Employer engagement in education – six common mistakes

We help universities and colleges improve their relationships with business.

The work typically involves a mix of qualitative and quantitative research among existing business customers and the wider market, and consultancy to help make positive changes as a result.

In our work and the literature we’ve identified six common systemic mistakes that both colleges and universities make in managing their relationships with business.

We thought it might be helpful to highlight them here.

  1. Circumscribing the relationship (aka being shy)

A common thread that runs through every piece of research we have undertaken on this topic is the perception among a (sometimes significant) minority of respondents that the education institution in question is underplaying the relationship.

This can manifest itself, as it did during a study about higher skills in London, as colleges teaching construction students on day release over a number of years but failing (to the bafflement of the employers involved) to engage in a broader conversation about training needs, or outline what the colleges could offer in meeting current and future training needs that the companies may have.

Or, in a more recent study, engineering businesses hire college apprenticeships and want to sponsor lecturer CPD in order to improve the quality of teaching but are kept at arm’s length.

In the higher education sector, one of the best recent examples of this phenomenon was the reluctance of universities to reengage with research users as part of the Research Excellence Framework (as highlighted by the excellent RAND report).[1] Universities felt ‘embarrassed to approach people for evidence, particularly as it made our relations feel transactional’. Businesses, on the other hand, were typically very happy to talk about how they had put that research into practice.

  1. Applying recruitment marketing to business relationships

It’s so obvious as to be self-evident, but human resources directors don’t think or behave like students. They have very different needs, are influenced by different groups and use different communication channels. Yet we commonly see insufficient differentiation between student recruitment and business communication – B2B media strategies, for instance, that focus on general regional publications and eschew the specialist press that may well be an HR director’s first port of call when thinking of training. Or tonal problems, in which the educator focuses on the output benefits of training (such as individual competencies) rather than the outcomes for the business (such as the positive impact on productivity or profit, demonstrable through testimonial or case study).

  1. Making business engagement structurally incidental

In previous decades it was not uncommon for college and newer university employer engagement staff to be physically dislocated from the main campus – housed in a soulless business park somewhere down a motorway corridor.

Although those staff are much more likely to have been rehomed among faculties, where the cultural divide remains, the effects are the same.

If:

  • business engagement does not have a seat at the top table (physically and metaphorically)
  • the training arm brand is deliberately kept at a distance from that of the institution
  • engagement is sporadic and departmental rather than corporate

…then the institution will commonly:

  • fail to maximise on a heritage that is typically appealing to the business customer (who may well place value on the fact that you were established by a particular Guild, that you have been serving a community for over a hundred years or that you taught her grandfather).
  • be exposed to significant risk when it comes to knowledge transfer and sustainability of relationships (when the head of hospitality leaves for another university, college or training provider).
  • see teaching staff take their lead from the senior team and treat the business development team as a second-class ‘support’ function.
  1. Equating customer relationship management with a piece of software

“How many people there in your business development team?”
“Ten.”
“How many people do you employ?”
“785 FTE.”
“Do you have a CRM system?”
“Yes, it’s excellent”
“Who uses it to record business contact details, histories and prospects?”
“Just the business development team.”
Etc.

  1. Confusing LMI with business intelligence

A college or university would be very unlikely to favour broad-brush regional data about lecturers over the results of its own staff survey when using research to inform its HR strategy.

But something similar sometimes happens in employer engagement. While labour market information can be a superbly useful planning tool, particularly in the early stages of curriculum development, some institutions behave as if it is a viable proxy for talking directly to business about training needs.  It is not.

  1. Working against culture

Strong relationships with employers improve the relevance of curricula and propel students into jobs. They help diversify income and thus reduce an organisations’ dependency on the taxpayer.

But that doesn’t mean they will be important to staff.

If, as is common in both colleges and universities:

  • an organisations’ heritage and mission have been built around serving a particular community (of young or unemployed or incarcerated students, for instance)
  • teaching staff form the dominant coalition within that organisation
  • and employment contracts are commonly focused on what might be described as traditional teaching practice

…then it’s no surprise that attempts to shift the culture into an entrepreneurial gear fail.

To put it another way, if a workforce is motivated to get out of bed in the morning for a particular reason (as is the case for college staff, for instance, with remarkable homogeneity – 75% of whom go to work ‘to make a difference to people’s lives’) then trying to persuade them that they need to change their working practices in order to improve the bottom line for business is not going to work.

The challenge here is to:

  • make a persuasive case for change shaped around how professional employer engagement supports those things your workforce cares about (i.e. the students)

and/or

  • hire different people on different contracts to deliver employer engagement while identifying (and implementing)
    1. the basic behaviours required of the workforce as a whole to support that effort
    2. the central resource needed for professional, corporate (in the widest sense) communication and engagement.

[1] Manville, C et al (2014), Preparing impact submissions for REF 2014: An evaluation, RAND Corporation for HEFCE

 

Mordor, Middle Earth and Mergers: A tale of why communication matters

Sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.

According to one group of contacts, the outlook for further education is particularly bleak. In this version of events, area reviews sweep the land like the eye of Sauron. The fellowships of FE are to be usurped by a swathe of expedient mergers, which will feel (for one side at least) like a siege, rather than a marriage of venerable houses.

Among other manager and teacher friends, these dour predictions are little more than high fantasy. The area review process is an unfortunate distraction. Mergers have long been a feature of the landscape and reviews will not, for practical and economic reasons, lead to a significant increase in their number. Institutional autonomy will hold fast. As Samwise Gamgee says: “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. It does look likely that the rate of merger will accelerate, although we cannot be certain when or where this will happen for the right reasons (i.e. to better meet student, community and employer need and improve opportunities for staff).

However it is clear – from the literature and recent history – that where mergers in both further and higher education have been unsuccessful, there are a number of common factors.

Firstly, unrealistic expectations bear down on the enterprise like an army of orcs. Mergers are likely to disappoint those looking for savings in the short and medium term, and those who underestimate the challenge of integrating two recently distinct organisations. Failure to manage those expectations can lead to untimely intervention from funders, governing bodies and regulators.

Secondly, as one college Principal recently wrote, ‘the risk of the weaker institution acting as a drag on the stronger in terms of teaching and learning performance is substantial’. We have seen very strong colleges for instance, led by capable teams, badly injured in the effort of dragging another off the field of combat.

Thirdly, they fall victim to ‘poorly managed post-deal integration’ – lack of appropriate planning and poor strategy and management[1]. Under this heading I would include poor communication and the inability to express a clear vision.

Where mergers proceed, institutions must set out a strong educational case[2] – otherwise they are unlikely to persuade their key publics (staff and students primarily) that it is the right thing to do.

But merging institutions often struggle to make this case. Sometimes there just isn’t one to be made. Sometimes the consultation stage is too shallow to provide any robust evidence either for or against the merger and the opportunity is lost. Or in Tolkien’s words: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

And sometimes the institutions involved simply do not possess the capacity to communicate effectively in such challenging circumstances.

It’s tough. We are bringing together a group of communication experts, all of whom have first-hand experience of mergers, to help institutions overcome the communication and relationship management challenges that they will face.

These include creating and relaying consistent messages at a time when boards or leadership teams want to bring different agendas to the table. At the very point when employees are anxious and management teams are changing, those leading the process need to deliver stability and reassurance while retaining trust through timely, open and honest communication.

Unfamiliar structures – including regional boards and interim leadership groups – add another layer of complexity. The pressures of leadership, momentum, mission, unity, quality and due diligence threaten to relegate communication to an afterthought.

Among the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself often a symptom of the nervousness of key groups, colleges and universities can miss the opportunity to provide an alternative to negative narratives (the institution as victim) or to retain valued heritage rather than abandon it in the rush to create a new organisation.

The most significant challenges typically materialise after a merger; managing the cultural differences between previously competing institutions and minimising the disruption to employees of physical relocation and procedural changes, requires careful, considered and professional two-way internal communication.

Nevertheless some mergers succeed where, for instance, consultation is effective, ethical, and informative, institutions focus on engagement and retention, understand the risks in under-communicating with employees and place a premium on the individual without distracting from the day-job. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” says Galadriel. The outlook is not necessarily desolate.

 

[1] BIS, ‘Current models of collaboration – Post 14 Further Education’, June 2015

[2] Oakleigh Consulting Limited, ‘Literature review for the higher education collaborations, alliances and mergers project’, HEFCE, 2010