What interventions should universities implement to increase their diversification or specialization in knowledge exchange?

Knowledge exchange (KE) — the exchange of ideas and expertise between researchers and wider groups and communities — has become an increasingly important university mission. Yet, there is limited research on how universities adapt their KE activities to achieve their objectives — including income growth, reputation, prestige, and visibility. There is also limited knowledge of how university management can implement interventions to enact such strategic changes.

In our paper, “Implementing strategic changes in universities’ knowledge exchange profiles: the role and nature of managerial interventions”, we analyse what kinds of interventions are associated with greater diversification, or conversely greater specialization, in universities’ knowledge exchange profiles. We define KE profiles both in terms of the range of different KE channels that the university uses, and of the different external stakeholders it engages with.

The study

For our empirical analysis, we identified 34 UK universities that exhibited significant changes, over the previous eight years, in their use of KE channels and engagement with different KE stakeholders. In our sample, universities followed three possible patterns:

  • KE profile diversification, where universities broadened their range of KE channels and/or KE stakeholders, leading to a more balanced KE portfolio;
  • KE profile specialization, where universities became increasingly specialized in certain KE channels and/or in engaging with certain KE stakeholders;
  • KE profile reorientation, where universities changed the mix of KE channels in which they engaged, or the mix of KE stakeholders with whom they worked, without substantially changing their overall degree of specialization or diversification.

Out of the 34 universities in the sample, KE managers at twelve universities agreed to be interviewed. Interview transcripts were then complemented with secondary evidence, primarily documents describing the universities’ KE strategies. We analysed this data through a combination of thematic content analysis and qualitative comparative analysis.

What motivates universities to change their Knowledge Exchange profiles?

We found that different changes in KE profiles were driven by different motivations. Universities appeared to use KE specialization to increase efficiency in the face of competing demands from policymakers and limited resources to deal with them, by building on what they were already doing well. KE diversification was driven by universities’ wish to insulate themselves against any negative impacts of external events, particularly drops in the number of students enrolled and in the corresponding tuition fee income. Universities that reoriented their KE profiles were mainly searching for new opportunities in response to the drying up of previous sources of funding, or following the emergence of unexpected new opportunities.

What interventions were associated to different changes in Knowledge Exchange profiles?

In terms of the interventions that universities implemented to support the different strategies, we found broad consistency with the expectations of levers of control (LOC) theory (Simons, 1994, 1995). On the one hand, universities that pursued a diversification strategy needed to encourage staff at all levels to explore new opportunities and to act upon them. Therefore they implemented ‘belief control system’ interventions designed to align the objectives of all staff with the organization’s overall strategy, as well as ‘interactive control system’ interventions that opened up organizational dialogue to encourage learning. Conversely, universities that pursued a diversification strategy needed to focus on specific KE channels and stakeholders. Hence, they implemented ‘boundary control system’ interventions, such as support systems designed to promote engagement in specific KE activities and with specific stakeholders. They also implemented ‘diagnostic control system’ interventions, such as identifying clear targets and measuring their achievement. Universities that reoriented their KE profiles implemented a mix of interventions.

The following table shows the types of managerial interventions that were discussed in our interviews and how they can be associated, on the one hand, to the four main categories of interventions present in the LOC theory, and, on the other hand, to the corresponding patterns of changes in KE profiles.

Types of control systems interventionsTypes of interventionsKE strategy with which interventions are associated
Belief system interventionsCentral KE strategyDiversification
Departmental KE strategyDiversification, Reorientation
Strategic importance of KEDiversification
Creating awareness of KEDiversification
Interactive control systems interventionsCareer incentives for academicsDiversification, Reorientation
Other incentives for academicsDiversification, Reorientation
Incentives for initiativesDiversification, Reorientation
Best practices in KEDiversification, Reorientation
Boundary control systems interventionsGeneral support for KESpecialization
Seminars/workshopsSpecialization, Reorientation
Strategies to encourage collaborationSpecialization
Strategies to encourage interdisciplinaritySpecialization
Diagnostic control systems interventionsIncentives for managersSpecialization, Reorientation

What are the implications of the study for university managers?

This study has some practical implications for university managers. Those aiming for KE diversification could try to recruit all parts of the institution in supporting this pattern of change: for example, taking a centralized approach to KE strategizing and creating awareness around the strategic importance of KE. They could also try to facilitate the exploration of new areas of engagement; for example, incentivizing academics at all levels to engage in KE. Those aiming for KE specialization could implement targeted interventions to support and mentor academics already engaged in specific KE channels or with specific stakeholders. They could also set performance targets aligned with those activities and benchmarking their performance. Finally, managers aiming to reorient their universities’ KE profiles would need to shift their institutions’ focuses from certain KE channels and stakeholders to others. As such, they could focus any exploratory activities aimed at seeking new opportunities in specific directions rather than widely.

For more information you can read the full paper:

Rossi, F. and A. Sengupta (2022) “Implementing strategic changes in universities’ knowledge exchange profiles: the role and nature of managerial interventions”, Journal of Business Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2022.02.055. The article is free to download until April 12, 2022, using this link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0148296322001746?dgcid=author  


This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi and Dr Abhijit Sengupta