John MacColl, in the cover article of Issue 6 , suggests that some managers in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are questioning the usefulness of the concept of an 'Information Strategy'. Indeed, we would argue that some are now returning to the development of what are primarily Information Technology strategies. In the current climate of national and global competition in the world of higher education, many of these strategies are being developed with a clear competitive focus.
This return to technological solutions for the complex organisational problems facing HEIs is a retrograde step and it is our contention that IT-focused strategies will not bring HEIs the elusive competitive advantage that many desire.
The idea that information technology can have strategic value for organisations was commonplace in the 1980s, and a good deal of ink was expended in writing about the potential strategic benefits of IT. In the HE sector, at the behest of the Computer Board and the Information Systems Committee, most institutions developed IT strategies. Yet by the 1990s it had become obvious that these strategies simply had not delivered on their promises. Despite this, many of the original arguments which had been put forward in favour of IT as a strategic weapon are circulating once more within the HE sector.
One of the key arguments is that strategic use of IT can help build up entry barriers in a market, making it more difficult for new competitors to enter. While this is undoubtedly true, the question must be asked – is this desirable within the HE sector? There are numerous examples of organisations in the private sector which have developed IT initially as a competitive weapon, only to find that their application is copied by every other player in the market, and that a new essential cost has been added with no real competitive gain to show. In the banking industry, for example, the development of Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) did not increase the long term profits of any bank, but merely made it necessary for all banks to have access to an ATM network.
The HE sector is rapidly finding itself in a similar situation, with HEIs requiring a certain level of technological infrastructure to compete within the market. If we continue with this approach it seems inevitable that a number of HEIs will no longer be able to afford to compete and will either 'merge' with larger HEIs, or 'fail'. This process will thus reduce diversity within the HE sector.
A second argument has been put that information technology can add value to products and services. Again this may be true, yet the very nature of the HE sector prevents this from being a basis for sustainable advantage. The key distinguishing elements of the HE environment to date are the free exchange of information and a useful tension between the identification of members of a discipline or professional group, and their identification with their own university or HE college. Competition between institutions is diluted by the fact of collaboration among academics and academic support professionals. Concepts and best practice may be passed freely within a profession through informal and formal networks, and any successful application of IT, which might give an institution some competitive advantage, stands a high chance of being known about and copied. Leveraging generic IT applications (such as the Web) may, therefore, permit short term strategic gains or 'catching up'. It will not allow an HEI to achieve a long term defensible position ahead of the market.
We do not see the advancement of the HE sector as a whole occurring through competition, but rather through collaboration using IT. On an organisational level, IT needs to be applied sensitively and in line with clear, meaningful organisational strategies. Rather than focusing on IT as the solution to all organisational ills, we should focus on developing the unique assets among the organisation's resources and developing its distinctive competencies. We believe that information and knowledge are primary resources within HEIs and it is to these and other 'intangible assets' (such as reputation and organisational culture) that we should look for a more sustainable competitive advantage. There are no simple solutions or quick IT fixes to the problems facing UK HEIs.