Most of the roles and skill sets required to successfully undertake business and community engagement are not exclusive to that type of activity.
What does set business and community engagement apart from other areas such as traditional research and teaching and learning is the speed at which cycles of work are required to operate and the degree of flexibility that can be required.
When it comes to the skill sets required to successfully engage with the business and other external communities, by far the most daunting aspect of academic institutions to the general public is the closed jargonistic language. In particular, the love of TIAs – totally incomprehensible acronyms!
We even have, in fairly regular use: ‘TLA’, meaning ‘three-letter acronym’. Nothing can be more calculated to disengage potential partners than the use of language that they cannot understand. It generates a sense of being excluded or, worse, of being talked down to if they have to keep asking for terms to be explained. After a short while it raises resentment and levels of anger and temper.
The embedding BCE project spoke to several members of the business and community sectors (who had engaged with institutions outside of the five project partners) and the subject of language was mentioned forcibly by several individuals.
It was also pointed out that a large number of small to medium enterprises are managed and staffed by people who may never have been to university and that the thought of having a meeting with a ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ can be a daunting prospect. Again the main fear is that the language used will not be understandable. The successful practitioner will be one who is able to make people feel at ease very quickly and who speaks in a common language.
Background knowledge and empathy
Realism and understanding should be shown when an institution is asked to help solve a problem for a company. One large pharmaceutical company was astounded when a university it had approached for consultancy suggested a solution that would take twenty years to achieve payback – in a discipline that has seen increasingly rapid advances over the past few decades.
Whilst academic staff working in a particular discipline may have extensive knowledge and skills, they need to be able to apply that to the commercial imperatives that companies are faced with.
Whilst the marketing of courses, services etc. outwards to potential markets was found to be quite strong, the gathering of marketing information to inform future provision or areas for research was more sporadic and less well organised. In the sense of large-scale national or internationally strategic drivers, the senior management of institutions were able to promote priority areas with a high degree of awareness found within the practitioners of the institution.
Understanding of the drivers affecting a particular industry, for example, in order to inform curriculum development was dependent on strong knowledge rxchange partnerships and an active role played by staff of the institution in order to identify and bring back the relevant information.
We have already discussed in the section on Use of Information Systems that the main expectation of a customer relationship management (CRM) system would be that it could help cut down on the number of meetings attended by two or more members of institution staff. Yet if that were to prove truly advantageous it would require much more effort to be applied to internal communications within the institution.
Internal communications and engagement
There are two main barriers to the successful dissemination of information and knowledge brought into an institution by an individual staff member.
- knowing who else has a need of that information or knowledge
- the availability of an intuitive, accessible and easily navigated repository of such knowledge
There was evidence in all of the embedding BCE project partners that there was a lack of complete knowledge about the activities of other areas, departments, faculties, institutes and teams. This manifested itself in embarrassment at finding colleagues attending the same meeting, in low internal take-up of available places at conferences hosted by the institution, and in some duplication of tasks or activities.
However, to an extent some of this is unavoidable and to solve it would be to have discovered the panacea that all organisations dream of. Communication methods such as email, newsletters, intranets, social networking, poster campaigns etc. are dependent for their success on the willingness and ability of people to find time to go looking for them.
A review of Business and Community Engagement will test for internal communications strategies and their effectiveness.
Costing mechanisms and value of intellectual property (IP)
The embedding BCE project identified the need for a consistent approach to costing work and pricing the licensing of IP for exploitation by others. In some partners this was provided by a centralised resource, such as the research and enterprise services team at Keele University. This service was shown to be valued by the majority of its users and was an example of providing a centre of expertise within the institution.
We have mentioned elsewhere the need for flexible approaches and a more commercial attitude to costing and securing payments that may challenge traditional financial approaches. Again, the existence of a centralised resource to aid in the decision-making process would ensure a fair and consistent approach to the evaluation of any extenuating circumstances that may arise with a commercial partner or customer.