence of pseudo-internal markets, consequent upon devolved budgeting models, with greater pressure on information providers to demonstrate accountability/value for money; more searching processes of audit, both internal and external, in respect of assuring and enhancing the quality of teaching and research and in ensuring business continuity; the increased functional overlap between existing information providers through growing dependence on IT and more integrated planning of learning resources, eroding traditional service boundaries and necessitating hybrid managers and multi-skilled staff, with consequent changes in work practices; the proliferation in the volume, range and cost of information resources disproportionate to budgetary increases, resulting in declining purchasing power, especially when taking into account the complexities of copyright clearance, the costs of digitising and archiving existing paper-based information, and now the need to fund incrementally the cost of remote network access; the emergence of regional and national agendas for collaboration, including cross-sectoral and cross-domain, supported by a variety of sectoral funding programmes such as eLib, the Non-Formula Funding Programme and the LAN/MAN Initiative, and Government initiatives like the National Grid for Learning and the University for Industry, but without any lessening of the competitive market situation between individual institutions.

This concentration of pressures has been of such a range and magnitude as to be generally impossible to contain within traditional structures for libraries and computing, at least as they have applied in the old university sector. It therefore typically requires an organisational response which is more than just purely iterative and which, since the underlying local and national situation is so dynamic, builds in from the outset a flexibility which can accommodate future changes.

Building a flexible organisation

Any single institution’s scope for redirecting library and information services may be constrained by factors outside the management of those services. Such factors could include the inability (or unwillingness) of institutional senior management to fund change; the ability of the cautious and disaffected to inhibit change and limit the autonomy of service managers to implement it by exploiting over-bureaucratic institutional decision-making processes; and patterns of building distribution which are historic and therefore usually fragmented, illogical and inherently inefficient.

It is suggested that some fundamental prerequisites for the successful implementation of change, especially sustainable change, will always apply: reliable and up-to-date intelligence about the client base to be served, the programmes to be supported and the intended modes of delivery of those programmes. This presupposes: excellent two-way reporting and feedback links with individuals and agencies responsible for institutional planning and with representatives of the user population; sensible and flexible deployment of all the resources available to service providers, in particular financial, spatial and human resources.

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With regard to financial resources, the maximum possible amount of virement authority for service providers is desirable, subject to appropriate checks and balances on them, the agreement of a rolling service plan, and suitable audit trails. This applies, for example, to the balance between capital and recurrent expenditure, between staff and non-staff expenditure, between expenditure on libraries and other services, and between expenditure on different information formats. In an ideal world, service providers should have the ability to manage the totality of the direct and indirect costs for their service, within a prescribed budget, and to vire between the different budgetary heads. At Birmingham substantial progress has been made towards realising this ideal, with a single budgetary process now applying to most centrally-provided learning resources, and with all major income and expenditure now managed through Information Services. The major current exception is heating costs, but those will come in time. So there is considerable but incomplete, especially in terms of capital, flexibility in the way in which we allocate financial resources. For instance, in respect of information sources, we have not for some years been constrained by historic subdivisions between formats. We have a unified information fund which subsumes all formats and holdings/access mechanisms. Similarly, we can freely manage our staff resources without reference to any notion of historic establishments, creating or deleting posts (including changing the balance between professional and support posts) within budget according to our operational requirements.

So far as spatial resources go, the achievement of the greatest possible amount of aggregation of services is advantageous, based around as much open-plan (generally new) building as can be afforded, in order to keep the fullest number of options open for the future. The distributed model of learning resource space, which is a rather flattering way of describing the unplanned way in which the estates of most long-established universities have developed, is generally inefficient in the use of resources (especially staff) and results in inconsistent and lower than necessary levels of service provision between sites. It also fails to exploit the synergies between different providers by limiting the potential to shift from one service to another in response to changing technologies and learning styles. The Birmingham situation, with 13 centrally-managed university libraries, 75 student computer rooms, 70 lecture theatres, and hundreds of other teaching and seminar rooms scattered the length and breadth of a large campus, is a managerial nightmare and wholly inconsistent with a strategic approach based upon integrating the planning and delivery of learning resources and upon the seeking of efficiency savings. Institutional management at Birmingham is now committed in principle to moving, doubtless over a very long time span, towards a model based upon five principal learning resource centres where library, computing and teaching accommodation will be incrementally co-located, to facilitate cost-effective changes of function. We are currently working on the design of a west campus learning resource centre, the first phase of which is due to open in 2000. With our partners in Westhill College of Higher Education, with whom we have recently entered into a strategic alliance, we are determining how its existing Orchard Learning Resources Centre, which also serves the Selly Oak Colleges as a whole, may best be utilised to fulfil the needs of both institutions.

The efficient and creative use of human resources is arguably the most critical of the three principal forms of resource management. Creating flexibility in a large-scale, and, in terms of the underlying academic culture, still relatively conservative environment, is problematic. The careful way in which we have planned and implemented a series of interlocking reforms of human resource processes and structures is fundamental to what we and external commentators judge to be Birmingham’s relative success in implementing a root and branch convergence. In particular, we feel we owe much to our implementation of a management model which consciously eroded traditional boundaries between library, computing, media and other services and brought together in five divisions (collection management, information and computing systems, learning and research support, planning and administration, and public services) the management of like functions, regardless of location, subject or past service providor. The model encouraged non-hierarchical approaches based upon the creation of teams of individuals from a variety of information backgrounds, working as necessary, on a project basis, with teams in the same or other divisions. This philosophy has been underpinned by a series of actions to improve ownership of the service by all staff working within it. These include: balancing consensual and directive leadership; systematic attempts to develop team leaders as a middle management cadre; establishing universal channels for internal communication and consultation; establishing a universal staff training and development policy which addresses the requirement for both specialist and transferable skills; establishing universal appraisal and development review schemes; establishing and publicising criteria for promotion and annual review; establishing and publicising through a staff manual, service-wide procedures; ensuring that all posts have a job and person specification, individual or generic and are correctly graded according to university or local grade criteria; introducing quality enhancement circles; maintaining a dialogue with representatives of the three principal trade unions (AUT,Unison, MSF); carrot and stick measures designed to tackle the small minority of disaffected staff.

The inherent flexibility of this overall approach has already been proved by Birmingham’s ability to integrate new service functions, including the management of teaching space and language laboratories, without radical revision of the underlying structure. The litmus test of its long-term sustainability will doubtless be our ability to shift service delivery on campus to a more aggregated learning resource centre model, and to apply structures primarily designed for a single-campus institution to one whose learning and teaching mission will increasingly be discharged at other locations in the regions, of which Westhill College is but one example.


This article outlines some of the imperatives for change and flexibility in the organisation of library and information services within UK higher education. It identifies some of the key attributes of flexibility, not least adaptable approaches to resource management. In describing how one university has reorganised its services to respond to current needs and prepare for ready modification in the face of future changes in technology, markets and politics it does not claim that the Birmingham experience is a blueprint for other institutions to follow. However, it is believed that the process which Birmingham has undergone in the past few years has identified most of the principal structural and cultural issues involved in managing change and demonstrated how they can be tackled in a relatively radical way whilst enhancing and not compromising the quantity and quality of service to end-users.

Author Details

Dr. Clive Field
Librarian and Director of Information Services
University of Birmingham
Email: c.d.field@bham.ac.uk