Within these organisations, we often observe a need to strengthen leadership, in the sense of agenda-setting and implementation. Individuals in leadership positions tend to see their power restricted in a complex system of multiple stakeholder involvement, negotiation, expectations, and short timeframes. There is a gap between their (smart) analysis and conclusions on necessary next steps, and their pragmatic appreciation of the (small) room for manoeuvre. In this kind of situation, facilitation of interventions can have more relevance and impact than additional research or data mining. Still, this support should be based on the available information base, going beyond pure ‘change management’ consultancy.
We have identified at least four key developments with a strong impact on organisations in the research and higher education sector that create sector-specific needs within these organisations:
- The first development concerns new public management practices. Governance and leadership configurations have changed and performance indicators have been introduced as management tools. Largely publicly financed – by a combination of institutional and competitive project-based funding – institutions in the research sector deal with various levels of governance. Externally, public authorities provide financial resources or determine the rules for accessing competitive funding. Within the organisations, we distinguish top leadership (general directors, rectors) and middle management. Assessment of both internal and external performance has triggered a considerable need for communication.
- Secondly, digitisation is leading to enhanced monitoring systems and the availability of big data and, as a consequence, to increased demand for advanced data treatment. However, these data do not automatically provide orientation and guidance to stakeholders, who have to perform in an increasingly competitive environment.
- Thirdly, mission-oriented research funding introduces new challenges to research organisations, who have to integrate both excellence and relevance criteria in their strategic development.
- Finally, the continuing internationalisation of research increases both competition between stakeholders and their need for cooperation, with considerable consequences for human resource management.
Pairing expert consultancy with organisational consultancy might seem straightforward, yet for many consultants it’s a no-go. Organisational consultants tend to empower their clients to find solutions for themselves, whereas experts sell solutions they know in advance or provide objective expertise. Our work with organisations challenges this separation, building new services based on evidence, observation, interpretation, communication and interaction.
The rise in ‘quantification’ and ‘management by indicators’ is accompanied by an increased demand for communication-based soft skills. Whereas consultancy approaches developed for the business and corporate sectors might not always be appropriate, given the particularities of the research and higher education sector, thanks to our core competences as evaluators Technopolis Group are well positioned to provide valuable services to these organisations. The definition of meaningful performance indicators, (societal) impact analysis, excellence and resource assessment, up-to-date tools for data collection and analysis and profound knowledge of regional, national and international contexts, are valuable inputs to strategy development for research organisations and funding agencies.
Two ways of working
Still, there are crucial differences between organisational consultancy services and the evaluation of public support programs or strategic advice to policymakers:
- The first concerns the relationship between the consultants and their clients. As evaluators or study authors, we take an independent position; as organisational consultants, we support our clients in their endeavour – facilitating internal strategy development processes and providing expert advice to help them optimise their performance. In fact, we combine expertise in research and innovation processes with organisational development.
- The second concerns the positioning of our contribution in the course of activity. An (evaluation) study follows a sequence. After the definition of the research or evaluation questions by the client, the study will be conducted, followed by the presentation of results and conclusions. Whatever action follows the recommendations happens after our contribution (accompanying evaluations are an exception to this rule). In contrast, organisational consultancy is interactive by definition, and therefore process-based.
The two types of services have much in common, however, in both cases, the work is evidence-based (this might be seen as déformation professionelle). The analysis of structures, processes, indicators and context defines the value and quality of both external expertise and organisational consultancy. In the latter, the process itself, the acceptance of our suggestions, and resistance to them are to be considered in our intervention.