This is Section 7 of a series on the topic of deriving impact from universities in the 21st century, authored by Nicholas Mathiou, Director of Griffith Enterprise.  

– RIKER: A complete sensor scan of the planet and three survey probes turned up no surprises. No signs of life, nothing out of the ordinary.
– WORF: Seven more unusual incidents have been reported. No casualties or damage.
– DATA: We can only state that a subspace effect seems to exist within this nebula. After I have made further analysis, I may be able to adjust the ship’s sensors to locate and identify the anomaly.
– RIKER: The ship is at risk as long as we’re sitting here. We could continue the investigation outside the nebula.
– PICARD: Agreed. Ensign McKnight, plot the most direct course, ahead warp one.
– MCKNIGHT: Aye, air.
– PICARD: Engage.

– Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek – The Next Generation (Season 4, ‘In Theory’), 1991

7. Purposeful Engagement


Determining the best ways to maximise societal impact is challenging and for universities operating with constrained resources in increasingly dynamic internal and external environments, this challenge becomes even more difficult. Setting organisational direction in such a climate requires universities to thoroughly understand their underlying assets and the potential societal impact they can deliver. It behoves any university, therefore, to ask itself: ‘What are we doing here? Where exactly are we going with this?’

It is an important process that calls for strong decisions based on reliable information which has been garnered astutely and efficiently. Otherwise a university can find itself off course. It is an important process that also requires an enlightened degree of measure so that the correct opportunities are prioritised and resourced accordingly. Enhanced knowledge of the environment and climate outside the university domain must also be accessed and accumulated in deciding on the best partners to shape enduring and productive partnerships to drive societal benefit.

None of this can be achieved to the requisite level without engagement, the activities through which universities ensure the correct information is at hand at crunch moments, so that the right opportunity is embraced at the right time, in tandem with exactly the right partner. It starts with simply asking what is our objective, why are we engaging, and what are the outcomes of the various engagement activities we seek or pursue? Acts of engagement on the part of a university must be purposeful and brought about through suitable, supportive but differing avenues. In this section of the series, we unpack the concept of purposeful engagement, first of all by shining a light on the very reasons to engage.

Why purposeful engagement is important

Universities seeking to maximise societal impact invariably have an outward focus on major societal needs, and shape education programs and research outcomes to address those needs. They also have the ability to work directly or in partnership with external organisations and key stakeholders to ensure socio-economic benefits materialise from those programs and outcomes.

As a result, universities are presented with many different underlying reasons to engage. These include: (i) garnering market intelligence and insights; (ii) building relationships and networks; (iii) creating buy-in through shared vision; (iv) fostering active support from key stakeholders; (v) structuring flexible and sustainable partnerships; and (vi) working with partners to ensure the most people in need have access to programs, products and services.

This diversity of reasons, coupled with the breadth of activities across a university, can make the natures and scope of engagement seem astonishingly complex and lead to disparate activities which are often ineffectual and can dilute overall effort. It is important, therefore, to appreciate the overarching ‘objective’ of engagement from the outset. For example, is the major objective (a) to set organisational direction; (b) to curate opportunities; (c) to shape enduring partnerships; or (d) to work with partners to deliver outcomes?

When the objective is clear, the ‘purpose’ can be determined. The purpose of engaging, in turn, frames the questions to be answered and therefore the ‘focus’ of engagement activities required to answer them. This is an important step in progressing from reactionary to purposeful. By bonding the purpose of engaging with the foci of engagement activities, far more effective decisions and actions may then be taken – converting otherwise disparate engagement activities into ‘purposeful engagement’ (or discarding them).

Approaching engagement purposefully 

Nature of purposeful engagement

In discussing the overarching ‘objective’ of engagement above, we set about revisiting some familiar territory from earlier in the series. In sections 2-5, we explored how universities can set organisational direction to maximise societal benefits, while in section 6 it was determined that to achieve organisational direction, universities need to be critically proficient at curating opportunities, shaping partnerships and delivering outcomes. These four specific objectives will now be utilised to unpack the nature of purposeful engagement.

Objective: Set organisational direction

If setting organisational direction is the objective, the key purpose of engagement is to ‘inform’ decisions on direction with relevant and accurate information about both internal and external environments. Internal engagement helps to ‘examine’ a university’s resource profile (e.g. strengths, weaknesses, resource gaps); external engagement is used to ‘seek’ major trends, attractive markets, paths-to-markets and competitive positions. To effectively ‘inform’ decisions, a university must first ‘examine’ internally and ‘seek’ externally.

Internal and external engagement activities must also operate in tandem around a given purpose. If the purpose of engaging is to establish our ‘North stars’, there are various underlying questions that can only be answered through both internal and external engagement activities. Similarly, if the purpose of engaging is to find out what is our opportunity spectrum, another set of different questions need to be addressed by engagement activities both internal and external (along with the utilisation of various engagement ‘channels’).

This framing of the required engagement activities around a purpose (illustrated in the table below) converts otherwise disparate activities into ‘purposeful’ engagement. This theme remains a ‘constant’ throughout the following illustrations and aspects of engagement.

Objective: Curate opportunities

For universities to successfully derive impact, they must become proficient at curating opportunities. Here, the purpose of engagement shifts from “inform” (to determine organisational direction) to “enlist”; viz. the sourcing and design of offerings to facilitate uptake and utilisation. In essence, the engagement activities associated with curating opportunities are a starting point for the implementation of a university’s organisational direction as they support the development of a portfolio of tangible education programs and research outcomes that can address major societal needs.

The focus of external engagement is to “understand” the problems to be solved, while the focus of internal engagement is to “activate” the orientation and deployment of resources toward providing solutions to those problems. The following table illustrates purposeful engagement in the context of curating opportunities:

Internal and external engagement activities are inextricably linked. Undertaking external engagement where a university has capability (and competitive position) increases likelihood of impactful opportunities. Similarly, undertaking internal engagement activities with knowledge of the external environment (including competitive position) can lead to more effective resource allocation and also be more likely to curate opportunities.

Objective: Shape partnerships

To ensure the most people get the most benefit from education programs and research outcomes, universities must be proficient at shaping enduring partnerships. Here, the purpose of engagement shifts from “enlist” (viz., to curate opportunities) to “structure”; viz. shaping mutually beneficial and sustainable partnerships. Internal engagement activities are required to “craft” tangible offerings, which involves activities like determining approaches to solve the problems, identifying the best combination of resources required to solve problems, assembling offerings and determining the appropriate partnership terms. External engagement activities are required to “attract” the best partners, which involves activities like exploring ways to work together, identifying and selecting the best partners (‘due diligence’), shaping and justifying offerings, and negotiating, documenting and entering partnerships.[1]

Again, internal and external engagement activities are galvanised around purpose (here, described as “structure”) and are fundamental to successfully shaping the partnerships required to derive societal benefits. The following table illustrates purposeful engagement in the context of shaping partnerships:

In this case, engagement activities support the business development initiatives required to ensure tangible education programs and research outcomes are capable of delivery to students and organisations. The engagement activities support the ‘entering into’ of the portfolio of partnerships required for delivery.

Objective: Deliver outcomes

It is through the successful delivery of solutions to problems that societal outcomes materialise. Universities must therefore also be proficient at delivering, along with their partners, the solutions (whether that be tangible education programs or research outcomes). Here, the purpose of engagement shifts from “structure” to “perform”; viz. ensuring that the most in need get benefits through provision of the solution. Internal engagement is focused on “managing” to ensure the successful delivery of the solution.  External engagement is required to “leverage” outcomes; not only ensuring delivery, but often assisting the partnership to scale so that more people in need of the solution are reached.

Again, the matching of internal and external engagement to the purpose (viz., “perform”) is fundamental to successfully deriving societal benefits from universities. The following table illustrates purposeful engagement in the context of delivering outcomes:

Channels of engagement

Once the objectives are clear, and therefore purposes of engaging are established, various ‘channels’ or avenues of engagement can be utilised to support the required internal and external engagement activities. These channels can be diverse, but will be recognisable to most readers. Some examples of channels for internal and external engagements are detailed below.

Internal engagement

The channels for internal engagement can be extensive, and include face-to-face meetings, group workshops, strategic planning sessions, internal events, digital/online platforms, seminars, concept development workshops, peer exchange programs, and project meetings.

In nearly all instances face-to-face meetings with and between academic staff are key to success. Academic staff are knowledgeable of their fields of endeavour, and are integral to any offering to, and the offering process with, potential collaborators and partners. All partners and collaborators seek solutions that university academic staff provide as educators, research experts or creators of IP. Competitive offerings often involve teams of academic staff, drawn from broad fields of endeavour. Academic staff are integral to delivering outcomes for partners and collaborators. All this means that building internal relationships with and between key academic staff is clearly fundamental to successfully deriving impact from a university.

Various channels to increase awareness of organisational direction across the entire university are also critical to implementing strategy, as are those channels that inform academic staff of the various support services and programs available to them. Individual meetings may not be practical to gain the necessary internal reach. Here, events and seminars and digital/online platforms to present these opportunities are often utilised.

On a more structured level, for example, strategic planning sessions and internal concept workshops can be used to explore opportunities to articulate the natures of problems, shape associated solutions, and mobilise key stakeholders. Strategic planning sessions can also provide a useful platform to plan how best to leverage existing partnerships and relationships.

Various channels of internal engagement are depicted in the diagram below.

External engagement

The channels for external engagement too can be extensive, but may be broadly grouped within five main categories: (1) leveraging internal networks; (2) leveraging third-party networks; (3) digital networks; (4) expanding networks (going-out); and (5) expanding networks (bringing-in).

Experienced academic staff are always a good starting point for external engagement. Many are active within industry and government networks, forged through the delivery of products and services that create value. These are internal networks that can be leveraged by a university for external engagement.

In the same vein, external networks can be leveraged, for example, by partnering with large national or international organisations that regularly win projects, by participating in peer exchange programs, or by utilising specialist business brokers.

Digital networks, both internal and third-party platforms, offer an efficient way to showcase university resources, with targeted social media campaigns that drive traffic often a key to the success.

On the ground, rather than online, networks can also be expanded by going-out (e.g. business development roadshows, tradeshows and trade commissions) and by bringing-in (e.g. hosting key industry partners on campus or establishing Industry Advisory Boards).

Various channels of external engagement are depicted in the diagram below.

Prioritising engagement

Universities are large, complex organisations with a diversity of programs, products and services that are offered to an array of partners; and engagement activities, no doubt, are a fulcrum for deriving great societal impact from universities. However, like all organisations, universities have defined resource envelopes and the question of how resources are effectively and efficiently allocated remains to be addressed. Building on the nature of purposeful engagement and channels of engagements, the third component of the discussion now considers the process of informing, positioning and prioritising opportunities. This involves combining clarity of purpose for engagement activities with, first, the nature of opportunity and, secondly, the operational segments.

In the case of the former we revisit section 5 of this series where we explored how a university can discern its ‘opportunity spectrum’ – essentially the process of matching university strengths to opportunities. Informed by a university’s opportunity spectrum, a university gains an understanding of the nature of opportunity, allowing proactive engagement activities which can then be directed toward those opportunities and partnerships that are likely to yield the most socio-economic impact.

In the case of the latter, also discussed in section 5, we retrace how the diversity of activities at any university necessitates different approaches and resourcing. There are two major operational segments, the first made up by the relatively small number of engagements that are associated with the majority of the cumulative revenue. This operational segment involves a proactive approach, significant internal and external engagement activities, and longer-term resourcing and investment to position opportunities for expansion and success. Long-standing relationships with third-parties are a hallmark of this segment, along with multiple touch points across organisations and the provision of multiple offerings and therefore requires customer relationship management approaches.

The second operational segment involves the majority of engagements that are associated with a relatively small proportion of cumulative revenue. The diversity of engagements in this operational segment necessitates different approaches to, and resourcing of, associated activities. Relationships typically exist between individual university staff and third parties, and involve the provision of a single line of service or product. This segment requires efficient and effective support, streamlined processes and should absorb much less resourcing and investment.

Orientation of engagement

From the discussion above, it will be evident that some aspects of purposeful engagement have a strategic orientation and others a more operational orientation.  

Engagement activities with a strategic orientation, such as determining organisational direction and curating opportunities, help direct engagement efforts with an operational orientation. 

Engagement activities with an operational orientation, such as shaping enduring partnerships and delivering benefits, help inform organisational direction and future engagement efforts. 

This continual ‘directing’ and ‘informing’, presented in the framework below, demonstrates the inherently iterative nature of this process and the inextricable yet ever-evolving links between the various activities.

However, while the outcomes from purposeful engagement will differ, the approach to purposeful engagement remains the same, guided by an ‘objective’ which is constant. This is all galvanised by a university’s ability to direct and inform engagement activity in a coordinated manner through strategic communication, facilitated by the selection and use of appropriate channels of engagement.

Establishing purposeful engagement

It is through purposeful engagement that universities can best set organisational direction and also be proficient at curating opportunities, shaping enduring partnerships and delivering great socio-economic impact. In conclusion, therefore, continually considering five questions helps universities engage purposefully:

Question 1: What is our objective? (To establish organisational direction, curate opportunities, shape partnerships or deliver outcomes from existing partnerships?)

Question 2: What is the purpose of our engagement activities?

Question 3: What is the focus of our internal and external engagement?

Question 4: What channels best serve our engagement activities?

Question 5: Are our proactive engagement activities aligned to those opportunities most likely to derive significant impact?

We move next to designing an operational model that can support the achievement of universities’ organisational directions.

Read the previous article from this series.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicholas Mathiou is Director of Griffith Enterprise, the innovation and enterprise office of Griffith University. He has extensive commercial experience, having established and grown innovation-based businesses and organisations. He is driven by an ambition to see great social dividends emerge through university-based innovation. He has a deep understanding of the unique challenges involved in advancing innovations within complex organisations and in dynamic environments.

[1] The nature of the exchanges between universities and partners, and the interconnected value propositions that must be established, are integral to establishing enduring partnerships (and will be the subject of another series).