What did you do at work today?

June 26, 1998

Clive Holtham, Head of Department of Management Systems and Information, City University

Phil Baty spends a day with an FE project manager and Alan Thomson tails a university professor

CLIVE Holtham could be presenting a seminar to young executives at a weekend business seminar. Wearing grey suit, shirt, tie and businessman's standard-issue steel-framed spectacles, City University's Professor Holtham is the visual antithesis of the 1970s Open University television lecturer. His only concession to stereotypical academe is the City University plastic carrier bag he has his papers in.

Professor Holtham kicks off his working day at 9.50am in his office at the City Business School's Barbican site. He sets about opening his mail and dozens of email messages.

He could have gone to his office in the department's Northampton Square site. But it is unlikely he would ever go straight to his third and possibly favourite "office" - the canteen. Here he discusses work with colleagues and students.

Any chance to exchange ideas and information is exploited to the full. An accountant by training, Professor Holtham, who heads the department of management systems and information, is one of the country's experts in business information management.

He is strongly against any idea that universities, in the physical bricks and mortar sense, are becoming increasingly redundant. The fact that people gather in one place enables information and ideas to flow. "This is a face to face university," he said proudly.

Students begin showing their faces around Professor Holtham's door just after 10.30am. Most of them have emailed him beforehand detailing their questions and problems so these one-to-one meetings were to the point - four students in under half and hour.

Professor Holtham switches to the phone. A flurry of calls, outgoing and incoming, are made along with a few emails. "The paradox is, of course, that a fair amount of my work is not done face to face but virtually," he says. Professor Holtham spends an hour or so each day on the phone and sending emails. He uses the phone for communicating "soft" information and email for "harder" information.

He tells of a technique they use to teach students about video-conferencing. PhD student Nigel Courtney plays the part of a company boss in the Cayman Islands and students must make a presentation to him via the video link. Nigel is actually in Hounslow, in his Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts and sipping a pina colada.

His communications strategy also involves walking around his department, popping his head round doors for informal meetings with members of staff. "This is one of the benefits of having a physical university. There is no replacement for this," he says.

As head of department he has administrative duties on top of his teaching and research. These, he says, are made less onerous thanks to a highly efficient admin team. At 11.30am he heads off for a meeting about the building of a new business school.

On his return he buries himself in the draft of a conference paper. The phone rings intermittently. He is eager to finalise the first draft before lunch.

Downstairs, Professor Holtham welcomes three potential commercial sponsors into the meeting room. On one table is a superior quality buffet with wine. On another, several bound briefing papers have been spread. In the centre of the room a computer is hooked up to an overhead projector. "I have more than 400 Power Point presentations in my machine (computer). That surprised even me."

The lunch goes well. Heading back upstairs for his one lecture of the day,he says: "Sometimes I have lectures at the other site. That's a 15-minute walk, though I usually catch a bus. It all has to be taken into account when I'm planning my day."

His MBA class, average age 29, looks smart but casual, loafered and cotton-topped as one would expect of weekending young executives. Pierced art school anarchists they are not. But then many of the students in Professor Holtham's class are young graduate executives who have taken a year out of work, having worked for an average six years, and are paying their fees.

It makes economic sense as MBA-holders can expect their earnings to rise by 50 per cent within a year or two. Consequently, motivation is staggeringly high and Professor Holtham faces several focused and detailed questions throughout the lecture.

The lecture runs from 2pm until 3.30pm, though they can go on for three hours. It is an intense 90 minutes on business information processing. Students are reminded of philosopher Francis Bacon's words "for knowledge itself is power".

Professor Holtham and his students adjourn to the canteen after the lecture. One wants advice regarding his summer project. Others are eager to discuss further points raised during the lecture. After half an hour or so he heads off for a walkabout. He wants to check on the progress of certain research projects. The research theme is carried on and, after a couple more phone calls, Professor Holtham takes off for the library. He is pulling together some information for another presentation.

With everything else he has to deal with, would it not be better to get a research assistant to do it for him? "I could give this to a research assistant but the thing is, I actually like accessing the information myself."

After ten years as head of department, Professor Holtham remains true to his academic calling.

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