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Interface: The IT Man's Tale

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Lyndon Pugh talks to Phil Brady at the University of Wales.

Phil Brady is one of a small band of computer managers who have made the transition to managing integrated information services. As such his views on the organisational and human issues offer a counterbalance to much that has been written about this area, and indeed to much that is near to becoming conventional wisdom.

Brady's approach to managing a service that contains the contradictions, contrasts and variety of a modern academic information service is based on a few solid principles. Six months into a new post, he is conscious of some of the dangers that lie behind ideas that are easily expressed but not always rigorously scrutinised: things like multi-skilling, job enrichment and job enlargement are subjected to a beady gaze. "If the system puts staff at whatever level into a position where they deal with areas outside their training and expertise, there's a problem as they will be uncomfortable and feel their skills are undervalued."

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At the same time it is obvious that users are increasingly demanding a "seamless service" presenting the broad spread of information formats from print through multi media to electronic. So how can this be managed in away which makes sense to the organisation, the us staff?

The answer is a very pragmatic one. It relies on specialisation, structure, an open management style, the use of technology, devolved decision making, and some careful development of multi-skilling in crucial areas of the organisation.

Brady believes first that a structure based on conventional specialisation rather than relying on boundary spanning devices used as integrating mechanisms is likely to be more effective in practice, at least in the early stages. Managing the ambiguities in information services creates further ambiguity, and structures must balance support and reassurance with flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly. Structure needs to be clearly understood by all, and this cannot be said of organisational forms that cut across the boundaries between computing services and library services. Specialisation is underpinned and encouraged by the "delegation of clearly defined parts of the service to staff with appropriate experience and backgrounds", decisions are devolved to staff who are closest to the problems, and the approach is predicated on the further development of existing strengths, whether these come from individual expertise or from effective and congruous working arrangements. Teams do not often feature in Brady's vocabulary, although they are seen as conceivable for help desks, but neither are they ruled out as a way of coping with future change and providing answers to some of the dilemmas of modern information services.The inevitable questions were what was the point, and where were the benefits, if traditional structures and specialisations were to be retained? The answer was first that a traditional structure is "obvious and clearly understood, line management is clear, and this is an even greater benefit in rapidly changing organisations, and expertise and background information is applied". At the same time, there is an acknowledgement that all of the services need to coalesce at the front desk. Here the ideas of multi-skilling and teams are possibilities. "The first contact must be with an all rounder, to field most questions at entry point, to refer the problem elsewhere, to seek management support or the help of a specialist. But the truth is that we don't know how or whether we can integrate help desks. The technology of distance delivery, and in particular video links, might help, but as yet we don't have an answer."

The other area where Brady sees multi-skilling as vital is at senior management level. This is where the corporate perspective has to be developed and where individuals with traditional service backgrounds have to develop an integrated view. "It is at the point of customer contact where the barriers are broken down, and where an Information Service viewis inculcated and expressed".

There is a growing corpus of literature on the cultural differences between IT specialists and librarians. Brady's obviously devolved and participative management style stems partly from his view of this. "There is a huge cultural difference. I see librarians as working more with certainties, while IT involves unpredictability, uncertainty and to some extent trial and error. Most IT people will admit to an incomplete understanding of their craft, and there is maybe a greater need to rely on the expert knowledge of others. I think this might have led to differences in management styles.

"This uncertainty might also extend to the hypothetical case of the ITmanager taking over an integrated information service. "Of course it does, and the only way to deal with this is by encouraging openness and comment. Devolved management is crucial, and so is breaking down barriers. Managers need to be out there with the people they manage and the people they serve.

"One of the ways of managing integrated information services involves massive organisational engineering. Brady's way avoids this kind of step-change, and relies on an evolutionary process based on recognising existing strengths, redrawing the boundaries in some parts of the organisation, protecting the specialisations in others, and flexibility. "Change can be pushed too hard, to quickly and too soon. Involve people, present it as a challenge not a problem, and it can succeed.

Date published: 
19 September 1998

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How to cite this article

Lyndon Pugh. "Interface: The IT Man's Tale". September 1998, Ariadne Issue 17 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue17/interface/


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