Achieving successful external engagement in the face of budget, staff and strategic challenges

Lack of budget, absence of strategy, shortage of staff and short-term thinking are the top challenges faced by professional services staff in business schools from a new report published by Roe Communications, CarringtonCrisp and EFMD Global.

The report provides insights into the biggest challenges (pre- and post-COVID), the skills needed, budget expenditure and the channels that professional services staff in external relations, communications, marketing, alumni, international and external relations are using to communicate with their audiences.

Professional services staff manage a wide and critical range of strategic activities within business schools and have played a vital role in helping schools’ visibility, reputation and engagement during COVID-19. Despite all of this, they are often seen as the ‘poor relation’ to academic services – and this became very clear within the report.

Lack of budget is clearly the biggest challenge faced by professional services staff, highlighted by 47% of the survey respondents. Over half (55%) of the respondents said that their budget had either stayed the same or been reduced over the last three years. Looking forward, 75% revealed that they expected their budget to either stay the same or decrease over the next three years.

When asked about the most important challenges facing them and their team at present, one respondent replied: “Reinventing the way we do things, in the most effective and professional way, with heavy budget constraints.”

There is a sense from respondents that under-resourcing is both a symptom and a cause of short-term thinking – and it’s taking a heavy toll on creativity. Too often stakeholder engagement is considered a tactical rather than strategic activity

The problem of balancing tactical and strategic activity is highlighted by the respective 39% and 36% of survey respondents who indicated that either too much short-term thinking or the absence of a clear strategy for their institution are among their greatest challenges.

As one respondent put it: “Too many projects and to-dos for a much too small team – creativity suffers.”

Many respondents also referenced internal conflict – either with other departments or with their parent university. One in five respondents (20%) said that one of their challenges was academics who don’t value their contribution, whilst 16% cited “conflicting objectives” as a barrier to their work.

Despite all of this, and the ongoing difficulties posed by COVID-19, external engagement is crucial for a business school that wants to maintain or grow its reputation and student numbers. Against this backdrop, what can professional services departments do to achieve their goals now?

Balance short-term needs with longer-term considerations

Schools need to consider how they can be effective in a crisis and build their longer-term plans. All too often, effort is focused on projects championed by the people who shout the loudest, even if these are not important strategically. Certainly, professional services teams should be at the centre of any strategic engagement with stakeholders.

Prove ROI

Raising the profile of professional services teams internally depends on communicating the benefits that these teams deliver. Teams need to have data that makes their case, clearly setting out the impact of their activities and spending, and the return they generate on the school’s priorities.

Get aligned internally

While much activity may be focused externally on international partners, alumni, corporates and prospective students, it is the internal audience, such as faculty, who are the key to raising the profile of professional services teams. Understanding the underlying deeper needs and pressures of faculty and other colleagues is key to building effective relationships.

Don’t stand still

Communication tools, particularly digital, constantly evolve and it’s clear that channels such as Instagram are highly influential amongst prospective students. Professional teams need to be experts to make the most of social media for their school. It’s essential to have a strategy for each channel that targets the right audience with the right content at the right time, focusing on engagement rather than broadcasting.

Build clear brand differentiation

Being known for something and clearly communicating the value of that brand to a variety of audiences is not easy, but the benefit for an institution is immense. Being able to draw on a clear strategic purpose in times of uncertainty can help grow an organisation’s effectiveness in terms of the actions it takes, the money it spends and the returns it achieves.

Develop talent

Whether it’s informal or formal, professional services staff need more opportunities to develop their skills, especially new skills in fields such as social media, data analytics and CRM which are going to be increasingly in demand.

Collaborate across industry

Fundamentally, we all play a role in supporting each other through these difficult times. There is much to be learnt from the experiences of different business schools. Higher education has always had a collaborative streak running through it and sharing of knowledge and experience is now more important than ever.

To download the full report, click HERE.