Universities need to get ‘strategic’ about strategic partnerships

It may sound like stating the obvious but strategic partnerships are meant to be ‘strategic’.  The unfortunate reality is that more often than not they are not.

Universities and other research institutions increasingly extol the virtues of strategic partnerships and their potential to enhance innovation and competitiveness; to close skills gaps; and address some of Australia’s big challenges.

In the Australian university landscape, the term ‘partnership’ covers a wide spectrum of relationships, and can used interchangeably with ‘collaboration’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘engagement’.

However, in many cases what are touted as strategic partnerships are actually arrangements centred around more modest, short-term project-based interactions – and are not about more ambitious, mutually-beneficial, longer-term collaboration.

In the pursuit of economic growth, nations across the globe are recognising the importance of promoting university-business collaborations and partnerships. However, despite various policy initiatives at the Commonwealth and State and levels, Australia is not keeping up with its international peers.  

A partnership that has climbed to strategic heights

Genuine strategic partnerships embrace a holistic organisational approach, focusing on a select group of key partners essential for long-term success. A good example is the strategic research partnership between CSIRO and Boeing.

CSIRO has built an initial project introduction with Boeing Aircraft Corporation into a 30-year-long enduring strategic partnership that touches nearly every CSIRO research division and the operational departments of Boeing.  Teams from both organisations established multi-layered levels of contact – from senior management through to researchers on the ground – to identify key areas of research need for Boeing. This year, the world’s largest aerospace company named Australia’s national science agency, as its Supplier of the Year for the fifth time since 2010.

Other more local strategic partnerships included UNSW – Tyree industries where there is a continual exchange of knowledge between Tyree and UNSW’s electrical engineering department. This relationship also led to donations which included the Sir William Tyree building at UNSW supporting renewables research.

However, few research organisations have successfully scaled their partnerships into a portfolio of strategic relationships. How can this be achieved?

The ROI of Strategic Partnership Management

The effectiveness of such partnerships hinges on a robust process encompassing the identification, development, and management of these critical relationships. Managing strategic partnerships entails complexity, substantial resource allocation, and proficient relationship marketing skills.

It is, however, an investment that has proven time and again to be an effective allocation of scarce resources in both growing revenue and creating broad impact.

Strategic Partnership Management: Untapped Potential

The tools that have been developed are known as Strategic Account Management (SAM). Within the university sector such relationships are also referred to as Strategic Partnerships. The remarkable success of SAM over the past two decades finds its roots in the significant consolidation experienced across various product markets.

This consolidation has led to key strategic accounts becoming the primary drivers of organisational revenue and profitability. A parallel potential is possible in the realm of university research and education services, where businesses, academia, and government agencies intertwine consistently.

Despite the apparent advantages of Strategic Partnership Management, its full-scale deployment in the university sector is rare for two reasons. Universities often lack the required B2B strategic marketing and relationship marketing skills crucial for effective implementation and have they not made the necessary cultural shift that puts the focus on strategic partnerships rather than fragmented faculty-based or individual researcher-led initiatives.

Unlocking the Cultural Key

Success requires aligning all organisational members with the partnership plan ratified by the partner manager and senior executives across the university. Ad hoc actions outside the ambit of the plan and partner manager’s endorsement find no place in this paradigm and are pushed back to second-tier nurturing by researchers.

Top Tips for the University Sector

Successful strategic partnership management requires three critical core capabilities:

Cultural Transformation: Facilitate the orchestration of strategic partnerships on an organisation-wide canvas, adhering to defined processes and partnership plans. Let strategic partnerships become the driving force behind research revenue growth.

 Strategic Marketing Prowess: Harness strategic marketing analysis and high-level business development competencies to identify, develop, and amplify key strategic relationships. The selection of appropriate partners and institute organisation-wide relationship management is paramount.

Empowerment through Tools: Employ Customer Relationship Management (CRM), contract/project management, and procurement tools that not only curtail transaction costs but also augment multi-tier relationship management with strategic partners.

Navigating the Partnership Horizon

Strategic Partnership Management is a beacon that could guide more Australian universities toward a horizon of collaborative excellence. While the challenges may be significant, the potential rewards are transformative.  A paradigm shift from transactional engagements to strategic partnerships is a very sound investment in the future.

Note: AI used in generation of story image

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