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Dalhousie revamps industry engagement office, embraces transparency and standardization

By David Schwartz
Published: March 30th, 2021

A detailed article on Dalhousie U’s reorganization of its industry engagement office and its use of business process mapping appears in the March issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

“Streamlining” may be an easy term to describe the recent changes made by Dalhouisie University’s Office of Commercialization and Industry Engagement (OCIE) — changes that include its current name and a revamping of its website. But its leaders note that it was the transparent sharing of those changes, enabled by the redesigned website and the standardization of the ways the office approaches industry engagement, that truly embody the transformation of the office.

Formerly known as the Industry Liaison and Innovation (ILI) office, the corporate engagement unit of this Canadian university undertook a strategic review of operations in order to improve efficiency and enhance transparency around processes, procedures, and timelines. “The overarching goal is to continue to grow industry-sponsored research,” says Stephen Hartlen, assistant vice president for industry relations. “We’re all very busy, and there was some question as to whether we were as productive as we could be. We embarked on an exercise — pre-COVID — addressing processes and procedures to make them as streamlined, efficient, and transparent as possible.”

It was, he admits, tougher than he had anticipated. “Business process mapping is complicated,” he says.

Although challenging, the exercise was well worth it, notes Jolene MacEachern, manager of agriculture and aquaculture. “Knowing the process and having it work for you is so important; it gives you more time for liaison [with industry],” she says.

Before COVID travel restrictions were put in place, Hartlen recalls, the senior management team made “road trips” to McMaster University and the University of Toronto, which had much larger teams but had already embarked on business process mapping exercises. “We looked at how they mapped and the tools they used,” says Hartlen. “Then we looked at their websites and at what information and processes you were able to [view] online.”

They also reviewed the approaches at a number of other schools and incorporated “a little bit of everything from everywhere.”

One of the challenges, notes Hartlen, was that many of the processes in place had been there for a long time. “I heard ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,’ a lot,” he says, adding that one goal of the revamp was to simplify processes. “The biggest example was that all the managers seemed to have different processes they followed to do the same thing; there was no consistency in the office,” he observes. “Some were more productive — they had quicker ways of doing things — while others followed the way they were taught.”

The team hired an external consultant to help with the business process mapping. “We (a team of 10, plus Hartlen and the consultant) basically took a dozen or so business processes that we manage,” Hartlen reports. “We interviewed all the people associated [with the processes], including people outside the university, like partner organizations, as well as departments in financial services, legal associates, and marketing communications. Once the third party collected the information, we all sat in the board room and knocked off one process at a time, each of which typically took half a day.” Some of the items reviewed included NDAs, license agreements, research contracts, and CRAs.

One of the areas that stuck out, says MacEachern, was the signature and review process. “Everyone was doing it differently; legal would have to come back and ask clarifying questions,” she recalls. “Now, we have a checklist of all the things we have to review.” What the list includes, she explains, may not be as critical as its mere existence as a time saver. “It’s so simple; it seems minute, but it makes such a difference for the volume our legal folks see,” she says.

According to MacEachern, the process could be summarized as “the act of going through everything and checking all the bases. It seems so simple, but the value add was sitting at the table and learning, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’” Another benefit of the process, she notes, is being able to communicate and share these standards with new people as they are onboarded.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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