“…a hugely positive, valuable opportunity.”
If you’ve been left high and dry following the cancellation of a training course or sector event then put some of that time already earmarked for professional development to good use and read IP Pragmatic’s interim review of the 18 Connecting Capability Fund projects, which was published last week.
Not only will you feel a warm glow as you read this very positive report, reflecting on the achievements of so many dedicated KE professionals and their partners, but you’ll be encouraged to reflect on how many of the learning outcomes – even at this early stage – can be taken back into your day-to-day role. They’ll also get you thinking about how you could get involved with an existing project, or prompt you to draft a bid for future rounds.
In this blog, I wanted to focus on what the review might mean for PraxisAuril particularly through its missions to develop, promote, and connect KE professionals and other organisations involved in KE activities.
Connect - Creating a ‘meta-capability’ resource
The first role that the review suggests for PraxisAuril is as a CCF knowledge repository:
“These resources will grow and mature as the projects develop, providing a rich source of reference materials, and efforts should be made to ensure that these resources are maintained after the close of the CCF scheme. For example, there may be a role for PraxisAuril in providing a repository for this material.” (p34)
Many of our members are involved with the CCFs, have spoken about them at our 2019 conference and continue to engage through a PraxisAuril supported jisc-list. But I would go further and say we should provide a ‘one-stop’ showcase for the projects so that they’re easy to find and engage with (rather like the Innovate UK Catapults’ home page). This would give them a better ‘Promote’ platform so that collective achievements, learning outcomes, and links to KE policy can be clearly articulated and communicated.
Develop - Next generation KE professionals
This comment in the review struck me quite forcibly (my bold):
“Several interviewees commented that they found these projects to be much more truly collaborative than other projects they have come across in the HEI sector. Maybe this is because they are driven by KE professionals, whose jobs involve creating connections, rather than academics, who are used to working under the pressures of inter-HEI rivalry and achievements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).” (p.40)
But the report notes earlier, with a footnote to PraxisAuril’s 2017 KE professionals survey, that there is “still a shortage of good quality, well trained KE practitioners within the sector, as well as established career pathways.”
These combined findings present an opportunity for PraxisAuril but also lay down a challenge. The KE professional role is in the spotlight, but are we providing the sufficient support for the profession through training and development? Do we have a good understanding of how people find their first job in KE and can we see clear career pathways? These are clearly questions that we need to consider carefully and respond to by using our knowledge of training needs and recruitment patterns.
The CCF projects offer different ways of training project staff. I particularly like the staff exchange approach. Just like learning a new language, the quickest and ‘stickiest’ way to learn is through total immersion. Staff exchanges will build understanding of different working and HEI cultures and build professional bonds. These endure beyond the placement.
Shared problem solving via ad hoc discussion groups is also valued. This is a facility that our jisc-lists provide and is well-used by members. By posing a question to the group members can get a variety of answers and sometimes challenges. Participants are a trusted group and response time is quick. The fact that we are currently obliged to mange discussions remotely may make this a more frequent mode of interaction.
Promote - Raising the profile of KE: influencing policy and funding
In a previous blog I observed that KE is still a relative newcomer on the HE block. Yes, in the world of PraxisAuril and our stakeholders it’s the most exciting and significant activity a university can do but HEIF is still a pretty small budget, comparatively, and not all universities value – or perceive the value of – KE in the same way. But change is afoot because of the KE Concordat, where KE is being taken directly to senior leaders. The forthcoming ‘radical’ review of HEIF is likely to make that particular budget line a more high-level talking point too. The CCF’s will be an important evidence base for the effectiveness of KE in terms of internal outcomes on KE leadership, research roles, and administrative processes. The review notes that:
“With higher direct involvement [in CCF projects] at the PVC/VC level, the challenges and risks associated with KE should become better understood, as well as the benefits being more widely recognised.” (p.42)
The review also clearly makes the case for project funding as an “additive” to non-hypothecated and regular funding, rather than a substitution. Project-based funding is important and the CCFs are demonstrating just how valuable it can be in terms of providing a focus, but without the underpinning capacity already in place, funded by HEIF, some of these projects would never have got off the ground in the first place:
“HEIF funding is an essential mechanism to provide the fundamental services and facilities that enable the organisations to manage their individual KE activities. Without this underpinning capability, they would not be in a position to benefit from the additional activities and collaborations that CCF has funded.” (p42)
PraxisAuril has written many times about the importance of secure and long-term funding that enables HEIs to plan strategically but also be ready to respond (be both ‘mission-led’ and prepared for ‘moon-shots', to adopt current terminology). The CCFs illustrate that point well.
We also support diversity of KE activity: recognising the importance of spin-outs, a frequent focus of scrutiny, but emphasising the value of many other activities. The CCF projects are a showcase for the full breadth of KE dynamics, often used in combination to create maximum impact:
“The programme as a whole makes a very interesting collection of the breadth and challenges of KE…As such, the CCF programme can be seen as a successful showcase for HEI KE activity. Greater understanding can only lead to better aligned policy decisions.” (p.42, my emphasis)
This is so important. The CCF projects provide multiple crucibles of KE activity, exemplifying the skills and creativity of our members and demonstrating the kinds of challenges they face, but also what can be achieved through KE.
The sum of the parts? Enhancing KE culture
A finding that could be significant for KE culture overall, I think, is the observation of the Bloomsbury Set CCF that KE can form a “continuum with academic endeavour, rather than being a “bolted-on” service” (p40). This is significant because we know that academics cite ‘lack of time’ as the biggest barrier to KE. If KE is presented as a stand-alone activity then that barrier is much harder to overcome. If it is treated as an activity integral to research and/or teaching then the barrier is reduced: KE becomes part and parcel of existing activity. And of course, by bringing academics into a CCF team you build bonds by working towards common goals. This sounds obvious, but anyone who has worked in HE knows that sometimes the academic / non-academics borders can be hard to overcome. KE professionals have a license – a requirement even – to cross borders and understand the academic perspective. It is a hugely rewarding part of the role. The objectives of CCF projects set shared goals and I expect that these role boundaries will start to become blurred as projects develop. Here we might find that CCFs influence promotional criteria and researcher career pathways too.
A no less important piece of learning will be around HEI-to-HEI collaborative working and agreements. This can be hard. HEI partners that have not worked together before will face the same cultural and administrative challenges as two companies that are new to joint-working. If those HEIs are different in size and resource, as many CCF partners are, then those challenges are compounded. At PraxisAuril we push back at calls to have a sector-wide approach to IP arrangements because so much is contextual to the HEI concerned. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be more alignment between administrative processes that have their own professional standards and shared terminologies. The CCF timescales have probably forced some pretty rapid solution finding in this respect and the ‘mission-led’ nature of the projects can help: this is the project, this is the timescale, these are the issues – now how do we make it happen? The review finds that “In some CCFs, the central services are…collaborating to ensure that they are working together to address the issues raised by CCF activities.” (p.41)
The CCF projects are funded until March 2021. Not every project will manage to achieve all of the desired outcomes, but with every ‘mission’ or ‘moon-shot’ there will be learning outcomes and individual participants will have their professional horizons changed as a result of participating. If the final review of this funding initiative lives up to the promise of the interim review then I hope that follow-on funding will be made available so that projects can bid to continue their work. There seems little value in cutting successful projects off at the knees, particularly given the challenges of getting going for some.
So let’s celebrate the success of the CCF projects to date, share their learning, and support their further development. At PraxisAuril we're certainly looking forward to a continued role in the CCF story: developing individuals, promoting project outcomes, and connecting all the parts to illuminate the whole.