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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Information management education in South African universities: towards an interdisciplinary approach

Felicite A Fairer-Wessels
Department of Information Science
University of South Africa
South Africa
Fax: 027-12-429-3400
e-mail: fairefa@alpha.unisa.ac.za


In this paper I will discuss education in information management (IM) and address the current state of education in information management on a macrolevel in South African universities and how IM managers and entry-level information professionals perceive the role of IM education.

Further, based on my empirical research, I will discuss the need for information management education and will propose some broad strategies and solutions for the development of future curricula. The problem under investigation is formulated against the background of global and national trends (Fairer-Wessels & Boon 1995) and the methodology and empirical fieldwork of the research (Fairer-Wessels 1995) will briefly be presented with the focus on the core competencies needed by information managers to apply new technologies, localised within the South African situation but placed within a global context.


The advent of the information age has given rise to a volume of information not previously envisaged. The increasing development of information technology and telecommunications has resulted in a global village where information is readily available. This flood of information has resulted in the need to manage it for maximum return. The information age has led to changing patterns in the job market where a significantly larger proportion of economically active workers are now operating in the information sector. In all sectors of society and especially in the information sector, knowledge of information management is becoming increasingly imperative. Workers at every level of the organisation need to receive the necessary IM education and training.

In the subject literature, fields related to information management have received some attention since the sixties. Fields such as data processing, information resources management, management information systems, business competitor analysis, strategic information management, and knowledge management, all contain elements of IM, or are seen as part of information management by academics and practitioners in the information business. In the South African context, information management is evolving simultaneously on several levels. Certain state departments are still caught in the office automation stage, with manufacturing companies mainly at the management of corporate automated technologies and intelligence/business competitor analysis stages (Du Toit 1995; Marchand 1985) and only a handful of trendsetting companies in the knowledge management stage.

A problem, therefore, with the concept of information management is that it has different meanings for different people. In its broadest sense IM is the management of information by any individual to assist decision-making and problem-solving, as an employee, employer or private individual. In its narrower sense, and as most authors define it, information management is usually seen as either a line or staff management function within an organisational structure; assisting top management with managerial decision making and problem solving for the company to maintain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. For the purposes of this paper information management is approached largely from the organisational viewpoint, although a wider perspective did manifest itself in the empirical work.

The need to manage information is universal, and has probably been present for many decades without people actively being aware of managing it, or being aware of the need to manage it. Today, however, the need to manage information is of paramount importance for a variety of reasons. These reasons all tend to be related to the shift to the information age, specifically in the following three instances:

The increasing complexity of modern society has resulted in a general lack of awareness of the importance of information and the management thereof as a life-coping and life-enhancing resource to assist in problem-solving and decision-making from the personal level to the strategic level.

Within the South African context, the lack of awareness of information is exacerbated by the existence of a society that can be divided into two segments: a hi-tech literate segment, and a predominantly preliterate segment. Those people which form the illiterate segment, also referred to, as the 'information-poor/have-nots' are mainly contained within the agrarian and industrial spheres, and in general, are also information illiterate. People which form part of the first world segment of the economy, also referred to as the 'information-rich/have's', are usually information literate, but not necessarily computer literate or (effective) managers of personal or company information. From a holistic perspective this information gap implies that many people do not have the necessary skills to access or manage information and that they need to rely on trained information managers to assist them. This implies the necessity of appropriate broad-based education in information management.

The information explosion has resulted in the creation of new occupational roles which has attracted a broader mix of professionals from the information field. The information explosion furthermore gave rise to the concept of information management when people realised the need to manage information.

In the empirical research I interviewed three groups of respondents: information managers in the information business, university academics teaching IM, and entry-level information professionals (Fairer-Wessels 1995). This research showed that the group of IM managers interviewed were convinced of the importance of IM in their organisations and mainly saw it from the perspective of the value of information for the strategic advantage of their organisations in national and global markets. They were also convinced of the need for formal tertiary education in IM preferably at postgraduate level and from a business management perspective. The reason for this demand for postgraduate education is that IM is normally included as part of the job description for a top management position. Information managers also regard computer literacy as important, although sophisticated computer know-how was not required, as their job is to 'manage' the information, not design information systems.

IM has therefore largely manifested itself within the corporate structure with senior management in particular, realising the advantages of managing information for the company's benefit. For this management function a trained IM manager skilled in a variety of areas is needed to coordinate information within the organisation and to assist top management with decision-making.

These findings indicate a new integrated and holistic approach to the practical use of IM and have implications for IM education. They also indicate that the responsibility for the success of the IM process in the information business is ultimately the responsibility of the manager. Both the information and the manager are thus critical for the success of management. The manager is critical because he/she must convert the data into information and knowledge to make it understandable enough to allow decision-making (Drucker 1967:146; Introna 1992:6.11).

The emergence of information management as a specialised field of university education appears to have taken root at most universities throughout the world during the past decade. From the late eighties a debate pursued by interested academics concerning education for information management has come to the fore focusing on the particular disciplines within which information management should be tutored. This debate has received ongoing interest mainly because diverse disciplines feel they have a stake in it. Although a few university departments, mainly overseas have either restructured or attempted to restructure their courses to accommodate information management (Correia & Wilson 1992; Ettinger 1991; Evans & Treloar 1994; Martin 1991), this situation is still largely unexplored in the Southern African context.

The empirical fieldwork with university academics indicates a movement towards an integrated inter- and transdisciplinary approach of IM curricula to address the current fragmented and multidisciplinary status of IM which has resulted in overspecialised perspectives of IM. These findings correlate with the literature and their implications would indicate that the responsibility for the development of a holistic perspective and integrated approach to university curricula in IM would lie in the hands of university academics as educators.

A further implication is that university educators currently tutoring IM should liaise constantly and closely with one another and with the marketplace so as to determine education and training needs in order to design and develop curricula in IM on macro-, meso-, and microlevels, in order to equip entry-level information professionals with the necessary IM skills to survive in the global marketplace.

Although the information age necessitates an integrated world order, most educational institutions are still following the industrial age paradigm of specialisation, producing students that are not able to operate effectively in the real world. Thus especially in the current climate of university rationalisation, it is imperative that an integrated approach be investigated from the broadest perspective in order to avoid pre-emptive fragmentation and overspecialisation among a multitude of disciplines.

Although a substantial amount has been published internationally with regard to the education of information management, little attention has been paid to the development of strategies and solutions for an integrated and interdisciplinary approach as opposed to a multidisciplinary fragmented approach to IM university curricula, especially in the Southern African context. The following strategies are suggested to address the multi-disciplinary fragmentation of IM, which are:

These strategies may result in the following solutions or outcomes:

At this stage the last solution (d) appears to be the most viable as it accomodates all possibilities without forcing anyone to change.

Clearly certain information skills are required.
According to the empirical work both IM managers and IM educators identified four core-skill areas that students needed to develop in order to function effectively within an information-based context, namely:

These skill areas must not be viewed in isolation, but must be placed within a holistic information perspective to allow students the opportunity to 'see' how they slot together in real life.

[The following Table 1 is a synthesis of core contents of IM curricula as manifested in the empirical work and the literature]

Table 1:


Core contents                 Possible course/module name       Projected level

*Basic information skills     Information + computer                   1
*IM (metacognition/higher     literacy
order thinking skills)
- problem solving
- scientific design and 
*computer skills
- hardware + software
*interpersonal skills
*aspects of information 
*general systems theory

*information society + users     Information studies                   2
*information theory              *human
*IM principles (+PIM)            *management
*IT                              *computer
*general management
- financial practice
- interpersonal skills

*IM aspects, levels, SIM         Information studies                   3
*IT + management                 *human element
*(M)IS                           *IM
*Human/computer context          *IS
*Business management             *IT
- info auditing
- marketing
- interpersonal skills

*IM as a holistic activity       IM                                    4
*applied IM + SIM
*applied IT+IM
*applied IS
*user profile analysis
*applied business management

This table indicates the core contents of IM curricula at 1st, 2nd and 3rd year (undergraduate level) as well as the core contents on postgraduate level.

In addition it is imperative that students must be able to think and act independently and ethically in any context. They must also be able to make decisions and solve problems in the information sphere.

In the interviews entry-level information professionals mentioned the same areas and found it important that the curriculum emphasized where 'information' and 'management' came together. They agreed that the core areas of IM should be addressed and the curriculum be kept flexible with options relevant to their job situations.

In other words, an inter- and/or transdisciplinary approach at tertiary level appears to be the most appropriate means at this stage of providing the essential life coping skills which modern individuals require to function effectively in society (Klein 1990; Rethinking the curriculum... 1990).

In conclusion it can be stated that the information age has led to a complex social and institutional structure in modern society. For global citizens to operate successfully within this society they need to be aware of information as well as accessing and managing it for the purposes of basic survival, let alone hi-tech decision-making and problem-solving.


Correia, A.M.R. & Wilson, T.D. 1992. The MSc in information managment of the University of Sheffield taught in Portugal: an example of knowledge transfer in education. Journal of information science , 18(1):77-82.

Drucker, P.F. 1988. The coming of the new organization. Harvard business review , 66(1):45-65.

Du Toit, A.S.A. 1995. Inligtingbestuur in vervaardigingsondernemings. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg.

Ettinger, L.F. 1991. The Applied information management program: multidisciplinary continuing higher education. Education for information , 9(1):29-38.

Evans, J. & Treloar, A. 1994. Information management and librarianship: development of an innovative program through a cooperative link scheme. Education for information , 12(1):437-449.

Fairer-Wessels, F.A. 1995. Guidelines towards integrated information management curricula in South African universities. D. Phil (Information Science) Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Pretoria.

Fairer-Wessels, F.A. & Boon, J.A. 1995. Information management education: towards an interdisciplinary approach. South African journal of library and information science , 63(4):179-186.

Fairer-Wessels, F.A. 1997. Information management education: towards a holistic perspective. South African journal of library and information science , 65(3).

Introna, L.D. 1992. Towards a theory of management information. D.Com (Informatics) Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Pretoria.

Klein, J.T. 1990. Interdisciplinarity: history, theory, and practice . Detroit: Wayne State University. Marchand, D.A. 1985. Information management: strategies and tools in transition. Information management review, 1(1):27-34.

Martin, W.J. 1991. Education for information management: restructuring and reform. Education for information , 9(1):21-28. Rethinking the curriculum: toward an integrated interdisciplinary college education , edited by M.E. Clark, S.A. Wawrytko. 1990. New York: Greenwood Press.



- enhance communication between disciplines & market to educate multi-skilled generalists

- gain trust of academia to widen horisons + inter/transdisciplinary perspective

- balance man & machines as both are necessary

- advocate a holistic view of information and inter- and transdisciplinary perspective

                            Outcomes / Solutions

a) for IM to remain fragmented with 
   multidisciplinary curricula in IM

b) to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum   integrated interdisciplinary core curriculum
   in IM to eliminate fragmentation             in IM on undergraduate level with the 
                                                emphasis on personal IM
c) to develop a transdisciplinary curriculum 
   in IM to address fragmentation 
   - form alliances                             transdisciplinary curriculum in IM 
   - use each's experts                         in megafaculty (mainly postgraduate
   = form a megafaculty with IM as common       level) emphasis on strategic IM

d) the co-existence of multi-, inter - and 
   transdisciplinary approaches to IM education - basic interdisciplinary approach at 1st year
                                                - multidisciplinary approach up to 3rd year
                                                - inter-/ transdisciplinary approach on 
                                                  postgraduate level

-  information literacy
-  computer literacy
=  lifelong learning from primary school level throughout life