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External engagement in academia: lessons from the business world

Many academics see external engagement as a chore. Others are just unable to appreciate industry perspectives. Both are stifling the contribution of universities


Northumbria University
28 Jan 2022
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University academics can be bad communicators - and this can be a problem when trying to engage industry

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A colleague recently told one of us that their university was pushing its professoriate into client-facing roles such as consultancy and knowledge-transfer partnerships. Presumably, this was to stimulate income generation (or simply a cruel punishment). The policy was short-lived. Unfortunately, having one of their esteemed professors turn up to a client meeting in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt was not what they had in mind. Point made.

Unfortunately, the academics who are interested in external engagement don’t fare much better. We once interviewed the managing director of a construction company about their views on university-led industry collaboration. It was a long chat, but the following quote sums it up: “We try to work with universities, but all these academics do is talk about recruiting fucking PhD students!”

Many academics see external engagement as a chore. Others are just unable to appreciate the industry professional’s perspective. But both these problems are stifling academic careers and the contribution of universities more generally. As a former managing director myself (Kumud), a certain ability to relate to people and build strong professional relationships underpins most of my achievements. After all, that’s how you survive in business. It’s also why academic colleagues frequently approach me (Kumud) for industry contacts. But it’s notable how these conversations only ever pertain to their own wants and needs, or at least that of their research. It’s very much one-way traffic.

Nowadays, the pressure to deliver impact and funding is forcing academics to engage with the real world. This has inspired us to explain what many academics are getting wrong and outline advice for effective communication. But first, we need to understand the egomaniac that is the academic psyche.

Academics are generally considered to be notoriously bad at communicating. It’s even a central premise in ITV’s Professor T television series. Admittedly, this is a dramatised take on academic life, but there’s no doubting that external engagement can be particularly daunting as it forces us to operate outside our comfort zones. Even if we can talk about our subject engagingly and recite the latest work published, the real-world utility of our specialist knowledge may be limited.

Therefore, many scholars approach external engagement with a “get it out of the way quickly” mentality. Unfortunately, this impedes genuine connection and proper identification and valuation of opportunity. There is often little attempt to find common ground and make sacrifices on behalf of the common good. Instead, conversations remain superficial, usually recounting past incidents and comprising the same small talk academics have made with 10 other people that week. It’s like a salesperson who’s worked with the same organisation for years, flogging the same goods, sitting in front of a potential customer and never actually believing they’ll sell anything.

There are typically two types of academic characteristics displayed in these situations: the hyper-organised professional and the disorganised, creative academic. The former should, on the surface, be very efficient at targeting and exploiting opportunities in network settings with industry leaders and professionals – who undoubtedly value their work ethic. But their need for control can stifle organic, two-way conversation. These academics are so focused on shoving their agenda down an industrial leader’s throat that they often fail to understand the point of the meeting in the first place.

Conversely, the disorganised-but-creative academics tend not to engage at all. These people are more interested in their ideas and consider human interaction a chore. They can’t make decisions or pivot to exploit an opportunity within meetings. Nor are they even looking for opportunities. For these creatives, investing in relationship-building is time better spent writing the next paper. Of course, in their defence, the relentless pressure to publish does reinforce this perspective.

Some advice

Often, improving one’s ability to speak to people and grow external networks simply requires the right mindset. Appreciate that you’re playing a long game in which the benefits aren’t always obvious or immediate. Yet, the value of external relationships can be surprising. We know colleagues who were awarded large research grants just for having a seat on the right board. We know another who generates substantial consultancy income via accrediting bodies. Both opportunities emerged from relationships that didn’t exist six months previously.

Second: be humble. We’re all still learning; nobody has all the answers. You’d be surprised how generous complete strangers can be if you show a little vulnerability and make a human connection. Honestly, most of the time, people don’t want to participate in your study. They’re not that passionate about your results or your work. It’s often simply a favour or a quid pro quo.

Therefore, be human, or dare we say, slightly vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to appeal to someone’s generosity or charity. This is usually more effective than pretending that participating in your latest “opportunity” benefits them. In reality, you might well need them to complete your study, get ahead in your career or even to help keep your job. Be brave enough to say that and drop the ego.

Finally, it helps to be genuinely curious about other people. Understand their challenges, motivations and – importantly – the complicated lives of business leaders. Our academic bubble often insulates us from the daily challenges of running a business. Of course, some opportunities can be genuinely win-win, but identifying these requires understanding the person and their problem/s.

So ask them how to add value through your research. Understand the person, not just the business. This is essential for building lasting relationships and establishing common ground. After all, it’s only once you understand them that you can begin to sell yourself.

Kumud Wijayaratna is a senior lecturer in marketing at Northumbria University and the co-founder of the Newcastle Business School’s Business Clinic.

Ed Cottam is an associate professor in entrepreneurship, innovation and strategy at Northumbria University.

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