A very little key will open a heavy door.”
– Charles Dickens, ‘Hunted Down’.
How do universities galvanise action toward the achievement of their chosen directions?
With the implications of changing natures of workforces, the rise of innovation and entrepreneurship and burgeoning societal needs as the ‘north stars’ – those markers that help determine direction – universities must galvanise action toward the achievement of the chosen directions. This requires a strong sense of purpose that garners buy-in from all quarters of the university populace.
For universities, a true appreciation of purpose is engendered by an understanding of how benefits for society are derived. An elegant conceptual framework – the ‘spheres-of-impact’ – helps.
Spheres of Impact
The spheres-of-impact framework recognises that benefits from universities materialise in a consistent manner, irrespective of the myriad of differences that exist across internal and external environments.
Simply put, socio-economic benefits are derived through:
(1) the creation of education programs and research outcomes (‘academic impact’),
(2) the provision of programs, products or services to the community (let’s call this ‘collaborative impact’), and
(3) the utilisation of programs, products or services that create benefits (let’s call this ‘societal impact’).
Despite the vastness and diversity of internal and external environments, impact from universities manifests in this way: from academic impact, to collaborative impact, to societal impact (the ‘spheres-of-impact’).
For example, academic impact may involve an education program to improve numeracy in school children. Collaborative impact is reflected by the number of schools implementing the program. Societal impact is derived through factors such as improved numeracy skills, school outcomes, and increased productivity of graduates.
Let’s take another example. Academic impact may involve a vaccine candidate (quite topical in today’s world!). Collaborative impact is reflected by the number of people vaccinated. Societal impact is derived through factors such as reduced incidents and related health costs, improved quality of life and increased productivity.
Let’s take yet another example. Academic impact may involve a violence prevention program. Collaborative impact is reflected by the delivery by therapists to people in need. Societal impact is derived through reduced recidivism, lower public-system costs, improved productivity, and improved wellbeing and quality of life.
Whichever way you cut this, regardless of the diversity of fields – life sciences, social sciences, environmental sciences, physical sciences, the arts and so on – benefits materialise in this consistent manner.
But, let’s examine a little further. The spheres-of-impact framework reveals two further truisms.
First, if the potential for great societal impact is high, so too is the likelihood of collaborative impact from academic impact. For example, it is the profound societal benefits that a vaccine delivers, that justifies the long-term and at-risk investment in its development, testing, production and distribution. And again, whichever way you cut this, regardless of the diversity of fields, this proposition holds true.
Second, while the delivery of societal impact can be provided from within the confines of universities, partnerships and collaborations with third parties (viz., ‘collaborative impact’) are required to truly maximise societal impact. For example, without partnerships with biotech or pharmaceutical companies, governments and health organisations around the world, safe and efficacious vaccines would not get to those in need, and therefore societal impact would not manifest. And, yet again, whichever way you cut this, regardless of the diversity of fields, this proposition holds true.
Therefore, to deliver great benefits to society, the spheres-of-impact framework suggests that universities must first focus on the nature of significant societal needs. Only then, can resources be best directed toward developing solutions that address societal needs. And, universities must include in their solutions, those partners required to reach the most people in need.
Clearly it is the delivery of great socio-economic benefits for society, that provides a compelling reason for society’s investment in universities. To thrive, universities should therefore seek to continually maximise ‘societal impact’, from ‘academic impact’ through ‘collaborative impact’. This is the purpose of universities.
By determining who they serve (through steadfast sight of the north stars) and why doing so is important (through steadfast conviction in the spheres-of-impact framework), universities establish ‘intent’ – the first integral component of shaping organisational direction.
The next integral component of establishing organisational direction involves ‘focus’. This is established through an understanding of the knowledge-capital value chain and the discernment of an opportunity spectrum – topics touched upon in the next blogs.
If you are interested in finding out more about the spheres-of-impact framework, with examples illustrating the process of deriving socio-economic benefits from universities, you may wish to refer to my book.
So, is the spheres-of-impact framework interesting? Useful? Illuminating?
I hope so, and it’s just a taste of what you’ll learn about delivering great socio-economic benefits from the book, along with other powerful conceptual frameworks to build an organisation capable of doing so.
We need universities, together with their partners, to achieve great societal benefits in our much-challenged world. The moment to advance ‘spheres-of-impact’ is upon us. The book will help. A lot!
I look forward to our continued journey.
Nick & The University Imperative team.