This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Lynn Martin, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Anglia Ruskin University, and is part of the current series of blogs with NCEE.
University leaders are expected to be able to respond to considerable changes in the socio-economic environment, as seen in the past through economic crises and during the COVID pandemic. Are you agile in strategic decision-making and entrepreneurial in carrying out your strategy?
An entrepreneurial leader recognises an opportunity and makes it happen by sharing their vision, engaging and securing the support of others to discover and exploit strategic value creation. Excellent communication skills mean sharing visionary scenarios leads to mobilisation of resources to make them happen, not only with internal staff but also drawing in partners, regionally or nationally.
This visionary, creative and flexible leader – highly tolerant of both risks and ambiguity and with a great deal of autonomy – is often seen in studies of universities in very large cities. The discussion appears to assume there will be the same types of opportunties and the same level of internal resources wherever the university is located – and the same level of regional and national support to make them happen. A growing body of research on the entrepreneurial context and the impacts of location suggest otherwise.
Outside of large cities, universities may not be in the ‘cool places’ where ‘hot industries’ thrive (as seen in studies during the growth of Silicon Valley, for instance). Underpopulated rural areas or places with severe resource constraints, including poor transport links and low or unreliable broadband access, offer a different context.
Resource constraints may also include low funding and influence, declining local population and a struggling private sector. Connectivity issues are particularly impactful due to online learning coupled with persistent digital divides, not only in developing countries but also in the UK and the USA, with recent studies showing severe US locational gaps in bandwidth and quality of service.
Hence, a university leader in a resource-constrained location may struggle to be entrepreneurial. How do you share a vision with local partners if they do not have access to resources and are focused on day-to-day struggles? First steps might include improving your range of communication skills and methods and identifying the big picture as a way to shape and refine your vision, especially opportunities and resources needed.
One useful approach here is the university version of the Business Model Canvas used on the NCEE Entrepreneurial Leaders Programme which captures these aspects and others to provide a big picture version (literally an A3 sized poster). Recent users of this approach in the UK and overseas found that it allowed participants to identify new opportunities – and new ways to make them happen, especially if it is created in partnership locally, regionally or nationally.
Before you start that though, work out what sort of entrepreneurial style you might have and the impacts of your location – the properties, qualities and challenges it offers – and how to lever advantage from the picture which emerges.