Looking for an Alliance? Follow These Six Steps

Whether schools are focused on improving online delivery or devising better experiential learning opportunities, there’s a network of schools working on the same issue.

Looking for an Alliance? Follow These Six Steps

COLLABORATING WITH LIKE-MINDED schools can help every business program react more quickly to industry trends. In “Stronger Together,” we describe five educational networks devoted to specific topics. “We can’t learn everything on our own, so an alliance helps us keep up with the pace of change,” notes Andrew Allen, director of experiential learning at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He’s also one of the key organizers of the LX Consortium, which brings together business, engineering, and liberal arts schools that have a strong learning experience—or LX—component.

Members of these five networks offer six recommendations for other schools seeking to band together on any defined topic as they work to improve higher education:

1. Create a strong governance structure.

Alliances commonly are governed by boards that consist of representatives from each school; some alliances also create subcommittees that focus on specific tasks. For example, the Future of Management Education (FOME) is devoted to helping schools accelerate their adoption of online course delivery. The alliance has formed an edtech team that tracks the course development process at each school, as well as a pedagogy group that focuses on instructional design.

The University Innovation Alliance seeks to identify interventions that will retain at-risk students. Each member school designates two liaisons on campus who function as co-captains for the work being done; UIA schools also choose full-time staff members to serve in two-year fellowships in which they manage UIA business and report to the liaison officers.

2. Ask teams to communicate constantly.

Organize ongoing opportunities for participating faculty to share experiences and develop their ideas. These interactions “provide valuable input for administrators,” emphasizes Juuso Leivonen, secretary general of Association of Business Schools Finland, which is designing a “national strategy” for teaching business and economics. Leivonen adds, “It’s important to keep the study offices of the different schools in the loop and have an open conversation with them as well.”

FOME’s management board meets monthly over Zoom and twice yearly in person on the campus of a member school. Each team communicates over its own Slack channel, uploading papers and other information. Once a year, “there’s a big meeting where anyone from any school can attend,” says Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs and director of the EdTech Lab at ESMT Berlin in Germany. The school is a founding member of FOME.

The mission of the Business School Alliance for Health Management is to support management programs that focus on the healthcare sector. To achieve that goal, BAHM members meet via conference call every two months and in person every summer. At these summer meetings, representatives not only address BAHM business, but also discuss joint research, exchange programs, and other potential collaborative activities.

Similarly, the UIA board meets twice a year; school liaisons have monthly phone calls as well as twice-a-year “convenings” in person to share learning, discuss potential new projects, and build relationships. A national summit brings together all the groups once a year.

“We find that intentional and thoughtful events can be uplifting and help people identify what they really need,” says the UIA’s Bridget Burns. “But we also have to keep the work going in between.”

3. Facilitate sharing among members.

BAHM schools communicate through newsletters, e-blasts, and regular board meetings. In 2019, the organization developed a members-only website portal where schools can post details about their own curricula and learn about other members’ programs. The portal includes other helpful information, such as a list of specialty business and healthcare journals that can be used in faculty promotion reviews.

The UIA has an online sharing space called University Innovation Lab where liaisons can document and describe the results of their projects. The member portal includes templates and tools that other schools have used to help them determine whether or not to adopt a new product or service. This includes a vendor analysis tool designed to help members determine if a specific vendor will suit their needs.

Liaisons also share results through presentations they make at UIA convenings. Says Burns, “We create an environment for them to learn from each other in a way that’s far more valuable than if they were reading a polished brief.”

4. Collaborate on a neutral platform.

If the alliance isn’t specifically built around a shared platform, as it is for FOME, it might be better if member schools did not depend on one school’s proprietary tool for their collaboration. For that reason, faculty involved with the ABS joint business minor use the open-source platform Blackboard Open LMS to organize their course delivery.

In this way, they avoid conflicts if the school wants to adjust the platform to serve its own purposes, explains Leivonen. “Because this is a joint program, it is important that we are not dependent on, or restricted by, systems of any one university,” he adds. “We found using a separate LITO platform to be the most suitable solution.”

5. Share with the rest of the world.

If alliances are going to have any long-term impact on higher education—or industry—whatever they learn from each other needs to be broadly disseminated.

Because diffusion of knowledge is one of the top three priorities of UIA, the organization shares best practices through social media, Facebook Live interviews, webinars, and public presentations. It also facilitates screenings of “Unlikely,” a documentary about the barriers certain students face in pursuing higher education, which features the UIA story.

In addition, UIA puts on a national conference “that is kind of like a boot camp for institutions that send teams to attend,” says Burns. “They will leave with a complete plan to improve student success. They will have clarified their process and acquired the tools to support them.”

BAHM makes a concerted effort to bring information to policymakers and healthcare practitioners via its website, social media channels, and webinars featuring scholars and practitioners who discuss current healthcare issues. Its newsletter, which schools can share with their own networks, includes information about happenings at member schools, upcoming conferences, and recently published faculty research.

But BAHM’s biggest outreach effort is its recently relaunched journal, Health Management Policy and Innovation (HMPI), which covers key industry topics. “Every time a new issue comes out, we distribute a press release to our growing database, which includes executives, policy makers, and other healthcare thought leaders,” says BAHM’s Kirsten Gallagher.

In March, the organization launched a special blog as part of HMPI, which outlines ways healthcare executives and clinicians can manage the COVID-19 challenge. The blog includes tools for health systems to prepare for hospitalizations and manage supplies, strategies for addressing short- and longer-term COVID-related business challenges, and real-time business school responses to managing shocks to the health-care system.

While FOME members currently focus on sharing expertise with each other, Barniville expects that once they’ve identified best practices, they’ll distribute information to the larger community. “The alliance is based on collaboration, not exclusivity,” he says. “We’ll be happy to publish white papers in due course on what we find together.”

Similarly, the LX Consortium, which launched earlier this year, expects to have two levels of participation—one for members, who work together closely and share information directly; and another for schools that attend its webinars and annual summits. The split structure will ensure that any school can benefit from the knowledge generated, regardless of how far along it is in the process of creating experiential learning opportunities.

6. Work around the roadblocks.

Despite all the advantages, there remain challenges in encouraging collaboration among institutions that are more typically competitors. “The question always is, ‘Why would we work with you on this program, when in this other program we’re competing with you for the same pool of students?’” says Barniville. “We have to create new categories of business where it’s a value-add for all partners. We have to get over that hurdle.”

The best way to overcome this difficulty is to build a culture of trust and openness within the alliance, says Barniville. In FOME, he says, “everyone is prepared to show vulnerability. It’s not a group where people will say how brilliant they are. We say, ‘This is us, warts and all. So, can anybody help us?’”

Burns agrees that it’s essential for alliance members to share “a core value system”—a sense that all members are working on the same problems and toward the same goal of helping students. “That’s the important mindset for every collaboration, the understanding that you have things in common,” she says. “You don’t come to a collaborative to talk about how great you are. You come to find allies.”

In the past, many universities have struggled to find answers to their problems—whether those problems were how to retain at-risk students or how to design the best experiential learning programs.

“That’s partially because of the go-it-alone strategy—the idea that campuses were special and different, and their challenges were unique and idiosyncratic,” says Burns. “The truth is, universities generally look the same, and their problems look very similar. It’s not very smart for schools to believe they need to independently solve their problems.”

“We’re all trying to do the same thing, just with different pools of students,” says Allen. “We’re all trying to educate and prepare the next generation, so people are eager to get together to try and solve our common issues.”