University-Industry Engagement Week

Western Michigan U adopts new process for building more strategic partnerships

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: September 26th, 2023

A detailed article on Western Michigan University’s overhaul of its corporate engagement activities, and its use of new processes and tools as part of that effort, appears in the September issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

Looking to create a cohesive framework for industry engagement and strategic partnerships, Western Michigan University undertook a multi-year effort to overhaul its entire system, an overhaul that includes a new website and software, the formation of a new team, and a proprietary valuation tool for the assessment of companies wanting to work with the university.

Unveiled in April at the Southwest Michigan Corporate Leadership Breakfast, the new method replaces the disjointed, if earnest, framework of the past in which a university representative might meet with a company, only to realize that another university employee or department had already met with the company and had discussed basically the same thing. Lisa Garcia, assistant vice president for community partnerships and corporate engagement team leader at WMU, is all too familiar with this common mishap.

“Those of us who are doing this work in corporate engagement, before we started this overhaul, would go into a business and talk about what we could do with them and find out at the meeting that they were already working with another entity on campus,” she says. “There wasn’t a good communication strategy. The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”

This kind of scenario, which can be quite embarrassing for a university and confusing for a company, is not unique to WMU. And it’s understandable, too, given the silos, complexities, and staff turnover that exist on both sides of the academic and corporate worlds. But as universities continue to turn over stones as they reconsider their corporate engagement strategies, WMU’s example could be instructive.

The university adopted the UNITE 5 model, a five-phase process that each company is taken through. The model comes from the Columbus-OH-based industry partnering and training firm UNITE, started by two Ohio State corporate engagement practitioners — Christy Bertolo and Chis Svek — to solve what they call “fundamental and systemic problems” they experienced and overcame in their time at the university.

Each of the five phases takes WMU closer to a more strategic engagement with the company. The first phases involve learning more about the partner’s priorities and challenges, the later phases involve things like creating an internal engagement team — which can include deans, faculty, research managers, advancement, and career services — to determine how WMU can best work with the company based on identified priorities and challenges. The last phase involves creating a formal strategic engagement plan that will be used to work with the company moving forward. A single corporate engagement manager serves as the point person for the company throughout the process.

The UNITE valuation tool, a proprietary tool also created by UNITE, utilizes two basic charts, broken into quadrants, that measure Current Engagement and Future Opportunities. Factors measured on the Current Engagement side are intern hiring, full-time hiring, experiential learning, job fairs, research agreements, continuing education, and philanthropic giving. The level of engagement begins at Cultivating, in the bottom left quadrant, and ends at the desired destination, Strategic, in the top right quadrant. That same chart also measures and compares the benefits both entities are getting out of the relationship, with an eye toward balancing those benefits equally. Again, the goal is to arrive at the Strategic quadrant, where both partners are gaining solid returns on the partnership.

The Future Opportunities chart, using the same quadrants, assesses the partnership trajectory with a focus on identifying greater engagement opportunities with career services, career fairs, professional development courses, and research with WMU’s Office of Research and Innovation. As with the first chart, the ideal destination on the second chart is Strategic, with both the university and the company gaining as much mutual benefit as possible.

The corporate engagement managers take each company through the UNITE process, which includes meeting with company representatives. They take everything they learn in terms of campus engagement — things a company wants and doesn’t want to do — and use that information to form an engagement team, which includes relevant faculty and staff. The team then creates the engagement plan and presents it to the company. That plan, which requires follow ups at least once every two months, then becomes the roadmap for the ongoing relationship between WMU and the partnering company.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week