The Business Engagement team at the University of Birmingham is a high-profile unit and has grown significantly over the last three years, demonstrating the strong positive benefits for both business and academia in its approach to drive collaborative innovation.

It is now one of the largest University Business Engagement teams in the UK, growing from 12 staff in December 2015 to 23 employees today, working with businesses locally, nationally and globally.

There are many facets to building a successful team, particularly with the myriad of challenges and opportunities facing business and HEIs. Below are some of my top tips that I have learnt over the last five years – I would be happy to hear your thoughts too!

Create the right culture

Build a team culture built on trust; understand and know your colleagues and what is important to them. In this way, you retain high performers, providing consistency to developing long term relationships both internally and externally. This allows you to fine tune the best ways to help your team to thrive.

With the right support in place, people can take their work in new, innovative directions. Encourage your team to innovate, take risks and support them in their failures – it is often from these that the next great idea is generated.

Focus on diversity of experience

As you grow and build your team, look at how it is developing and ask yourself some tough questions: does it reflect a good set of diverse background, experiences and opinions?

Particularly as your team expands and ambitions grow, diversity within your team will help build resilience and help performance. Research from Professor Trehan at the University of Birmingham Business School makes it increasingly clear that organisations with diverse workforces perform better because they tend to attract top talent, have greater employee satisfaction and are better at problem solving, decision making and innovation.

Source and cultivate expertise

Recruitment in our team is twofold. Firstly from within the University, for a thorough understanding of higher education priorities. We can unlock and uncover potential from internal colleagues within the institution with a keen awareness for business understanding.

Secondly, from industry. The team attracts a high calibre of senior industry professionals from manufacturing, technology, healthcare and sport, all with direct experience of business needs. Underlying these two strands is a focus on values and behaviours which are critical to an individual thriving within the team.


End-to-end process and delivering on expectations is essential. Our team works to assumed SLAs with our industry partners, to ensure the pace and cadence of the communications suits our business partners as responsiveness is critical to build trust.

Have the right business offering…

Successful business engagement works if you deliver what business needs in an appropriate way. In the first instance, that is the access to expertise across many industries so that both depth of understanding in one specific area, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration, is possible. A second factor is access, either to world class facilities or to large, diverse populations for clinical trials.


“businesses don’t often know where or how to start to work with a HEI”

Engagement across the higher education landscape is very complex for business and it is often very difficult to know all the different types of funding available. It can be seen as an information overload in many areas, or a dearth of knowledge in others, and businesses don’t often know where or how to start to work with a HEI. Even if they overcome this, they may still not have the capacity to navigate the HEI landscape and end in a point-to-point, transactional relationship with one element within the University. We should be making their lives easier and build relationships out.

Have a best-in-class account management approach, providing tailored solutions for businesses based wholly on their needs, from degree apprenticeship and executive education through to start up and IP support, strategic partnerships and collaborative product development. Whatever the initial touch point is, ensure your team knows the full breadth of offering so they can work with their clients to fulfil all their requirements.

…and the right offering for your academics

At the heart of any HEI are the academics. Understand their motivations, the vision for their research and how they want to connect with external opportunities. Business engagement is just one strand in their professional lives and it is important for us to get a thorough understanding of time pressures, what can be fitted into their overall academic endeavour and their capacity to collaborate and increase the reach and significance of their research.

As knowledge exchange professionals it is important that we demonstrate the value add we can provide as experts in developing business. Build relationships based on mutual respect so that robust conversations can take place to make sure everyone has the same focus.

Collaborate, co-create and be part of the right internal structure

It is important to understand how HEIs operate, with their own backdrop and pressures, alongside the multiplicity of identities that anchor institutions have – there are MANY publics, from the local community, government bodies both regional and national, through to global multi-national corporates.

“it’s important to understand the power of co-creation and collaboration”

Business engagement needs to connect across all these areas. Work with your alumni relations and your research support services – it’s important to understand the power of co-creation and collaboration.

There are many cross overs and multi-disciplinary opportunities and by not rigorously focusing on your own team targets but on bigger picture goals, great things can happen. For example, an open approach with team members collaborating across the different research revenue streams have ended in multi-million pound awards from industry for Research Centres, with strong philanthropic elements and closer ties to government bodies. It is easy to operate in silos in a large, complex organisation but it is the power of networking and connecting that unlocks potential and leads to large scale strategic opportunities.

What about your team’s place in the overall University structure? Who do you report in to and does it provide effective feedback and visibility to ensure you get the senior level advocacy for long term business engagement? Advocacy and buy in from the top is crucial for successful industry engagement.

Communication is key

Engagement with industry, academics and professional services at every level is critical for long lasting, strategic business partnerships. Use all communications channels available, from industry events, University networking receptions through to your digital presence. Leverage online communications to engage with your audience and make your approach, offering and outcomes tangible and accessible for all.

In addition, play your part within the ecosystem. Be active members of organisations, such as the NCUB and Praxis Auril and participate in key industry bodies, such as the Chambers of Commerce, CBI, or the Federation of Small Businesses.

Ensure reciprocity

Deliver outcomes that are mutually beneficial. Over the longer term, this may change as business needs and University offerings develop. The business engagement team needs to be very adaptable and have a sharp focus on the external environment to ensure they pick up the key factors in the changing landscape for both sides to modify core offerings accordingly.

Enjoy it!

A truly successful business engagement team marries the needs of the University and its mission along with the key strategic requirements of industry. They know and understand the external environment as well as the internal pressures on HEIs; they are focused on helping businesses solve issues and drive innovation; they are expert, they are resilient and creative, and I am proud to call them my colleagues.