If you want a change, make a change – a triangular perspective on knowledge transfer

Helene Fast Seefeldt

Stine Topp

At University of Southern Denmark (SDU), the outreach and social engagement activities mainly used to be organised in a team of business consultants having the outbound focus, and a team of career counsellors with an inbound focus. The approach to knowledge transfer and outreach activities was very much form the employer’s point of view. The companies in the region had a recruitment need or wanted to engage with students in order to develop and grow their business. Many initiatives were developed to engage students and companies, however the parties often had different views of the purpose with the collaboration, and therefore it was difficult to meet in an equal collaboration. This approach turned out to be very unilateral, as it was often difficult to engage the students. The gatekeeper was in many cases the academic departments that found the activities between students and companies uncoupled from the academic scope.

In 2016, a new centralized organisation of outreach activities was launched at SDU that lead to a new mindset of knowledge transfer. In the new organisation all activities are takes its starting point in the academic foundation and shall strengthen the academic departments in their research, education and employability skills of students. The new organisation arose because of a new strategy at the university to enhance the social engagement in the region, as well as strengthening the academic departments research and teaching. Due to national cutbacks in academic programmes with high unemployment rate, a new incentive evolved among the academic departments to ensure the student employability. Simultaneously, the political agenda in Denmark focused on enhancing student employability, ensuring human capital and supporting especially the small and medium sized companies (SMEs).

The new organisation SDU Research and Innovation Organisation (SDU-RIO) is comprised of the career services, employer & student engagement, business alliances, the entrepreneurial centre and the commercialisation and legal team. The RIO-vision is ‘We create value for and together with society’. The We refer not only to the RIO department but to all the academic departments at SDU. The change of organisation and vision, changed the mindset from a unilateral to triangular mindset encompassing the students, the academics and the companies/society. Hence, in formation of new knowledge transfer activities, the value creation for each of the three stakeholders are considered.

To succeed with the vision and transforming the mindset into successful actions and collaborations, new ways of working emerged. Previously, many resources were spent on identifying companies need and to couple it with the students need, and less time was spent on the academic departments and their benefits. Currently, a majority of resources are allocated to establish relations with the academics and to build an understanding of their field and scopes in regard to their research as well as their teaching. SDU-RIO facilitates finding the interfaces between the academic scope and the company needs, and develop meaningful activities based on this interface. The alignment of expectations with three stakeholders included is crucial and much effort is spent on this task. The dialogue with the academic department includes the management but just as much the individual lecturer. It is important not to overload the academic department with apparently more work, but support their scope and efforts and show them new possibilities to reach the scope. Within a relatively short time period, the academic department has changed their view on SDU-RIO from being an (sometimes disturbing) irrelevant appendix to be an equal collaborator. As a centralized department SDU RIO covers all five faculties of the university, however this new organisation has also led to a focus on academic departments that previously not have had a tradition to work closely together with society and companies.

Successful activities have so far emerged in various ways: Throughout the university, academic programmes are now offering Career Management Skills (CMS) in which career learning is taught co-curricular and integrated with relations to the society/companies e.g. in the form of mentees, placements or experiments in companies. The effect is an enhanced number of students with a job just after graduation, and CMS has led to many new activities with the academic departments involved. Another initiative, called KOMPAS, is an EU-funded programme for SMEs managed by SDU-RIO, that offers a range of free courses for SMEs on e.g. HR, stress management, social media etc, where the academic departments have made the content and SDU RIO has facilitated the meetings. The outcome of these courses was new relations established between the academic departments and the companies for the benefit of students and research, and that the department afterwards turned the courses into short-term paid courses. The last example is SDU-RIO facilitated innovation camps, where SDU-RIO brings together a company with a case and an academic department (lecturers and students) to work on the case. The knowledge transfer is multisided as students get a company perspective on their field of study, the lecturer gets contacts with potential research partners or can use the company for obtaining data etc and the company gets a problem solved and meet potential employees.

The change of organisation and mindset about knowledge transfer and societal engagement has changed the engagement and collaboration within the university for the benefit of the academic departments, the students and the regional companies, as the focus is now on a triangular value creation.