| 7 minute read

A blueprint for partnership success: The Swinburne University model

Elena Galán-Muros
Strategic partnerships podcast series header

In this week’s episode, we are in for an enlightening conversation with Daria Cecchini, Associate Director of Industry Engagement at Swinburne University of Technology.

At the 2023 UIIN Conference, Daria and her team received the Strategic Partnerships Award for their ground-breaking framework aimed at identifying, strengthening, and managing strategic partners at Swinburne University.

Daria will delve into their motivations behind developing this framework, and the practical steps they took in its creation.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Sarah Jaber:
Daria, I would like to understand a bit more around the importance of industry engagement at Swinburne and the motivations for developing this framework.

Daria Cecchini:
It has been a two-year process, but it has changed the way we approach our strategic partners. Particularly for Swinburne, industry engagement is at the core of what we do.

We are a dual-sector university that focuses a lot on technology, work-integrated learning has been a cornerstone of what Swinburne has always done, and industry engagement pervades everything that we do. We go from research to employability, to our teaching and learning delivery: Industry engagements is threaded through all of these activities, so it is vital for us to be able to manage it consistently, ensure that our partners have a good customer experience and also, for us as an industry engagement team, to improve and innovate in the way that we manage our partners.

That kicked off the idea around the project and to try to identify and improve the transparency around our partners. That was the motivator for us to kick off this work. Every area has its industry partners, and we identify the ones across the university that have strategic importance.

Sarah Jaber:
Improving transparency is important. We see sometimes with universities that not everyone might be aware of who are their strategic partners, or what even is a strategic partner for the university. One of the first steps you took at Swinburne was to define or to agree on what is a partner and how do you engage with industry. That is a really important element because it can vary from one university to another, or even within the university. How did that process go for Swinburne and what did you land on?

Daria Cecchini:
Every area has their own partners, and the definition does vary. From the early discussions, we were asking ourselves: What are the inclusions? What are the exclusions? How are we going to map our partners? How far do we go in trying to define these partners?

Essentially, we landed on encompassing all the partners that have some form of activity with the university. We went from our procurement partners through to our research partners, including partners that work with us for curriculum development, that provide work experience to our students, or those that provide jobs to our students once they leave the university – we decided to include them all.

We also had to make sure that, by defining industry partner, we were defining industry as a whole, any sort of business operations outside of the university, even the non-profits.

Industry is an all-encompassing term from our perspective, and it was important for us to be comprehensive. Then, the mapping process kicked off, and we tried to have every department submit their top partners which gave us a good overview of what all the university areas were doing.

Sarah Jaber:
Maybe to learn a bit more about the process you had, there were four phases, right? Discovery, design, implementation, and evaluation. You talked a bit around the discovery, so the getting input from the different faculties, from different people, defining what is a partner and the ways you engage.

What were some of the other steps that you took in the development of this framework?

Daria Cecchini:
The second phase is more of a design phase, and that’s when we decided how we work and interact with industry. Since we are a dual sector, and we are so heavily invested in our industry partnerships, we had to map all the various ways in which Swinburne works with industry as a product offering: Employability, work-integrated learning, curriculum development, corporate training, etc. We listed all of them, then divided them up into sectors or macro-areas, and we defined what the ROI looks like on these activities.

Assigning a shadow value on activities that are not revenue generating was probably the hardest part after the mapping exercise of the partners, because assigning a value that doesn’t translate to an actual hard metric is really opinion-based.

We did a few trials, came up with some clear shadow values and applied the same for everybody. That way, even if it is opinion based, we are putting them all through the same criteria.

Sarah Jaber:
With the Account Management Framework, you have created this tiered structure of partners. Can you tell us a bit more about what the tiers are and how you landed on these structures?

Daria Cecchini:
There are four tiers and six criteria with a total of 24 points available. We measure the partners and tick off all the various points per criteria.

A Tier One, a strategic partner, would have anything between 18 and 24 points. These are the partnerships that span across the university. They are deep partnerships, heavily embedded within the fabric of the university and there are multiple tiers of activity. As the industry engagement team, we service these partnerships and make sure that we are really driving the ROI, but also implementing governance around because they are multifaceted and we need a coordinated approach on these bigger partners.

Our Tier Two’s, our major partners, rank anything between 12 and 17 points. They are great partners doing important work across multiple areas, just probably don’t have the breadth or the ROI that the Tier Ones have. These are often driven by the area where most of the work happens. It could be an employability partner that’s doing really good work and then does also some research and some other things, but most of the work is sitting within that area, so they will keep driving those partnerships. It’s not something where our team necessarily needs to be hands-on involved in, we just support them.

A Tier Three is anything between 6 and 11 points. They are good partners that work primarily in one area. They are delivering and driving results for that area, but they don’t have the sort of the spam and reach of some of the other partnerships.

Finally, anything else falls into a Tier Four.

Sarah Jaber:
Daria, do you have any advice or recommendations for other organizations that are looking to implement similar strategic approaches to partnerships?

Daria Cecchini:
Looking at it as a holistic approach is really important because usually, we are just looking at revenue. Yes, that is easy to measure, but it doesn’t necessarily give the entirety of the picture of the work that partner is doing.

Similarly, I think the data that one has available will probably make the job easier or harder depending on what they are doing, so they have to be comprehensive, but simple. That sounds like a contrast, and that was the challenge, making sure we were considering the right elements, but not making it too complicated for ourselves. That is probably the best advice I have to give.

Interested in more insights like this?

If you would like to build your one-time university-business relationships into long-term, strategic ones, but don’t know where to start, head now to our video How to turn transactional university-business relationships into strategic partnerships?

You can also learn more about how EPFL nurtures entrepreneurial mindsets, and discover the dynamic interplay between industry and education in our conversation with Robert Giezendanner-Thoben, Director of Industry Affairs at EPFL, at the episode EPFL’s approach to forging valuable industry partnerships.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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