Selling Ourselves


A little while back I had an interesting Twitter exchange with Sheffield Hallam’s Aline Hayes which started as a question about universities collaborating in a commercial way that set me to thinking (and cursing the 140 character limit in Twitter).

Could Universities (individually, but perhaps collaboratively) find and service a commercial market for, to pick an area close to home, IT services?

For example – web hosting, co-location, storage (cloud or traditional), consultation, PMO, business systems (i.e. Finance, HR) etc… These are all things that we do ourselves in universities to varying degrees (and yes, depending on who you ask, with varying degrees of success).

So could we make these services available to the private sector, in the same way existing commercial providers already do? How might we go about doing it? And is it even desirable to do so in the first place?

It certainly feels practicable, albeit with no small amount of risk (perhaps not a terribly popular notion at a time when there’s risk aplenty in higher education at the moment).

From a technology point of view “tin is tin” (despite what suppliers try to tell you!). Service capacity can (should!) be planned for. Connectivity for 3rd parties would likely be a trickier proposition (and is something of a prerequisite), but commercial bandwidth doesn’t come with the same heart-stopping price tag it did when I started working in IT.

I think the challenges sit in two areas – process and business.

Having the right processes in place for everything from taking support calls to managing capacity will be vital, just as it is for private sector providers and more so than it is seen now by some in HE. Staff and students, at least in some of the places I’ve worked, are forgiving of (and the more cynical even expect) an element of amateurism from IT. That’s an attitude that hopefully shouldn’t survive the renewed focus on the student experience – but it certainly wouldn’t survive more than 30 seconds out in the “real world”. An angry student or academic can be placated – an angry business will cost actual money and actual reputation.

The “business” bit of the puzzle is perhaps the trickiest (and most critical). It would be a new way of thinking for many, but the good news is that the expertise to find opportunities, develop relationships and convert leads into actual business already exists in most Universities.

As we collectively struggle to attract the brightest youngsters, student recruitment is rapidly becoming an art, rather than a half-hearted marketing exercise. As research incomes dwindle and the focus of funding moves towards activities with “impact”, it is the Universities who are most successful at turning what they do into real-world products and spin-out companies who will lead the pack. The people masterminding these activities are the people best placed to help define (what are we good at) and develop (how can we make this marketable and sellable) offerings, find opportunities and convert them into actual business.

It might also finally be a reason to brush off those ITIL Service Strategy books!

I’m well over my word count, but there’s one more question to answer: is any of this desirable?

There is the potential for several positive outcomes:

  • Income;
  • Engagement with local business and community;
  • Extra efficiencies of scale;
  • Developing particular services to a very high standard and scale – “Centre of Excellence”;
  • Regional and national reputation;
  • Student placement/teaching opportunities;
  • Professional development opportunities…

It strikes me there’s something for everyone there, from IT (all levels) to Finance Directors to VCs.

But there are risks, to say nothing of an inevitable requirement for some initial investment in people and potentially equipment – “you have to speculate to accumulate”, after all. Not that listing the pros and cons really answers the question of desirability…

Selling the whole notion of providing services to the private sector will be the traditional exercise in demonstrating benefits and providing reassurances that risks have been considered and mitigated. But the fundamental question which needs considering at an organisational level, perhaps even before anything I’ve discussed up to now is considered, is this – Does becoming a service provider fit (or at least not clash) with current strategy? If it’s a fit (and there’s the executive appetite for it) then it should be investigated.

If it doesn’t fit, then move on. Or maybe your strategy needs a refresh!


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