Literature review The Human Factor in Higher Education Institutions’ Engagement

Terraces with greenery.

As we conducted the expert interviews for the Engagement Readiness Monitor project, we got a wide range of opinions, experiences, and visions of HEI’s engagement, UBC interaction and readiness. However, there was one aspect that all interviewees recognized as crucially important – the human factor. As stated in the Situation Analysis of UBC of the Ministry of Employment and the Economy and the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland (Jääskö et al 2018), UBC is an interaction between people, so individuals cooperate and not organizations. An organization as such cannot be ready to engage (Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021). This is a fact that makes the individual level of engagement extremely important. In addition, this is the reason for engagement and the readiness for it not to be measurable easily and linearly (Galan-Muros & Davey 2019), only by numerical indicators (Borrell-Damián & Morais & Smith 2014; Borrell-Damián, interview, 31.3.2021). This writing is a summary of the expert interviews conducted by JAMK regarding the human factor of engagement readiness, enriched by some literature recommended by the interviewees.


People as a resource

People are the most important resource of an HEI in terms of engagement. Nothing is born without people, even if there is technology or innovation involved. At the same time, human resources are always the most challenging to ensure and manage (Seppälä, interview, 8.4.2021). People are a priority for the HEI (Borrell-Damián, interview, 31.3.2021). Other resources are important too, but they also relate strongly to the human resources. For example, financial resources ensure sufficient manpower, because “all the money in the world will not solve a problem without people” (Borrell-Damián, interview, 31.3.2021). To have enough manpower, the organization should be able to attract experts from other regions or even from abroad (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021), and to ensure the engagement readiness, some of the staff should also be attracted from business life into the higher education field (Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021; Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021). The organization, however, doesn’t just need people, but the right people, with the right knowledge and expertise. These skills should be maintained and developed constantly. (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021.)

People are the most important resource of an HEI in terms of engagement. At the same time, human resources are always the most challenging to ensure and manage (Seppälä, interview, 8.4.2021).

When we talk about higher education institution’s staff, we should keep in mind that it is diverse and heterogeneous: teachers, researchers, administrators etc. Often their tasks blend, but at the same time a professionalization of some fields is being observed, for example in R&D, and the time resource of teachers cannot be exceeded for the purposes of other tasks, i.e., engagement (Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021). So even if its fruitful, everyone cannot be doing everything. Nowadays HEIs accept a wider spectrum of professionals, some interacting more and some less, but all contributing to the process of engagement (Korpela, interview, 31.3.2021). Some people may be in charge of creating contacts, while others may be producing the substance (Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021). The participation in engagement activities should remain voluntary (Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021). The main point is that “everyone should understand how in their own work they serve the development and vitality of society” (Lappalainen, interview, 26.3.2021).

In terms of human resources, HEIs possess a unique resource, not available to other kinds of organizations, namely students. They are seen as a product by business and as customers by the HEI (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021). They are always representing the HEI in the business field (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021), even when their internships or other tasks are not formally connected to the school (Jääskö et al 2018). The HEI cannot be homogenous from the standpoint of business. In the learning process the students carry a personal risk of failure. The student might fail in the assigned task, and there are many factors contributing to that risk. Students cannot be fully committed all the time because there is much going on in their life besides studies. However, failure should be also accepted as a part of the learning process. (Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021.)


Skills and specific functions of the human resources

As already discussed, skills possessed by the staff are an important asset of the HEI (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021), but which are the important skills for engagement? Which other specific traits and functions of human resources define the engagement readiness?

The higher education professionals should be committed to the engagement activities (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021) and should possess good communication skills to be able to speak in non-academic language (Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021). They should be able to bring up the added value and relevance of cooperation for business (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021). Social skills are more important for engagement than deep substance expertise, because the problems of business that need to be resolved are usually very pragmatic. The HEI experts should be flexible in terms of working hours and environments. (Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021.)

Engagement ready staff of universities should be business oriented. It should be able to react swiftly in accordance with the business’ needs and schedules. The results of the cooperation should be produced and verified much more quickly, when it comes to doing work with the industry compared to other societal actors. (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021.)

International cooperation should be encouraged (Jääskö et al 2018), but international funding is harder to get compared to national funding and depends on the international skills of the staff (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021). Strong international skills are also valid for the valorization of results, the internationalization of research and products, produced in the UBC setting (Jääskö, interview, 19.4.2021).

Engagement and cooperation, in turn, depend on networks. These are often based on trust, transparency, and reciprocity (Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021). To be engagement ready, the network should be maintained continuously (Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021). The network is usually based on personal relationships and informal communication (Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021). The initiation of cooperation usually occurs in an informal setting: during coffee-cup conversations or through personal contacts (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021; Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021). At the same time, collaboration and its success often strongly depend on who the business representative initially contacts at the HEI (Seppälä, interview, 8.4.2021). The same is valid for the teaching side as well – sometimes courses are too personified and the teacher’s ambition, how cooperative and willing he or she is to implement the teaching together with the business community, can affect what the practical outcome of the course is (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021).

Some of the rarer forms of engagement, such as participation in advisory boards and degree curriculum co-creation (Jääskö et al, 2018), are also personified and depend to a great extent on the willingness of the individual to participate and the personal traits he or she possesses, although in this task the individual represents the organization (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021; Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021; Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021).

Since cooperation is built on human relations, a big factor for it is trust. It is built in a different way nowadays within the blended digital-physical environment. Digitalization has made it easier for people to trust somebody on a distance and without knowing him or her (Borrell-Damián, interview, 31.3.2021), which can be both an opportunity and a threat.

Last but not least, engagement should be embedded in the culture and values of the HEI for it to be engagement ready. Culture and values are again characteristic to the human resource, transmitted and preserved through people, including both good and bad practices (Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021).


To have the staff ready to cooperate, it should first be aware, that engagement is part of its tasks and goals.

Managing the human resources for engagement readiness

Managers can contribute to engagement readiness by taking responsibility for the whole process (Jääskö, interview, 19.4.2021) and demonstrating leadership (Borrell-Damián, interview, 31.3.2021). There are a few specific factors of management that could assist engagement readiness.

  • Communication

Managing people requires strong and clear communication in the first place. Communication as a function, both internal and external, is at the very core of engagement readiness (Lappalainen, interview, 26.3.2021). To have the staff ready to cooperate, it should first be aware, that engagement is part of its tasks and goals. The values, strategies, priorities, tasks should be communicated to individuals (Jääskö, interview, 19.4.2021; Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021; Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021). The dialogue between HEIs (staff and students) and the business needs to be facilitated and this could be done through labs, events, digital and physical platforms to put the ideas into practice (Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021; Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021; Lappalainen, interview, 26.3.2021).

  • Choosing, developing, and knowing the experts

As the engagement is highly personified, it is up to the management to steer the right human resources with the right skills towards the establishment or strengthening of engagement. Firstly, good recruitments are needed to get manpower with the right attitude (Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021), the right skills (Jääskö, interview, 16.4.2021) and versatile experience (Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021). Secondly, managers should know their subordinates well to assign an adequate degree of engagement to the different types of people (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021). In addition, management should invest in the development of experts’ skills as this is a main asset of the organization. The function of management must be to create a safe operating environment for experts to develop and maintain their own skills in accordance with the requirements of the surrounding society. (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021.) Part of the development of skills are also the expert mobility (Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021; Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021) and the multidisciplinary approach towards different projects (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021). Mixing people from different backgrounds together – teaching and R&D staff (Kainu, interview, 16.4.2021), university and business representatives (Kivelä, interview, 29.3.2021; Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021; Korpela, 31.3.2021), creates the formal and informal relationships between them, required for engagement readiness.

  • Allocation of resources

Engagement and especially the building of new relationships needs time investment. At the same time work time planning is one of the most challenging process in HEIs. To some extent team leaders and immediate superiors could be the key: they know the experts best and are able to adequately allocate resources to the right people at the right time. Part of the solution might also be embedding the engagement activities in other functions and tasks, i.e., a teacher should not separate the interaction with the business from the teaching process. (Teräväinen, interview, 29.3.2021.)

  • Highlighting the individuals

HEIs not only needs to recruit top experts, but also to highlight them as people, not just as units and organizations. The job is done by people, so people need to be made visible to share their own experience and expertise, and through that engagement becomes intriguing (Jääskö, interview, 19.4.2021; Korpela, interview, 31.3.2021.). Even the most cooperation enthusiastic individuals need reassurance from the system. The encouragement of engagement could be accomplished by enforcing strategies and creating the needed structures in the organization. (Jääskö, interview, 19.4.2021; Lappalainen, interview, 26.3.2021; Laitinen, interview, 26.3.2021.)


Human relations defining the measurement of engagement readiness

One can always develop new indicators, but when it comes to human relations “numerical indicators fall very short”. HEI should not be driven only by number of contracts, meetings etc., since they don’t represent the complexity of such relations. A mix of numerical and qualitative indicators is needed to put the numerical indicators into context, putting value on the relation rather solely on the outcome. There is no outcome if the relationship does not exist, so one should invest in the relation. (Borrell-Damián, interview, 31.3.2021.) Although business connections and projects are difficult to quantify, a certain indicator of engagement readiness is when they occur regularly. (Karjalainen, interview, 1.4.2021)


The author Rositsa Röntynen works as a project manager, tourism and R&D specialist at Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences, Finland.



Borrell-Damián L. & Morais R. & Smith J.H. 2014. University-Business Collaborative Research:  Goals, Outcomes and New Assessment Tools. The EUIMA Collaborative Research Project Report. EUA Publications 2014. Retrieved on 19.7.2021 from,-outcomes-and-new-assessment-tools.html.

Galán-Muros V. and Davey T. 2019. The UBC Ecosystem: Putting Together a comprehensive Framework for University-Business Cooperation. Journal of Technology Transfer. DOI: 10.1007/s10961-017-9562-3. Journal of Technology Transfer, 44, 1311–1346 (2019). Retrieved on 19.7.2021 from


Jääskö P., Korpela M., Laaksonen M., Pienonen T., Davey T. & Meerman A. 2018. Korkeakoulujen työelämäyhteistyön tilannekuva [Situation Analysis of UBC]. Study, Ministry of Employment and the Economy and Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland. Retrieved on 20.7.2021 from



Borrell-Damián, Lidia, Secretary General. Science Europe. Zoom interview of 31.3.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Jääskö, Pekka, Account Manager. University of Oulu. Zoom interview of 19.4.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Kainu, Ari-Pekka, Head of International Relations. Satakunta University of Applied Sciences. Zoom interview of 16.4.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Karjalainen, Mika, Director. Institute of Information Technology, Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. Zoom interview of 1.4.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Kivelä, Antero, Business Service Specialist. School of Business, Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. Zoom interview of 29.3.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen & Rositsa Röntynen.

Korpela, Mikko, Expert & Partner. Crazy Town Consulting. Zoom interview of 31.3.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Laitinen, Tapani, Managing Director. Witas. Zoom interview of 26.3.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Lappalainen, Minna, Director. Institute for Bioeconomy, Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. Zoom interview of 26.3.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Seppälä, Jaana, Managing Director. Kasvu Open Ltd. Zoom interview of 8.4.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.

Teräväinen, Pasi, Specialist. School of Health and Social Studies, Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. Zoom interview of 29.3.2021, interviewed by Minna Tunkkari-Eskelinen.


Blog editors: Alexandra Zinovyeva (UIIN) and Fleur Schellekens (UIIN)


Header photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

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