People: the messy variable in the convergence of education and commerce

The worlds of commerce and education are colliding. From sharing or reusing CBD spaces to new alignments and business partnerships.
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Photo courtesy of University of Technology, Sydney

As the worlds of commerce and education continue to converge – from sharing or reusing CBD spaces, to new alignments and business partnerships – how do we make it all work? Bringing these new work/learning places to life needs more than just good physical design – it needs new approaches to equip people with the skills to be ready, willing and able to leverage the opportunities presented by the closer convergence of two very different business models.

In every organisation I talk to – be it educational, commercial or government – people want to increase collaboration, break down silos and be more creative. They want agility and flexibility in their workspace; they want more – and faster – innovation. These are common themes. 

While the best strategic brief or collaborative new workplace design can certainly encourage all these traits, there is one major component which makes or breaks the best laid plans – people. 

People are the “messy variable” in building relationships

One of the major trends in the education and commercial sectors is a desire to be interacting, collaborating and partnering with other innovators – working alongside each other – as they join forces to fund research and reap the benefits of that research faster. To do this, many co-locate, and increasing numbers of universities are integrating with, or coming in proximity to, startups or commercial businesses. 

But colocation – or proximity – alone does not create relationships or guarantee success. I could put 100 people on a tram at the same time every day for a year and it may still not generate relationships. Likewise, in a workplace where two very different business models – academia and commercial – come together and are now supposed to work in partnership, we may not actually see this happen.

colocation – or proximity – alone does not create relationships or guarantee success. I could put 100 people on a tram at the same time every day for a year and it may still not generate relationships

If we haven’t equipped people and built skills so they are ready, willing and able to leverage the opportunities of these new work and learning places, or these new alignments, then patterns and practices do not change, and failure to achieve progress is a very high risk. 

So how do we help these different types of organisations bring their new alignments to life and partner with each other? What is that strength switch we need to flick to liberate how each can benefit the other, rather than work competitively or in isolation?

people want to increase collaboration, break down silos and be more creative
Photo courtesy of Western Sydney University

Training is a key ingredient to achieve positive change

Investing in training to develop high quality, deep and trusted relationships is essential not only to maximise the opportunities of being closer together, but also to produce innovations, collaborations and the ability to create at a faster pace. 

These skills are not all natural, but it’s possible to build them. Often they might already exist within an organisation, or pockets of an organization, but not always be recognised or brought to life as they could be. 

Take academia for example. Universities – particularly academics – are excellent collaborators. Writing a research paper is often done collaboratively with other academics around the world – but it’s done virtually. This ability to collaborate is a real strength and skill within universities which does not get focused on or drawn out and amplified in other ways. 

By helping universities firstly to recognise this existing strength, we can then help encourage it in a multitude of different ways, to realise the greater benefits from working closely with commercial enterprise.  

The five questions to ask to maximise the opportunities from bringing academia and business together

To further maximise the opportunities of being closer together, we also need to look at each organisation and ask: 

  • What is having a positive impact on the culture and what’s not? 
  • Are all the people in the organisation able to perform at their absolute best? 
  • What is already working for the organisation? 
  • How can they do more of that?
  • Which systems, symbols and behaviours can also give us clues?

We can find the answers by looking at place, people, technology systems and wellbeing as levers of changenot only from an engineering perspective, but from that of positive psychology. We consider whether or not the first three are enabling the organisation to be innovative and creative and its thinking, and we can do this using the science of positive psychology. 

For example, a common “reward system” at university recognises academics for obtaining research funding and for their publications, but not for the number of different collaborators they work with, or the impact they have on a network of people through their relational energy (known as the heliotropic effect, where people are drawn to others who energise and elevate them). 

a common “reward system” at university recognises academics for obtaining research funding and for their publications, but not for the number of different collaborators they work with

These are very different metrics for considering the impact that academics have or can have, and adapting the existing reward system will take time, and involve a significant shift in mindset. 

Spaces for socialising, re-energising and laughing encourage collaboration
Photo courtesy of University of Wollongong

The symbols that reveal the potential for collaboration

Several symbols also provide obvious clues to what is encouraged or discouraged in an organisation that can reveal whether there is the potential for good collaboration. These include: who gets an office, who doesn’t, the amount of laughter, how much space there is for socialising, re-energising, encouraging collaboration, and so on.  

In both academia and law firms, it’s “symbolic” if you make the corner office. The higher you rise the more private think space you get. But we now know that people think, innovate and create in a variety of spaces – and that traditional ways of working can be balanced with others, collaborating and innovating openly. 

This can be equally, if not more, rewarding; especially because relationships are the element people value most at work, and the biggest factor that impacts our wellbeing. 

The commercial sector has been quick to adapt to this, and is seeing a dramatic shift to more collaborative, diverse workspaces which support a multitude of different working styles, group sizes and levels of focus.

Universities are typically old institutions built on tradition, reputation and history.
Photo courtesy of University of Sydney

Tradition, reputation and history are key competitive advantages, but can present challenges

Education has traditionally provided this for students; however, academia has been slower to adapt.

Universities are typically old institutions built on tradition, reputation and history. This is one of their key competitive advantages, but it can present challenges in realising new operating models and ways of working, especially as there are many people who work at universities outside of the academic areas that are critical to their success.

As universities continue to align more closely with the commercial sector, some of those traditional structures – or the way in which people work and are rewarded – will need to change

As universities continue to align more closely with the commercial sector, some of those traditional structures – or the way in which people work and are rewarded – will need to change. But when making these changes, it’s crucial to disrupt without disrespecting the essence and culture of these universities or de-energising the people in them. 

Achieving this balance for any organisation can be complex, but ultimately can be achieved by taking the right approach to brokering and facilitating change – the ultimate balance between driving and engaging. 

It’s often said that this is the “soft stuff” – the people side – but all the statistics show that the “soft” side is the hardest side for businesses to get right. The best place to start to achieve this is by asking:

  • What it is that you want to see?
  • What are the real priorities?
  • What is being discouraged or encouraged within the organisation?
  • What elements are having a positive impact? 

When you have all that, then you can enhance and amplify it throughout the business, to bring these new partnerships to life.

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