Investigation Report The Ecosystem Approach

A coast in blue, green and red. Birdview.

This blog post is the first of a series exploring the factors within four key themes that contribute to university readiness for engagement, as identified by the Engagement Readiness Investigation Report. Also in the series, you will hear about the importance of a collaborative organisational culture, research and educational pedagogy and key resources that make HEIs ready to engage. This post focusses on the factors related to the theme of ‘The Ecosystem Approach’.

In order to foster successful engagement with external actors, it is important for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to adopt an ecosystem approach, where the organisation itself becomes an active part of its local, regional, national, and in some cases international community. A key trait of all HEI that have successful partnerships with business and society partners is a ‘’deep knowledge’’, and an ‘’on the ground’’ understanding of the socioeconomic needs of these wider local and regional communities, as well as an understanding the of roles that different organisations, including themselves, play within the ecosystem.

Within this ecosystem approach there is an aim to eventually foster the development of a ‘’shared vision’’ and mutual goals between HEIs and their various external partners. This shared understanding is key as it allows the university to produce research, knowledge and technology outcomes that are applicable for partners efforts and goals. Engagement readiness, in this way, entails the production of practical and applicable outputs that can address the needs and goals of the wider business and social community surrounding the university. There is no “one-size-fits-all’’ solution for successful HEI engagement. And it is therefore important to understand the specificities of each HEI, both internally, and as an embedded part of a larger and distinct local, regional and national community.


Understanding Partners

As well as having a firm understanding of the landscape in which they operate, HEI must deeply understand the needs and operating structures of each of their collaborating institutions. Successful collaboration takes place when there is mutuality – when both parties have a clear understanding of what they are gaining from the partnership. Within this understanding, it is good to be aware of the cultural differences that exist between HEI and their external partners. HEIs and businesses for example, are often said to come from ‘’different worlds’’, use ‘’different languages’’ and operate using ‘’different timeframes’’ – these elements can pose quite the barrier to successful UBC. In order to mitigate the effects of these barriers, HEIs must learn to use the same language as business for them to establish and successfully work towards shared objectives and goals. Trust is key to bridge the gap between different ways of working and create well-functioning partnerships. This trust formation can be influenced by, for example, partner reputation, flexibility and transparency of intellectual property (IP) policies, and shared   governance   as well as   sanctions   and   other   forms of control. High levels of trust are key as they are positively related to both knowledge transfer and innovation performance, within University Business Collaboration (UBC) activities.


Know Thyself

Another aspect of engagement readiness is possessing good institutional self-knowledge of the HEIs competencies, projects, and possibilities. Engaged HEIs tend to be deeply aware of their own resources, teaching and research activities and how these could fit the needs and interests of external actors. It is important that this awareness extends across each level of the HEI, from the management to the individual level, in order for HEIs to be fully ready for UBC. Organisational self-assessments should, therefore, be conducted on a regular basis, for HEI to understand their level of engagement readiness as well as uncovering any areas for improvement.


Considering & Shaping the Policy-Level Context

As HEIs are innately embedded within a specific national context, their level of engagement success is necessarily dependent on national UBC policies. The Engagement Readiness Investigation Report found that HEIs situated in countries with a national culture of collaboration demonstrated a higher level of engagement readiness. Whereas, on the other hand, HEI in countries that lacked this collaborative culture and the structures to support it, expressed frustration over the difficulty they experienced in initiating and managing successful partnerships, regardless of if they were external engagement structures present within the HEI itself. Although the wider social context is beyond the immediate control of HEIs, it is necessary for them to properly understand the policies and funding opportunities that shape the environment in which they operate, in order to best exploit these opportunities. In contexts where cultural and material support for UBC is lacking, universities can take an active role in society to address this problem, and advocate for the benefits of university-business-society collaboration.

The ecosystem approach to engagement therefore involves the development of a deep knowledge and understanding at all levels. It is necessary for HEIs to understand their own strengths, potential and existing partner’s needs, and the general culture of the ecosystem in which they operate in order to find their place within it.

To read more about this topic, head to the Engagement Readiness Investigation Report.



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

Header photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

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