Building U2B Partnerships: Three Critical IngredientsGeorge Irvine | Assistant Director of Organizational Learning Solutions, University of Delaware
Just what does it take for university professional and continuing studies units (PCE) to build mutually beneficial knowledge partnerships with businesses and organizations today?
The provision of customized training to public, private and non-profit organizations is increasingly important to PCEs given the current campus emphasis on revenue generation and the demand for employee education in the marketplace. It would appear that the timing is right for a perfect match between the university supply of teaching and knowledge and the market demand for customized training. I would argue that in order for PCEs to take advantage of this market alignment and build successful University to Business (U2B) partnerships they must leverage the university’s three-part comparative advantage—our research-based knowledge, our commitment to learning (i.e. mission), and, ironically enough, our collegiality.
In its ideal form, customized training allows the university to share actionable research-based knowledge with local organizations in order to develop their employees and meet emerging workforce development needs. In return the university receives revenue, increased knowledge of the labor market, and increased brand recognition. Some PCEs also call this kind of work “organizational learning” but call it what you will, it amounts to the same thing—providing actionable knowledge via educational services (training, employee coaching, instructional design etc.) for a fee to organizations at the local, national and global level.
I prefer the term University to Business Partnerships (U2B) since it recognizes the university as a key partner (unlike the term business to business sale—or B2B—for example) and it includes the word partnership, which is what a PCE unit should seek to develop rather than simply selling training services. We should not seek a “sale” in our work but rather a “partnership” through which multiple sales occur and value is exchanged between the university and partner organization. Indeed, the ability to foster U2B partnerships contributes to the success of PCE units within the new entrepreneurial university paradigm.
Survey feedback from organizational partners of the University of Delaware and Louisiana State University customized learning units provided valuable insight into why organizations choose to work with a university PCE unit. The top three reasons selected were that PCEs were easy to work with, that our price was fair, and that our knowledge of current research was useful to the organization.
This feedback made me realize that we should not emulate private sector training and development consultancies but rather leverage traditional higher education strengths to be successful in the organizational training marketplace. Put another way, if we are collegial in our interactions with outside organizations, set a fair price for our educational services, and leverage our university’s research-based knowledge we can build mutually beneficial, long-term U2B partnerships.
Let’s take a closer look at these three key ingredients of building U2B partnerships:
1. Know Your Value Proposition
Identify and leverage your research and teaching-based knowledge, which is valuable to a potential partner. Universities create research-based knowledge and teaching expertise almost every day, some of which is valuable to organizations as they develop their employees. PCE units in research universities are particularly well positioned to extend such actionable research-based knowledge to community and organizational partners. In my experience building U2B partnerships, value precedes revenue, not the other way around. If you seek revenue without knowing what of value you bring to a potential partner you will find neither revenue nor value.
2. Stick To Your Educational Mission Because It Matches Current Market Need
Represent your university as an educational provider in an open, honest and patient way with potential partner organizations via Chambers of Commerce and workforce development forums. Many organizations are beset by salespeople from training organizations and become skeptical of training vendors. Others have built extensive (and expensive) in-house training solutions and may not need much from outside vendors. If you think of yourself not as a training vendor but a university specialist extending your institution’s considerable teaching and research experience, you will come across less as a salesperson and more as a valuable learning partner. I try to do this by asking organizations “what is your pain point when it comes to training your employees?” I do not pitch my set menu of educational services but customize a solution to fit their need. Building a solid business relationship with the company’s human resource or organizational development point of contact is a great first step to make them aware of your valuable knowledge and educational mission-focused expertise.
3. Be Collegial
Collegiality in your business practices—such as pricing, customer/student services and program evaluations—is key. It is odd to think of higher education collegiality as our competitive advantage over for-profit training and education providers, particularly given the global marketplace’s emphasis on efficient and effective decision making over deliberative decision making and behavior. Ironically enough, one of the biggest advantages higher education can leverage to maximize revenue in a resource scarce environment is our collegiality, which sets PCE units apart from competitors in the organizational training market. In the end, an organizational partner may prefer to be associated with a university rather than a consultancy because we are easier to work with and are perceived of as neutral parties not self-interested ones.
These ingredients allow me to build U2B partnerships at the University of Delaware. When I ask my colleagues in the University Professional Continuing Education Association they largely concur, though each PCE adds more or less of these ingredients depending on their strengths and regional market. Certainly, there are other critical ingredients to building U2B partnership such as leadership, operational efficiency, marketing and CRM systems, but knowing these bigger picture ingredients will serve us well in the creation of U2B partnerships.