Visit Modern Campus

Business, Industry and Organizational Partnerships: Is Your CE Unit Ready?

Deeper connections with businesses, industry and organizations can have significant benefits for the modern Continuing Education unit.
Deeper connections with businesses, industry and organizations can have significant benefits for the modern Continuing Education unit.

Business, Industry and Organizational (BIO) partnerships are drivers of success for most Continuing Education (CE) units. In this article, I explore the benefits to CE units for strategically considering what outcomes are important in these relationships. Through reshaping perspectives and approaches to business development in CE units, deeper relationships with BIO may become more achievable and rewarding.

Most CE programming in higher education is career-focused and consists of two customer groups: 1) individual learners and 2) BIO. The value proposition for learners is that programs will help them advance in their careers and for BIO that programs will help them ensure a supply of employees with the skills and competencies to advance business objectives. Of course, these two customer groups and their respective value propositions are related: Learners want programs that lead to good jobs, and BIO employees need professional development. As key stakeholders in our units, it is crucial to consider how we might create greater mutual value in these relationships with BIO.

On a basic level, BIOs count on educational institutions to provide them with a supply of employees generally prepared to undertake roles. At a deeper level, they also need help filling skill gaps. Central to their competitive, strategic and innovative ambitions, BIOs require access to employees with the competencies and skill sets that correspond to their particular needs. As such, CE units should consider their own capacities to understand and respond to these needs to foster productive and sustainable relationships with BIO.

CE units are normally well aware of the role BIO plays in meeting their objectives and have typically made connections with BIO through their business development activities to support programming sales. To make a sale, it is important to align the needs of potential BIO customers with the outcomes of related programs. However, one challenge with this approach is that business development specialists are often provided with a list of ready-made programs to sell. The goal then becomes emphasizing the value of these programs to potential BIO customers, which means business development specialists need to be aware of their customers’ needs and objectives.

As career-focused programming for continuous learners becomes more competitive, with new providers of focused programs entering the market, CE units are tasked with developing a much deeper understanding of what BIO needs. In particular, CE units must be keenly interested in areas where BIOs identify skill gaps—both within their current talent pool and their intended future profile. These gaps may also closely relate to current operations or strategic areas where a BIO seeks to develop new capacities. A deeper understanding will help ensure BIO needs are a central focus when developing programming, and sales to BIO will be an intended outcome of a working relationship based on an appreciation of customer needs.

Continuous learners make individual decisions about their professional development. One of their primary considerations is the impact the programs they are considering will have on their career advancement. If it is apparent to learners that CE units have solid relationships with BIO and that the programming is collaboratively designed to address important skill gaps, they will likely choose it. Thus, these relationships can be expected to positively influence programming uptake with both BIO and individual learner customer groups.

Seeking a deeper relationship with BIO? Here are two takeaways to consider.

1) Move beyond a simple business development sales approach to engage your BIO partners. Develop capacity within your CE unit to collaborate with BIO and explore their skill gaps, which will both lead to programming backed by ready-made market demand and help solve their problems. Doing this well will require investments; however, it will lend itself to enrollment growth in both BIO partner employee and individual learner enrollments. 

2) Adjust your view of engagement objectives to focus on fostering sustainable long-term relationships with BIO that address skills gap challenges. The move to focusing on building relationships rather than just transactional goals will produce outcomes that position your CE unit as a valuable ongoing partner. As a result, this approach will also support enrollment growth and enrich most business development efforts.

Author Perspective: