Insights from our partners Why universities should care about their KTO employees’ motivation

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Why KTO employees’ motivation is crucial

The Engagement Readiness Project aims to improve universities’ readiness to collaborate with businesses. As highlighted in the Engagement Readiness Investigation Report (2021), Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTO) can play a key role in promoting university-industry collaborations (Villani et al., 2017) and, therefore, improving universities’ readiness. It has been recognized that the effectiveness of KTOs very much relies on macro-level dimensions (i.e., institutional and organizational). Limited attention, instead, has been paid to micro-process and micro-organizational factors that can have a huge effect on performance outcomes. Intrinsic motivation is one such factor that has not been sufficiently explored.

KTOs’ employees act in the presence of challenging conditions, being KTOs characterized by the presence of different institutional logics, low routinization, and fast-changing external dynamics—and at the same time, a high dependency on internal rules and regulations. These conditions can undermine the arousal, magnitude, direction and maintenance of effort in KTOs employees’ job.

Accordingly, in order to increase KTOs’ performance and engagement, it becomes extremely important to put effort in managing KTO’s activities and processes in a way that enhances employees’ intrinsic motivation towards their job. If employees are not intrinsically motivated, even the most talented employee will not deliver, and the whole organization will be less efficient and performing.


The three psychological needs at the basis of intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is achieved when the three psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are satisfied (Ryan and Deci, 2000). These needs are psychological in nature, and cannot be fulfilled through extrinsic incentives and rewards.

The need for autonomy regards the sense of authorship of one’s actions; the need for competence reflects the inclination to influence the environment and employ one’s full potential to obtain desired outcomes; and finally, the need for relatedness refers to feeling connected to and cared by others as members of a group.

The unique work context of KTOs can threaten such needs and their fulfilment because the strict public regulations and bureaucracy might suppress employees’ autonomy; the complexity of boundary-spanning activities (both internal and external) might undermine the sense of competence; the high number of stakeholders might lead to several relationships that are too weak to provide a true sense of relatedness.

University government and KTO managers should create the appropriate conditions for supporting employees’ intrinsic motivation through the fulfillment of the three basic needs.


Institutional and organisational antecedents that can foster intrinsic motivation

There are different actions and processes that can be developed at the university and KTO level to make possible the satisfaction of employees’ psychological needs, have motivated employees and, therefore, increase their level of effectiveness, efficiency and engagement.

Thus, at the university level processes and activities can be designed and managed so to support KTOs employees’ need for relatedness through strategic planning, contributing to social and economic development, and increasing the positive perception of knowledge transfer. By specialising the organisational units, grounding on unconventional public-body regulations, and establishing direct contact with KTO management, universities can define a structural set-up for hybrid demands that fulfil the need for autonomy. Furthermore, the specialisation indirectly addresses the need for competence that can be fulfilled directly by scientifically supporting KTO activities.

At the KTO level, managers can adopt hybrid team management to fulfil the need for relatedness: they have to be able to take advantage of rich relational opportunities, cultivating a shared public-good ideology among employees that can support an entrepreneurial team spirit. By providing clear and challenging goals, KTO managers can help satisfy both employees’ need for autonomy and competence. Moreover, the need for competence can be supported by relying on a system based on feedback and encouraging employees to take advantage of multiple learning opportunities.


In sum, university engagement can be improved by enhancing KTOs’ effectiveness in launching and managing university-industry collaborations. KTO effectiveness cannot forget employees’ individual contribution that very much depends on their degree of motivation and commitment. University-level and organizational-level factors (antecedents) have a key role in this process.



Engagement Readiness Monitor. (2021). The Engagement Readiness Monitor Investigation Report.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

Villani, E., Rasmussen, E., Grimaldi, R. (2017). How intermediary organizations facilitate university–industry technology transfer: A proximity approach. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, 86-102


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

Header photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash


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