Email culture kills interaction between campus colleagues

V-cs in 'state of denial' about quality of internal communications, survey reveals. John Gill reports

December 18, 2008

An overbearing "email culture" and a shortage of staffrooms and areas where people can meet and chat are being blamed for hindering internal communications in universities.

In addition, communications directors consider academic managers to be much weaker at communicating with staff than their counterparts in purely administrative roles.

The initial findings of a sector-wide research project led by the University of Leicester also suggest that the views of vice-chancellors on internal communications strategies are often far removed from those of the people employed to oversee those strategies.

The study, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is based on a survey of 58 university leaders, 86 directors of communications and 75 directors of human resources. It found significant disparities between the views of different groups.

Just 12 per cent of communications directors thought that academic managers were good at communicating, but 71 per cent of vice-chancellors believed they were.

Similarly, more than twice the number of university heads, compared with either of the other groups, believed that senior managers followed agreed protocols for internal communications.

These findings indicate how much more positive vice-chancellors were about their staff's ability to communicate than human resources or communications directors working at the sharp end.

Neither group of directors felt there was enough social space to encourage interaction between staff, and about half said internal communications were under-resourced.

Compared with academic managers, directors were more than twice as likely to say that senior administrative staff - the group to which they belong - were good communicators. The finding supports the commonly held notion of an academic-administrator divide.

Among other findings, fewer than one in five directors believe that staff "have a voice" on campus, and "excessive use of email" was identified as a barrier to good communications in universities.

The report says: "We receive too many emails, and few of us have time to read the volume of material that crosses our desks. It is no longer sufficient to send out an email and expect this to constitute communication."

It concludes that there is a "lack of accountability" about internal communication in many universities and that institutions are "hard-pressed to create a culture of staff responsiveness". It concludes: "People prefer to create their own rules."

Arwen Raddon, a lecturer at Leicester's Centre for Labour Market Studies, organised a recent seminar with the Society for Research into Higher Education to analyse the study's preliminary findings. The participants highlighted the "mismatch" between vice-chancellors' views and those of other senior staff.

Dr Raddon said: "Institutional leaders may be in a state of denial about the quality of their internal communication; they all think such communication is important, but the quality of the actual communications may not live up to expectations."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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