Entrepreneurial architecture in UK universities: still a work in progress?

Martin, Lynn M.; Warren-Smith, Izzy and Lord, Gemma (2019). Entrepreneurial architecture in UK universities: still a work in progress? International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, 25(2) pp. 281–297.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/IJEBR-01-2017-0047


UK higher education has faced an unprecedented period of change due to multiple UK governmental policies over a short period – coupled with demographic change and the vote to leave the European Union. This pressures universities to meet third mission aims by engaging effectively with society and business, generating income in the process to address reduced funding. Support from the UK Government includes over 20 years of funding for universities to develop entrepreneurial structures and processes, termed entrepreneurial architecture (EA). While the government regularly collects data on funds generated through third mission activities, less is known about how EA is perceived by those inside the university. The purpose of this paper is to meet that gap by exploring the perspectives of those employed specifically as part of EA implementation, as knowledge exchange intermediaries.

The study takes a phenomenological approach to achieve deeper insights into those routines and norms resulting from the application of EA. This is a purposeful sample with what is reported to be an under-researched group (Hayter, 2016); those employed as internal knowledge intermediaries across 15 universities (two from each). These university employees are specifically charged with business engagement, knowledge exchange and research commercialization; their contracts are funded and designed as a part of the EA rather than for research or teaching. An initial pilot comprising four semi-structured interviews indicated suitable themes. This was followed up through a set of three interviews over 18 months with each participant and a mapping of EA components at each institution.

Despite EA strategies, the picture emerging was that universities had embedded physical components to a greater or lesser degree without effective social architecture, shown by conflicts between stated and actual routines and norms and by consistent barriers to third mission work. Power and perceived power were critical as participants felt their own worth and status was embedded in their senior manager’s status and power, with practical difficulties for them when he or she lost ground due to internal politics.

Research limitations/implications
The benefits of this study method and sample include deep insights into the perspectives of an under-reported group. The purposeful sample might be usefully expanded to include other countries, other staff or to look in depth at one institution. It is a qualitative study so brings with it the richness, insights and the potential lack of easy generalizability such an approach provides.

Practical implications
In designing organizations to achieve third mission aims, EA is important. Even where the structures, strategies, systems, leadership and culture appear to be in place; however, the resulting routines and norms may act against organizational aims. Those designing and redesigning their institutions might look at the experience suggested here to understand how important it is to embed social architecture to ensure effective actions. Measuring cultures and having this as part of institutional targets might also support better results.

Social implications
Governments in the UK have invested resources and funding and produced policy documents related to the third mission for over 20 years. However, the persistent gap in universities delivering on policy third mission aims is well documented. For this to change, universities will need to ensure their EA is founded on strong underlying supportive cultures. Knowledge sharing with business and community is unlikely when it does not happen in-house.

The study adds new knowledge about how EA is expressed at individual university level. The findings show the need for more research to understand those routines and norms which shape third mission progress in UK universities and how power relations impact in this context, given the pivotal role of the power exerted by the senior manager.

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