Universities are big organisations with a whole range of interests and expertise on offer. The USA alone has 1.5-million faculty: that’s larger than the populations of at least 80 global nations. In the UK, universities employ about 225,000 academics – which is 45,000 more than a decade ago. Academia is a large and growing global ‘industry’.

If you’re responsible for external relations, communications, marketing, civic engagement, knowledge exchange – or any other aspect of external engagement or “connectedness” in a university or college – then the ability to choose which faculty experts you selectively promote and publicise is a very tough gig. I’ve had first hand experience of this because  I was once in that very position – trying to keep up with the opportunities and the expectations afforded by even the 800 academics at just one such mid-sized UK institution.

The get-out is that universities now start to formulate “grand challenges” or “beacons of excellence” – drawing together as many areas of research expertise under (usually) three or four headings which act as token clusters for focus and prioritisation. This approach doesn’t really work. In reality, it doesn’t generate enough precision of expertise and it actually helps more with internal politics than with external resonance.

Profile-raising selectivity is a challenge that I’ve been acutely aware of for the higher education sector – and I’ve now decided to do something about. I’ve started to work with several universities on what I refer to as a “faculty expertise audit”. This is a process designed to inject and instil a form of prioritisation as to which areas of research expertise and which specialist experts are selected to work with the most, set against the limits of resources and capacity that universities have available to support “expertise marketing” when faced with the full range of experts.

At the heart of this more targeted audit approach is return-on-investment and value-for-efforts. The starting point is: Where is the money? Where is the demand? You have to look (very hard and in detail) at the next three to five years (the typical cycle of research investment and university strategies) and simply identify which expertise is most likely to solve the problems and consequential explorations that governments, businesses, benefactors, and public organisations will want to fund.

I’m not saying that research areas without such sizeable levels of predicted investment should be ignored – far from it – but we are in a competitive climate and universities simply have to secure ‘orders’ (for applied and contracted expertise) that will allow institutional sustainability and success. In turn, that success will allow investment in other areas that are socially vital but financially a weaker bet as regarded by the paymasters.

Having proven where research funding is most available, pressing and externally directed, then the audit is designed to set about tracking down and matching the institution’s research talent to this requirement.  These audits involve shortlisting and then enlisting (and coaching) the appropriate academic experts – through one-to-one sessions that lead to expertise marketing plans. They act as a shared roadmap for where the university and the academic both want to take their expertise.

A large part of this roadmap covers off creating and maximising sustained content, online presence and discoverability of the academic in order to stimulate inbound opportunities. Keeping online academic profiles fresh, content-rich, jargon-free, and compelling makes the job of expert ‘mining’ so much easier.

By adopting this auditing practice, the academic is happy (they have a plan and sense of dedication), the university is happy (it is able to focus and prioritise its expertise in an evidence-based manner), and the outside work is happy (it draw on the expertise that is most in need).

Justin Shaw is Chief Higher Education Consultant at Communications Management


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