Any large area of activity should be acknowledged and included within the policy and strategies of an organisation in order that it can be prioritised, managed, resourced and monitored.
Any review of business and community engagement activity needs to identify if there is a strategy for the activity and a senior manager with overall responsibility for the activity. The strategy could be a dedicated strategy, or it could be catered for by specific mention in a strategy with a wider or overall scope.
The review should seek to identify, even where a strategy exists, whether the resourcing and support of this type of activity is catered for by its inclusion in related strategies such as any financial, HR, marketing and IT strategies.
The review also needs to identify whether the dissemination of the strategy is effective.
- Where a strategy exists; are staff aware of it, do they know where to find it and do they have a grasp of the content of it?
- Do they know how their own roles address or impact on the strategy, or is the activity unrelated to it?
- Are there any links between activity and strategic objectives?
- Is there a strategic plan to direct activity in specific areas and, if so, is there a line management chain of authority to ensure that this happens?
- Is there a single role identified as having overall responsibility for business and community engagement, or is responsibility placed with team, faculty, school or department management?
- Where the latter is the case how does that impact on any collaborative work that requires input across two or more divisions of the organisation?
- Is the strategy implemented by way of target setting for business and community engagement?
Targets and measurement will be discussed later in this resource, but the setting and monitoring of targets can be an effective way of stimulating buy-in and engagement of staff.
- If there is little or no evidence of strong direction of activity, how does any existing activity emerge?
- What are the drivers and justifications for it?
- Does the lack of strategic importance place any barriers before practitioners in terms of securing the necessary support for the activity in terms of staffing, resources, technological systems and functionality etc.?
Findings from the 2008-2009 embedding BCE project
The project found evidence of specific strategy documents for business and community engagement in all five institutional partners. There was a strong sense of importance given to the work at senior management level and within those members of staff involved in business and community engagement activity.
In other areas, however, there was not always recognition of business and community engagement as a prioritised strategic activity. There was evidence of a perception held by some of those who were involved in more mainstream teaching and learning or research that working with external partners was less important than traditional core areas of activity.
In some cases this led to a reluctance to be involved with it and there were instances of dismissal of such work as ‘unimportant’, ‘a distraction from what we should be doing’ or even, in one case, an assertion that a core supporting function of a university was ‘only funded to support teaching and learning and research. We are not resourced to support (business and community engagement).’
The project found that core business functions were the most likely teams not to be aware of strategy and policy documents relating to business and community engagement. As a result of this, those who were unaware in most cases did not differentiate between business and community engagement and other types of work when providing services which resulted in some issues for the practitioners in terms of inflexible working practices either failing to expedite a result as swiftly as was required, or failing to recognise more business-like approaches such as ‘pump-priming’ – the expending of resources early in a process in the hope of gaining rewards later.
The project found that much activity, in the HE sector particularly, was emergent in nature and that work, particularly in the applied research arena, was started because it was related to the interests, skills and knowledge of the lead researcher rather than to a stated recommendation in a strategic plan that such work be sought. Activity was reliant on the ‘academic freedom’ principle whereby practitioners have the flexibility to self-direct effort.
The principle is uncommon in the FE sector (as is research activity, where the principle is mainly exhibited) and the project uncovered no evidence of this type of activity in FE relating to formal work, although there was some evidence of it in an informal sense where extra-curricular activity led to engagement with external communities in areas such as dramatic and fine art, sports and hair and beauty courses.
Despite this self-directed approach to initiating engagement, there was evidence, where an institution had made clear the general areas of work that it wished to prioritise, that practitioners had also prioritised similarly. Practitioners were able to relate what they were doing to the organisation’s priorities so that to some extent the work was being channelled, if not exactly directed, towards addressing strategic objectives.