Linking stakeholder engagement and strategy in Universities

2013-01-30 19.21.45

written by Carol Adams

A review of strategic planning documents on University websites reveals that few pay more than lip service to key contemporary sustainability challenges and risks.  When they do the focus tends to be on operational issues and infrastructure rather than education, research and community engagement.

Linked to this stakeholder engagement in Universities tends to be somewhat haphazard and ad hoc. And indeed it is a particular challenge in this sector. University Offices, Faculties, Schools and even individual academics have their own key stakeholders and they often compete for their attention, input and resources.

Universities are complex organisations, but not unique in being so. Given the importance of stakeholder engagement to their reputation and success, there are benefits in developing a more coordinated, responsive and proactive approach learning from other sectors.

While universities focus on energy saving to reduce emissions and cost, it is in education and research, their core business, that they have a key role in adaptation.

In the business world, stakeholder engagement is the cornerstone to developing strategy, particularly in connection with sustainability.

If universities were to embrace stakeholder engagement, they would more readily identify

  • relevant research topics, data/case study sources and funding,
  • courses that employers need and students want,
  • ways in which alumni can help, and
  • ways to effectively influence thinking and behaviour towards more sustainable practices at home and at work.

Despite the absence of sustainability from many University strategic planning documents there is evidence of activity in teaching and research emerging from the ‘grass roots’ (see for example http://sustainability.edu.au/). In the absence of a strategic push these efforts are somewhat unlinked and unsystematic.

So what is the link between developing a systematic approach to stakeholder engagement, incorporating sustainability thinking into University strategy and being able to deliver on strategy?

  1. Identifying stakeholder concerns is likely to identify opportunities, benefits and barriers to incorporating sustainability into strategy.
  2. A systematic approach (for example, as set out in the UNEP/AA100 Stakeholder Engagement Manuals) to identifying who your key stakeholders makes for a relevant and contemporary strategy and identifies risks to achieving it.
  3. Being attuned to stakeholder expectations increases the chances of delivering on strategy.

The approach to engaging stakeholders should consider what their stake is, what their key concerns and expectations are and address how you communicate with them (see, for example Creating Futures page 13).

There is a significant body of research which shows that companies which require a social licence to operate pay more attention to disclosing their social and environmental sustainability credentials and their impact on local economies.  This typically involves reporting on performance, setting targets and developing plans which are made public.  This process requires stakeholder engagement and drives performance improvements.  Universities are one of the worst sectors at this as demonstrated by the miniscule number of University sustainability reports included on the Global Reporting Initiative and Corporate Register databases.

Some of the best innovations arise from cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams.  This is a particular challenge for Universities where budget models, leadership styles and territorial cultures first need to be addressed. Universities often lack mechanisms to facilitate multi-disciplinary research and course development.

Tools and resources for embedding sustainability in universities:

Note added 3rd July 2013:  There is a discussion on this post started by Jacqui Martin on the Australian Higher Education LinkedIn Group here

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