| 5 minute read

What does it mean for a university to be “ready to engage”?

Guest author
Rowing eight, ready for a training session

Engagement has emerged as a common focus across the higher education sector. Indeed, given the well understood benefits of university engagement with external partners [1], increasing effort is placed on advancing such engagement. The term “engagement” is ever-present: From engaged universities to engaged academics, from research engagement to engaged learning pathways, from individual engagement activities to national engagement assessment exercises.

While commonly used synonymously with terms such as collaboration or partnering, it is worthwhile reflecting on the unique concept of engagement, as only then can we better understand what it means to be “ready” to engage[2].

Engagement

We often focus on the visible elements of engagement; on the activities individuals or organisations undertake that we can see, record, and assess. While some engagement researchers follow the same path and thus focus on the behavioural manifestations of engagement[3], many recognise that a focus purely on behaviour is not enough: Engagement comprises not only behavioural but also emotional and cognitive elements[4].  For university-business engagement, this means that engagement is not just about what academics, for example, do as part of their engagement activities; it is also about how they think and feel about the industry partner or other “focal objects” their engagement is directed towards.

Engagement readiness

Readiness, in general, reflects a state of preparedness or disposition of organisations[5] or individuals[6] to act. It implies the individual (or organisation) has agency and can choose to act in a specific manner. Engagement readiness, or engagement disposition, is an essential facet of engagement[7]. If we think about engagement activities as a process in which we engage with our partner emotionally, cognitively, and behaviourally, what makes us prepared and likely to interact in such way?

Emerging research on engagement dispositions at the level of the individual identifies that it is both an individual’s personal tendencies, as well as their capacity at that point in time, that inform their readiness[8]. Adapting work by Sim et al.[9] to the university-business context, we would expect that an academic’s readiness to engage with a specific industry partner would depend on their internal tendencies: Inherent traits such as their levels of confidence, their enthusiasm, or desire for control will influence their level of engagement, as will other tendencies that emerge when interacting with the partner, for example their sense of similarity or social connection. Further, their engagement will depend on their capacity, and thus whether they have the relevant expertise and knowledge or whether they have sufficient time to engage. While such readiness is specific to the individual academic, universities can create an environment for these tendencies and capabilities to flourish.

The bigger picture

University-business engagement is rarely just a dyadic endeavour between two individuals or parties; it brings together multiple individuals and teams, organisations, and organisational groups. We thus need to understand engagement not just at the individual level; but extend it to the collective[10]. Here, we see readiness to engage as multiple actors with a shared disposition, leading to collective engagement activities and efforts; critical if we seek to build engagement across our teams and institution. Moreover, for us to be able to transform the future state of engagement and co-create university-industry engagement at the systems level, our focus should lie on advancing readiness not just of our own people, teams, and organisations but also the readiness of others. For example, even if our universities are advanced in their readiness to engage, potential benefits will remain limited if other parties, such as small and medium sized organisations, are less ready.

Let us thus reflect on our various roles in developing our own readiness and that of others. How can universities help build the readiness of those individuals and organisations who would benefit from university-business engagement? How can they facilitate engagement readiness at the ecosystem level? What are the roles of other public and private sector organisations in facilitating such readiness across the economy and society; for example, by building connections and knowledge, or co-creating ecosystem approaches to university-industry engagement?

Only with wide-spread engagement readiness will we achieve the engagement outcomes and impact we know can be so beneficial to the higher education sector and society at large.

Notes and references

[1] While engagement features strongly across a wide range of literatures, areas and contexts, this short piece draws primarily on customer and actor engagement literatures.

[2] Deloitte (2022), “Co-designing futures: Higher education and industry partnering for impact”, accessed 30 October 2022, Co-designing futures: Higher education and industry partnering for impact| Deloitte Australia | Public Sector, Education.

[3] Beckers, S.F., Van Doorn, J., Verhoef, P.C. (2018) “Good, better, engaged? The effect of company-initiated customer engagement behavior on shareholder value”, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 46(3), 366-383.

[4] Brodie, R.J., Fehrer, J.A., Jaakkola, E., Conduit, J. (2019) “Actor engagement in networks: Defining the conceptual domain” Journal of Service Research, 22(2), 173-188.

[5] Halpern, N., Mwesiumo, D., Suau-Sanchez, P., Budd, T., Bråthen, S. (2021) “Ready for digital transformation? The effect of organisational readiness, innovation, airport size and ownership on digital change at airports”, Journal of Air Transport Management, 90, 101949.

[6] Fehrer, J., Woratschek, H., Germelmann, C.C., Brodie, R.J. (2018), “Dynamics and drivers of customer engagement: Within the dyad and beyond”, Journal of Service Management, 29(3), 443-467.

[7] Storbacka, K. (2019), “Actor engagement, value creation and market innovation”, Industrial Marketing Management, 80, 4-10.

[8] Breidbach, C.F., Brodie, R.J. (2017) “Engagement platforms in the sharing economy: conceptual foundations and research directions”, Journal of Service Theory and Practice, 27(4), 761-777.

[9] Sim, M., Conduit, J., Plewa, C., Hentzen, J.K. (2022) “Customer engagement with service providers: An empirical investigation of customer engagement dispositions”, European Journal of Marketing, 56(7), 1926-1955.

[10] Kleinaltenkamp, M., Conduit, J., Plewa, C., Karpen, I.O., Jaakkola, E. (2021) “Engagement-driven institutionalization in market shaping: Synchronizing and stabilizing collective engagement” Industrial Marketing Management, 99, 69-78.


This article was originally published in the CONNECTED e-zine as part of the Engagement Readiness Monitor project.

Carolin Plewa (author) is the Pro Vice Chancellor (Researcher Education and Development) and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Adelaide. She specialises in interaction and value co-creation across organisations and individuals.

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