Engagement, Impact, and Knowledge Exchange: Time for Universities to put the pieces together

I have worked with several UK universities in communications, engagement, and impact roles. And over the last couple of years, as a consultant working with universities, I have had a wider view of how different institutions operate.

No two universities are identical, but there are some commonalities. Most universities these days have some strategic aims about engagement, proudly proclaimed on their websites. And most universities do in fact do a lot of engagement work. The trouble is it is fragmented.

Over here we have public engagement, over there we have research impact, and across there we have business engagement, or knowledge exchange. Each with skilled and dedicated professionals working to support these activities, but usually in different teams, often in different departments, even though they are all doing aspects of the same thing.

And that fragmentation is also reflected in the different communities of practice, centred around annual conferences. There’s Engage for public engagement, impact professionals have their corner of the ARMA conference, and for business engagement there’s PraxisAuril.

You can understand why this fragmentation has come about. Universities respond to incentives and funding opportunities. There is a lot of grants for public engagement – better get some professional support for those activities. We need impact case studies to get money from the REF – let’s get in some impact specialists. There’s funding for working with industry, and money to be made from spin-outs – let’s hire some people who know how to talk to business.

So, it is understandable that it is evolved in this way, but now it is time to take a step back. We have a lot of people with broadly similar skill sets doing broadly similar jobs, sometimes with broadly similar external partners. And yet they are sitting in different silos. In some universities they recognise these overlaps, but often all the different teams can do to share information and expertise is to have some regular catchup meetings and the odd joint event. Sometimes this leads to duplication, and sometimes it leads to things falling between the cracks. Either way, it is inefficient, failing to make the most of the expertise universities have.

So I suggest that, just as universities like to embrace all this activity under a catch-all theme of engagement, they should also work strategically, and have a single engagement department covering public engagement, impact and business engagement. These functions might be done by a number of generalists, each of whom might see a project through from beginning to end, or the department might continue to have specialists in each area, but under the direction of a single manager who has an overview of all the activities and is responsible for the success of engagement as a whole.

Now is the time to do this. Universities are increasingly recognising the importance of being engaged institutions. Many are aligning themselves with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which demand sustained engagement across many activities.

Making this happen is ultimately up to university leadership. But I would urge anyone working in this area who is in a position to influence their university’s strategy to make the case for a holistic approach to engagement. It will improve both the process and outcomes of engagement, it will enhance the university’s strategic mission, and ultimately help bring the benefits of university research to the world.

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