Blog: How can businesses engage with universities?
With eleven years’ experience working on ways businesses across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire can engage with universities, Rob McKay reflects on his experience and offers his advice to local business leaders.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a wide range and variety of businesses over the years, and you can’t do that without learning some things as you go along. It’s a real privilege to have that perspective, and now is a perfect opportunity to boil down some of that, into a few things I wished the owners/managers and decisions makers in our small businesses knew and understood more.
1. Innovation isn’t magic
There’s a lot of mystique around innovation, and to be honest it isn’t helped by the imagery that is frequently used by institutions and agencies looking to promote it across industry – all white lab coats, convoluted glassware and robot arms. But at its heart, innovation is simply doing something new to you. That doesn’t need to be high-tech whizz-bangery, nor does it need to be something new to everyone, but it does need things to actually happen (rather than simply be talked about). Ask your people to show you the workarounds they use because the processes and tools they use aren’t quite right, and you’ll be knee-deep in innovation – it will be rough and ready and a living example of the US Marines mantra of ‘improvise, adapt, overcome’ – but it works. Your job is to make it work better.
2. Leadership isn’t about you
Amazingly, I still come across people who think that “my way or the highway” is the way to lead people. When Professor Will Foster and I did our ‘fireside chat’ on leadership for various groups, the underlying principle was always the same – that there are a sackloadsack load of theories about leadership out there, and most are quite long in the tooth, but you can get something out of all of them. There is a notable lack of agreement on the nature and action of leadership, academically, however, most progressive thinking on leadership is pretty clear that it’s about enabling others to perform to their best, to dismantle barriers, and lift up quiet voices. Ultimately, your task as a leader is to facilitate the search for answers to the problems that arise, rather than thinking you either have to come up with them yourself or demand them from others.
3. There’s a difference between education and training and it’s not what you think
Education is about equipping people with new abilities, knowledge or skills. Training is about exercising the abilities you have to improve them, in an environment where making errors has minimised risk. You and your people need both; education to keep up with change in the world, and training to sharpen performance. You can learn things when training, especially when it goes awry, but the goal isn’t the new, but to improve what happens now. So the one thing most overlooked about training is training together – no sports team ever achieved success by its members training alone.
4. When everywhere is closer than you think, everyone is your neighbour and your competitor
Time and place lost a lot of meaning over the last 18 months, but really that was just an unexpected acceleration of a trend that’s been coming for nearly two decades now. Since the industrial revolution, business location has been driven by proximity to either raw materials or markets. But those drivers have been weakened as the world has shrunk. Now, the primary reason for a business to locate in a particular area is as likely to be participating in a ‘community of practice’ – to have access to those more nebulous resources like skills, networks and hard and soft infrastructure that arises when there is a critical mass of businesses operating in the same broad theme to enable things like specialist recruiters or training providers to exist. Dynamic communities where there is a vibrant interchange of people, ideas and opportunities are the ones that will thrive in future, so changing your perceptions of your local competitors from nemesis to an enabler of the things you need to challenge your real competition around the world is essential.
5. The best change, is a change of perspective
And so we move neatly to my final point. We all know that change is the only constant in business, but that somewhat glib phrase overlooks the awkward truth that much change is imposed on us from outside, and our greatest challenge isn’t to initiate change but to respond to it. So, continuing with the aphorisms when someone tells you that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, that’s only true while the context stays the same. If the world moves on, and you don’t respond, you won’t even get what you used to. Our biggest challenge in responding to change is to grasp what it means for us; we can’t do anything meaningful if we’re flailing in the dark. And in the absence of anything else, the simple expedient of getting a new perspective – seeing it from a different angle or through someone else’s eyes – is the quickest sure-fire way to a better understanding of what you face.
If you would like to find out more about how Keele Gateway can help your organisation please get in touch.
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