Blended professionals: how to make the most of ‘third space’ experts

Integrated practitioners – staff who bridge the worlds of academia and professional services – are increasingly important to universities. Here’s why this space matters and how to capitalise on it

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Middlesex University
18 May 2022
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In 2012, Celia Whitchurch conceived the “third space” as the interface between academic and professional activity, highlighting the role of “blended professionals” who span both domains. Since then, integrated practice has emerged as a concept that facilitates exploration of how blended professionals work; it integrates and makes sense of many seemingly disparate features of the academy.

What are ‘blended professionals’?

Blended professionals are natural boundary crossers; they are not constrained by structures and systems but rather cultivate strong relationships, interests and knowledge bases by joining the dots and offering a level of coherence across their institutions. Blended professionals often have both academic and professional credentials and experience. They are found in libraries, in academic practice, in learning enhancement, in learning and teaching, knowledge exchange, e-learning, research administration, student experience and many other roles. They appear at all levels of the organisation. They can fuse these experiences, working in communities of practice, and offer perspectives on the important work universities do from a variety of standpoints.

Blended professionals can be the antidote to silo working, enabling cross-disciplinary and evidence-based approaches to flourish, advocating for the importance of relationships and new knowledge, and modelling innovation. 

The steps towards making the most of integrated practice in our institutions include: breaking down barriers and encouraging spaces for blended professionals; facilitating active conversation about misconceptions and barriers to working across role boundaries; recognising that continuing professional development (CPD) can take many forms; and exploring, especially as we navigate the challenges of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, what institutional benefits can be realised through a career frame for those in the third space.

How can universities support integrated practice?

This resource highlights four overarching ways in which universities can support, leverage, reward and recognise the benefits and impact brought about by those working in this way.

1. Create space(s) – build on and recognise expertise

Blended professionals challenge the way universities are organised. While few job descriptions openly acknowledge the requirement to work across boundaries and recognised university structures, those who occupy these roles are often required to do so. Caught in the challenging territory between the professional and the academic, third-space working relies on positive and constructive relationships that enhance reputation through effective practice. If these relationships become strained, as they sometimes do with competing pressures (both internal and external), blended professionals can find their ability to do their role is compromised.

For blended professionals to thrive across recognised, and equally legitimate, academic and professional contexts, universities need to actively acknowledge and recognise the space(s) in which this work is undertaken. Communities of practice are hallowed examples of this. When colleagues work thematically – sharing interests and bringing different experiences and perspectives to the table – the collaboration, creative problem-solving and innovation bolster the relationships. A real-world illustration of this was the way that colleagues worked together during the Covid-19 pandemic to facilitate the emergency online pivot. They combined expertise and insight to manage and mitigate risks and safeguard the student experience.

2. Develop legitimacy – tackle barriers and misconceptions

The third space is often misunderstood. An exploration of third space(s) is not offered here to usurp traditional academic, research and professional spaces in the academy – but rather to explore the legitimacy of work that happens when these important spaces are (perhaps deliberately!) brought together in pursuit of innovation, thematic communities of practice and genuine partnership. Recognising this legitimacy is essential, especially in formal settings. Encouraging colleagues to openly talk about the way in which they work, and how they work – rather than what they work on – can often reveal rich insights into why this is so important. Exploring how blended professionals work can be emancipatory – it releases colleagues to draw on the expertise, perspectives and insights of those around them in a truly trans-disciplinary way rather than one that is constrained by one form of identity or another. Too often this way of working happens by chance rather than intention. 

3. Recognise the importance of continuing professional development

Making space for blended professionals and acknowledging legitimacy is only part of the picture. Support for this space must be sustained by recognising the importance of all forms of informal and formal continuing professional development (CPD), which supports flexibility of movement and agility across an institution and the sector. Given that many colleagues working as blended professionals have both academic and professional credentials, CPD opportunities must support them to recognise and hone their unique set of skills and experiences, maintain their currency and safeguard their identity. 

CPD must be evidence-based and include spaces for blended professionals to work with others (academic, professional, research and blended) to reflect on their work, to speak, to write, to publish, to reflect, to mentor and be mentored, to coach and be coached, and to be and to have role models.

4. Reward and recognise – fulfil third-space careers

Finally, fulfilling careers in the third space require a fusion of space, legitimacy and CPD to help navigate a career frame rather than a distinct career ladder. Careers are not always linear. It is perhaps worth noting that many staff who at some point work in the third space move between academic, professional and blended roles in their careers. By providing space, legitimacy (mapping out legitimate career and progression pathways for blended professionals, as happens for academic staff) and CPD, a career frame can be created that genuinely celebrates all the benefits of blended professionalism. Career frames come alive when blended professionals engage in narratives about how they work and why. Stories about how blended professionals came to be are essential to inspire others to embrace third-space working. 

Emily McIntosh is director of learning, teaching and student experience at Middlesex University; Diane Nutt is an independent higher education consultant working in the UK. They are co-authors of The Impact of the Integrated Practitioner in Higher Education (Routledge, 2022).

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