• Learning

Aston Goes Multi-Disciplinary in a Complex World

Combining business school and university-wide expertise to support innovation, creativity and capability development in organizations

Thursday 30 January 2020


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One of the greatest areas of focus for business school faculty right now, is around how businesses deal with their various stakeholders—or to use the mot du jour, their stakeholder ‘ecosystems’—how clients, employees, suppliers, regulators, and wider society, are all affected by the operations of a business.

This issue has recently come close to home for Aston University’s new Corporate Client Solutions team, within the centralised Research and Knowledge Exchange department. The team has taken on a new university-wide role, broadening its previous remit which had been solely within Aston’s Business School. Having operated an effective department for many years in the business school, where their program directors liaised closely with potential client organizations to understand their development needs, align those with their strategic needs, and then shape programs with Aston faculty expertise to deliver that—they now have the opportunity, and the challenge, of working with a much wider array of faculty from across the whole university. 

This is, without a doubt, a positive, beneficial step. Looking at organizational problems through a purely business school lens can have the effect of narrowing the obstacles and challenges, and more importantly the solutions and innovations, to thinking which is predominantly corralled within the core business school subject areas: strategy, finance, marketing, operations, leadership and organizational behaviour. While this covers a lot of ground, it inevitably precludes more technical fixes and crucially sectoral experience and perspectives that might come with exposing the conversation to the engineering, medical or life and health sciences and other faculties that can be needed to deliver tailored solutions.

Paul Butler, an Account Director at Aston CCS, is delighted with this new opportunity. “Working with the engineering school, for example, enables us to start bringing in their expertise. On a business school program, we might have run a project or program management workshops and modules, which would have been delivered by business school focused project management staff. But obviously linking into engineering, where they also do project management and program management, it enables us to start to cross fertilise and get more multidisciplinary.”

The corporate/executive education environment in England has also seen a major change in the last few years with the introduction and gradual uptake of the Apprenticeship Levy, where employers with an annual wage bill above £3million must pay 0.5% of their wage costs into the Levy fund, which they can then use themselves with Levy-approved providers—or lose it, for others to use. For Aston this has changed the way many potential clients are seeking to engage with them and increased the number of inbound inquiries and Degree Apprenticeship tendering opportunities.

These subtle shifts in the context of their work has led the new department at Aston to adopt new practices. Sarah Worton, also an Account Director at Aston CCS, notes, “Increased interest due to the levy has opened up opportunities to build new relationships with clients and therefore build a more structured approach to account management, where we can offer a broader offer than our original remit.” This comes in several ways. Assessing the client is even more critical than before—those with an entirely English based workforce (the different UK nations have different levy structures) can take advantage of the Levy-approved programs, while those with a more dispersed workforce, even though the majority may be located in England, are less likely to do so. If they are looking for Levy-approved programs, then they may only be sending a small number of participants, and if they were previously Aston clients they may also be expecting a continuation of customization they received when they had larger groups on a custom program. This change requires some sensitive handling.

In addition to the changed aspirations and expectations of organizational clients, the new team is also having to embrace, and build awareness of, the new opportunities that they can offer from across the university to clients—as well as feedback client expectations to the university departments.

Sarah notes, “Our expertise in terms of handling these relationships is now being diversified across the schools and across the university. Our aim as Client Account Directors is to drive a demand-led approach from the market to offer a beneficiary led service from Aston University. An important aspect of our role is to represent the voice of the customer, integrating data and market intelligence to drive the creation of new products and portfolio development.”

This would be a significant change from the more traditional supply-led provision most universities offer currently.

Paul Butler sees that this new over-arching role will allow data and insights from the various departments, that may have previously been inadvertently hidden from one another, to now be brought together to create better content and client solutions. “The different departments have their own metrics, their own programs that they need to deliver on. So, they may have worked with a particular client in a particular area but have never given that client access to wider opportunities for development, or for research or for other projects. I think what's starting to happen now is that we're this centralized team, we're starting to discover what the touch points are across the university and how we can better support the client.”

Sarah reinforces this, observing, “Our main focus is brokering a partnership relationship between the University and our clients, understanding their needs and creating appropriate solutions. To achieve this we will need to be working across departments, project managing different teams. People who have expertise in degree apprenticeship funding, people who have engineering expertise and so on.”

Concluding, she adds, “The levy landscape is certainly driving an evolution of work- based learning in universities, where the combination of academic learning and on-the-job application can really support innovation, creativity and capability development in the workplace. That’s exactly what we're trying to do.”

Over 50 years of pioneering commitment to research, teaching and enterprise has made Aston internationally renowned for delivering local and global impact. We have a bold vision for collaboration with our clients, creating and sharing the vital knowledge that helps them tackle their most pressing real-world challenges.

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