| 7 minute read

Collaboration architects: How Boundary Spanning Agents shape the future

Elena Galán-Muros
Strategic partnerships podcast series header

Join us in the latest episode featuring our colleague Balzhan Orazbayeva, Manager Strategic Initiatives at UIIN. Uncover the secrets of “Boundary Spanning” – breaking down silos and connecting internal and external networks for innovative collaboration.

Gain insights into how universities can better support boundary spanners, celebrating their role in driving collaboration and learn how to become a successful boundary spanning agent.

Don’t miss this dynamic discussion on the future of education and collaboration and be inspired to break boundaries!

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Madeline Arkins:
Today, I’m joined by my lovely colleague Balzhan. She is manager of strategic initiatives at UIIN, and, within this role, she delivers and designs innovative training and consultancy models to develop more engaged and entrepreneurial universities.

To start us off, for the uninitiated, what is boundary spanning and where did that term come from?

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
Boundary spanning is the term that describes individuals within an innovation ecosystem who adopt the role of linking organisations and internal networks with external sources of information. It’s all about breaking down the silos, connecting, bridging, … The term has been gaining a lot of traction since the 50s, and it’s about empowering individuals and making sure that those people who are at the forefront of innovation have all those necessary skills.

Of course, it has long been recognised that universities have an important leadership and connecting role within their regional innovation ecosystems.

The policy context, specifically in Europe, increasingly emphasises the importance of universities as drivers of regional growth and development via fostering partnerships amongst different types of stakeholders.

It’s not only university-business collaboration, but external engagement in the broadest sense: How can universities be better connected to their external environment and to societal, governmental and industry stakeholders?

Madeline Arkins:
Since institutions and large multinational companies may have the resources to innovate at such a large scale, it’s easy to forget that it’s these individuals with a specific skillset that really drives this forward.

Speaking of skillset, what skills do I need in my toolkit to call myself a Boundary Spanning Agent?

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
If we talk about Boundary Spanning Agents in the Higher Education context, we define them as individuals known for their success and capabilities in breaking down the silos, both among internal units and with industry. If you are working within the university, you connect individual departments or academics within the institution, but also help them in their external engagement for collaborative innovation, whether it is in research, entrepreneurship, or even education. According to European Commission, boundary spanners draw upon a deep understanding of both HEI ecosystem and the industry reality.

In terms of knowledge or skills, it’s very important to understand what is going on within your organisation, have a deep understanding of what your potential partner would want or need, and know how the organisational structures would work within those institutions.

At UIIN, we are very keen to, not only bring this term forward, but really appreciate those individuals who are at the forefront of collaboration and recognise them for the wonderful work that they do. They are hidden champions.

It’s often the case that all the people who support, enable, or empower, take a background role, although they are fundamental. With this motivation, we at UIIN wanted to explore what are the actual skills, knowledge and attitudes the boundary spanner might need, and that resulted in an initiative that we have been running in collaboration with wonderful partners as part of Spanning Boundaries project, funded by the European Commission. Thanks to that, we have been able to do a large-scale research that would include qualitative research, literature review, as well as surveying university and industry stakeholders, and experts in the field to understand what kind of skills those individuals would actually need.

That has resulted in a set of masteries of a Boundary Spanning Agents, a set of very key, transversal areas of skills, knowledge, and competencies. We could talk about strategy and vision, entrepreneurial thinking and acting, partner understanding and negotiation.

If we focus on hard skills, it is also very important in higher education to understand intricacies of knowledge transfer and engagement processes. Depending on what type of collaboration or valorisation you are supporting, some of the base knowledge of those areas would be extremely important.

This is what we call the Spanning Boundaries Skills Framework, and we were able to develop and test our training programs, both as part of the Spanning Boundaries project and as part of UIIN’s training offer with the UBC Skills program, who aims at empowering those individuals that are looking to break down the silos between academia and business.

Madeline Arkins:
How can universities better support these people who do this kind of boundary spanning work?

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
If we talk about academics who are willing to collaborate, or academics who may not even know that they want to collaborate, but they need to collaborate and engage with external stakeholders, obviously, there is a set of different supporting mechanisms that universities may introduce.

This is why empowering spanning boundaries agents is important. Supporting professional and skills development is certainly one of the ways to drive university business collaboration.

Recognising these roles and celebrating them is also quite important. Connectedness and relatedness play a very big role, so whenever there is a possibility to promote role models, whether it is with professional staff or very successful academics who create impact from the work that they do, celebrating those role models is very helpful for other folks to see what is happening, what is possible.

One of the biggest barriers for academics is, of course, the lack of time. They already have so much on their plate, when are they going to find time to collaborate?

Providing some small incentives, such as allowing more time for collaboration per se by cutting the teaching or maybe adjusting a the KPIs that they would need to show in terms of their research productivity would be some of the ways to go. Furthermore, having a more clear understanding and vision for what university would like to achieve in terms of setting and understanding the success of university business collaboration, is very important.

Madeline Arkins:
How you see Boundary Spanning Agents contributing to fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in the wider university community?

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
I think they fit directly into the concept. For the university to become entrepreneurial, there must be a very comprehensive strategy and system in place when it comes to leadership and culture.

Embedding entrepreneurship across all the dimensions of work that the university would do – education, research, valorisation, management – will not be possible without Spanning Boundaries Agents.

Be it in the professional staff roles, who would be working on the development of entrepreneurship, having those leaders in place who have the vision for becoming an entrepreneurial universities and have the ability to make the way for the university being connected to their regions, or even having those academics and students who would have this entrepreneurial mindset or spanning boundaries profile that are willing to step forward and just innovate in the way that they do their work.

Spanning boundaries as a concept is certainly very much connected to entrepreneurial thinking and acting.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can also learn more about the winners of the Strategic Partnerships Award at the 2023 UIIN Conference, Swinburne Universiy, for their ground-breaking framework aimed at identifying, strengthening, and managing strategic partners at our episode A blueprint for partnership success: The Swinburne University model.

If you are a UIIN Member, you can now access our report brief Who are the Boundary Spanning Agents and what does it take to become one?, where we share some of the main findings of our large scale investigation (a systematic review of 75 papers, 40+ interviews conducted with Boundary Spanning Champions, and 500+ survey responses) on the profile and role of the Boundary Spanning Agents.

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

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