Chasms and bridges

Jeff Haywood from Edinburgh spoke at the IUISC Conference on the challenges of successfully managing the relationship between IT, the Library and e-learning. There have been a number of marriages between Library and IT services in HE institutions (often with a number of others departments thrown in) but as soon as one institution announces that the two departments are being merged another announces the reverse. So it suggests that marriage isn’t easy. Perhaps the reason that so many marriages fail is that they are made for the wrong reason – the question that needs to be asked is “what’s the value of bringing departments together?

One of the challenges is that the sections have different cultures – there is a need to ensure that they have a common understanding and common vision. This can be achieved in a number of ways ranging from working on collaborative projects through to full scale integration. Edinburgh have opted for the latter route. Jeff admitted that the transition has not been easy. The first hard task is to break the silo structure (not an easy task). There is a need to find a way of synthesising strategy to make sure that groups have common goals and there is a need to invest in shared staff development so that individuals understand others and what they can contribute. I’ve experienced the effect of a lack of investment in staff development when an attempt was made to set up joint Library/IT help desk in my time at City. The staff involved were not trained and had no expertise of the others’ service – consequently the librarians always dealt with library queries and the IT staff with IT problems. The on the job training never happened and the experiment failed. This in a way demonstrated Jeff’s point that mergers need to blend the different cultures of the different professions in order to deliver. Leadership is critical to success and needs to run all the way through the merged organisation.

But how flexible is a fully integrated structure? Although it may solve the current and immediate future issues, will the process then have to be repeated when a new set of problems come along? Or will it be that by introducing the new structures and ways of working, increased professionalism and collaborative working make future change easier? Are the Library and e-learning the only departments that are appropriate for collaboration or merger with IT? Given that one of the drivers is the green/sustainable agenda & intelligent buildings, should there be mergers with estates? Or with Registry for student facing services? It may be that a combination of approaches might be suitable – integrated services where there are established business processes with other staff available for secondment into projects where collaborative effort is required with other services. What will be vital is whatever structure is in place, it will have to be flexible in order to meet the demands of the institution in a rapidly changing environment.

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