Having a clear external engagement strategy and accompanying implementation plan has never been so important for universities and many other organisations. It helps them to align external drivers to their mission. It also has the potential to differentiate their organisation from the competition.
Organisations in different sectors frequently encounter similar challenges (think anticipated staffing problems post-Brexit or mental health in the workplace). Bringing together expertise from different organisations and perspectives increases the chance of finding workable solutions. Having a member of the senior management team who leads on engagement is key to the strategy being successfully implemented.
It is interesting that while universities generally have separate strategies for Learning and Research, Engagement is often treated differently, although some, for example, the University of Bristol, do have a strategy devoted to engagement. Alternatively, there may an engagement sub-strategy for one or more major activities, usually teaching and/or research. For example, the University of Portsmouth has engagement embedded in both its Education and its Research and Innovation strategies. The University of Durham has taken a different approach again by covering Research and Engagement together as one topic within its overarching university strategy. Whatever the model chosen, it should support the mission of the university and make sense to staff.
In truth, most universities do have a strategy for engagement but in this post I discuss research engagement. I believe that in the past this aspect of engagement has been neglected by some organisations.
By research engagement, I mean two-way engagement or collaboration with people in another organisation, where the collaboration is underpinned or driven by research and the needs of society. A research engagement strategy should focus both on using engagement with other organisations as a tool to enhance research and to support the needs of those who are engaged – such as the grand challenges prioritised in the UK government’s Industrial Strategy white paper. In the past, several universities have left engagement with other organisations for the purpose of research to the researchers themselves. This approach has resulted in some excellent and productive collaborations. But I would argue that with the increasing emphasis on research impact case studies for the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021) and the publication of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy white paper, a more structured approach that is clear to all staff would be helpful. At the same time, collaborations initiated and sustained by individual researchers should continue to be encouraged.
I outline below some of the key components that need to be considered when developing a meaningful research engagement strategy, whether it stands alone under the organisational strategy or is a sub-strategy of either Research or Engagement more broadly.
Why do you need a research engagement strategy?
The starting point is to establish clarity of purpose. The strategy needs to be aligned to one or more top-level key performance indicators or objectives. These might involve increasing collaborative research income. Or ensuring that research is addressing some of the grand challenges faced by society (and at the same time preparing excellent research impact case studies for the next Research Excellence Framework). Or the purpose might be collaborating with high ranking institutions internationally to increase the number of outputs co-authored with an international collaborator. Whatever your driver, having clarity of purpose has the potential to help you to differentiate your organisation from competitor organisations.
With whom should you collaborate?
In terms of the organisations or audiences, alignment of your own and the potential partner’s values and mission are critical. You need to be working towards a common goal or vision. You need to care about the same things. Beyond that, you will need to be aware of the vast range of potential collaborators and audiences. These may be considered in different ‘dimensions’. One dimension is the sector (or research field). Another dimension is the type of organisation (private, public, charity, voluntary, civic) as well as sectors of the general public, for example, patient groups, clubs.
What type of collaborations should you look for?
For each potential partnership you will need to consider if you are after a strategic (long-term, multi-faceted) collaboration potentially going beyond research, or one that focuses on one discrete project. If the former, a member of the senior team may be most appropriate to lead. If the latter, the leader may be the research project principal investigator, for example. Strategic partnerships require nurturing and evolving. If the collaboration is focused on a single project, it may end when the project finishes, unless steps are taken to keep it alive through a follow-on project.
What partnership work is already underway?
This is important. It is likely that even without a research engagement strategy, a certain amount of activity is already happening, including with organisations and audiences you have identified as potential partners. Your people who are already involved are a great source of knowledge about what works well currently and what challenges they have had to overcome. These people may be champions for an emerging research engagement strategy as well as sources of good practice and mentoring of colleagues.
What support for research engagement is in place?
Support for research engagement activities may include ensuring that knowledgeable support staff are in post, research staff have the necessary time to undertake research engagement, there is financial resource, meeting rooms and so on as necessary, and that research staff receive any training they may need to undertake the work. In addition, if research engagement is to be taken seriously, it will need to be included in appraisal and promotion criteria.
How will you involve your staff in the development of your strategy?
As with the development of any new strategy, it will be essential to get buy-in from, and involve staff in, the development of your research engagement strategy.
And finally – the implementation plan
The key to any successful strategy is its successful implementation. And that is the hard part! The strategy needs to include some SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) objectives and to be aligned with top-level key performance indicators (KPIs). It is important to review and update the implementation plan annually, taking account of changes within the organisation and externally. Finally, ensure that successes are celebrated. Showcase events and awards for good practice are good ways to get further people involved. This helps to make the strategy real, make research engagement part of your culture, get more buy-in, makes staff feel valued and provide great news stories.