In a recent article, I talked about the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), and how this creates an opportunity for universities to reflect on the evolution of their external engagement in recent years. For me, it’s an opportunity for some universities to reframe the agenda; moving away from a narrow definition based on the transactional transfer of ‘knowledge’ using income, patents and spin outs as the success criteria and toward a more collaborative exchange of knowledge demonstrated through a measurable value for all involved. I hinted at the role enterprise could play in this and thought I should come back to it.

Do I mean Enterprise or Entrepreneurship?

Before I can start though, we need to talk about terminology. 

‘Enterprise’ is a word that can mean different things to different people and it’s easy for us, the KE Practitioner community, to forget that. I recall conversations with academics from social science disciplines that have an understanding of the word ‘Enterprise’ that is similar to Business School colleagues’ understanding of ‘entrepreneurship’; it can get confusing quickly. 

So let’s start here. There are some amazing reports out there that articulate this far better than I can, so I would suggest that if you are interested in how enterprise, enterprise education and entrepreneurship work together then the QAA guidance on Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education (2018) is a fantastic place to start. From there Enterprise Educators UK is a vibrant community and resource point to explore the details and nuances of these subjects. 

I’m going to take it back a bit though, and for the purposes of the rest of this article I’m going to say that ‘enterprise’ is about the knowledge, skills and confidence that enable people (academic staff and students) to ‘do new stuff’.

So here is where my view that enterprise is the foundation of good, sustainable Knowledge Exchange might start to become clear. If we can foster an enterprising culture amongst our staff we will surely see a positive impact on our teaching environment and a more vibrant KE environment.

So, what is the ‘stuff’?

People I’ve spoken to who are working in or own Small – Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) are incredibly enthusiastic about skills; the skills they need in their future workforce and as a result, what we need to teach and prepare our students for. They are equally enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge and experience with staff and students alike.

So we have a desire to enrich our curriculum with practice based examples and experiences, and can benefit from a business community willing to engage with their skills supplier – so all we need to do is provide the “stuff” to facilitate this.

Knowledge exchange currently exists within our curriculum. We provide opportunities for employers to provide guest lectures, student projects, live briefs, placements and internships. We also greatly benefit from their involvement in the development of our curricular. By doing so we not only enrich our student experience, we develop collaborative relationships with businesses and organisations. 

These relationships may then grow into broader KE activities. It’s a pipeline isn’t it and I’ve seen this so many times. The business owner that comes in to do a series of guest lectures gets to know the academic and students and subsequently goes on to set a student project. After working with the students they create a placement opportunity, a KTP comes from the work the student started. As the KTP develops a short course to disseminate the outcomes of the KTP is delivered. We have the machinery, but what we need is to identify and grow the number of staff who understand this approach and possess the necessary knowledge, skills and confidence to maximise the benefits of that machinery, and so we come back to enterprise.

Our core business (education and curriculum development) provides the enterprising ‘stuff’; the opportunities for us to engage and exchange knowledge with an employer. This then creates further opportunity for more sustainable and rewarding relationships with businesses and organisations. 

So how can we be more ‘enterprising’?

I’ve tried to briefly highlight here the mechanisms that already exist to provide the opportunity for KE related collaboration to take place both within and around our curriculum. This however is a different style of delivery than ‘traditional’ modes of teaching and learning; it requires different skillsets. What I’m advocating here is that we nurture a set of skills within our staff that are no different to those that we might try to develop in our students. This is beautifully laid out in the recent European Commission’s report: EntreComp Into Action. Imagine – supporting academic colleagues to enhance their skills so that they could;

  • Create, evaluate and identify opportunities,
  • Mobilise people and resources, understand process and policies, persevere and do this with self-efficacy,
  • Convert ideas and relationships into action, take risk and manage ambiguity.

Don’t get me wrong, enterprising academics already exist, we are lucky to work with many of them every day. Indeed, academic colleagues are incredibly enterprising in their Research activities. Let’s not forget ourselves though – KE Practitioners, we are already enterprising members of staff, it’s in our DNA. I’m just suggesting we might need to nurture it and fuse the links between our curriculum based activities and our KE ambition if we wish it to capture the most value from our efforts.  

What am I on about?

So what I’ve tried to highlight here is that curriculum based activities provide an environment to foster partnerships with business and organisations. Establishing and growing these activities and partnerships requires staff and students to portray a set of skills that are commonly referred to as ‘enterprising’.

Universities might address this by creating an enterprising culture amongst its staff; actively encouraging, preparing, facilitating and rewarding its staff to go out and do stuff. Once they are doing things, we can assess where the value might be created. Surely we’ll never know if we don’t try stuff?

If we want KE that is truly representative of the word ‘exchange’ and delivers impact and value that is far greater than income alone, then a university has to put ‘enterprise’ at the heart of its approach.