Universities South Africa (USAf) Media Update

DVCs embrace their role as drivers of entrepreneurship, if backed by strategy, resources and matching infrastructure

They were a group of 35 senior management leaders comprising, in the main, deputy vice-chancellors, executive deans and executive directors. The group, drawn from 19 institutions, had assembled in Johannesburg for a 1½ day workshop titled Design Thinking Executive Leadership Workshop: The Role of Deputy Vice-Chancellors (DVCs) in University Entrepreneurship.

No sooner were they seated than the workshop facilitator invited them to come forward, one-by-one, to introduce themselves. The brief was to answer four simple questions: Who am I? What are my expectations for the next day and a half? If I had the super power to solve my university's entrepreneurship challenge, what would that be? Finally, on a 1-10 scale, how do you feel about being here? (1 being hate being here, and 10 feeling super-excited to be here).

Fast-tracking to super powers. One Dean of Students said he if he had super powers, he would see entrepreneurship integrated into every degree programme at his institution, regardless of the discipline. He argued that students with promising business ideas were not in formal programmes exposing them to entrepreneurship. He therefore felt that the university had the responsibility to prepare them better for the World of Work. The next participant, an Executive Dean: Management Sciences, said if he had super powers he would make his institution procure services from their students. A Director: Entrepreneurship said she would bring about more collaboration between her university and others to bring together best practices into entrepreneurship. "We do not collaborate enough," the candidate said, "and therefore, we tend to do the same things over and over again."

While a DVC: Operations said he would use his super powers to create jobs, another DVC: Research and an Executive Director: Student Affairs said they would disburse funds to support student enterprises, and pump sufficient seed funding into promising projects, respectively. "We often have good projects that do not breakthrough because we do not give students sufficient seed funding," the Executive Director: Student Affairs stated.

A lot more was said than can be mentioned here. The workshop facilitator, Mr Richard Perez, Founding Director of the University of Cape Town's School of Design Thinking (d-school), then explained the value of this exercise in humanising the overall learning experience. He said empathy for one another was important in this exercise. He added that the strength of the Design Thinking methodology lay in drawing inputs from people from diverse backgrounds. "Diversity is important in our groups for a diversity of ideas and optimising learning," Perez said. "But we need tools, such as respect for others' opinions, for this to work."

Design Thinking is a repetitive learning process by which organisations seek to understand their stakeholders or situations, and their challenges. It seeks to re-define problems for purposes of identifying alternative strategies and solutions that were not previously readily apparent. The methodology hinges on a genuine interest in, and empathy for the people for whom products or services are being designed. It draws ideas from diverse inputs about user problems, needs and aspirations and uses the emerging insights to create innovative solutions which are thereafter tested before they become officially adopted1.

depicting responses pictorially
depicting responses pictorially
depicting responses pictorially
Almost every exercise entailed depicting responses pictorially, either on charts, in matrices or by developing models.

Having thus set the scene, the lead facilitator invited the workshop attendees to unpack the question: How might DVCs develop entrepreneurship at each university, given the unique identity and context of each institution? The workshop participants were divided into teams of between three and six and each team debated this question among its members.

In the next challenge, individuals in each team were required to develop what the facilitator termed a systems mindwash - essentially a model of their entrepreneurship system listing five to ten stakeholders; key challenges per stakeholder; three to five mentions of what was currently working in the entrepreneurial system, and also three to five mentions of what was currently not working. Participants were assigned to list key external influences or factors affecting each entrepreneurial system. The object of this model was to adopt a systems thinking process in devising solutions for entrepreneurship systems.

prototypes of solutions they brainstormed
prototypes of solutions they brainstormed
prototypes of solutions they brainstormed
Using building blocks, strings or other design tools brought by the course facilitator, the participants were able to depict on miniature models, prototypes of solutions they brainstormed in groups. The workshop combined an approach where results of group exercises were either shared in the plenary or concepts were debated within the various teams in preparation for the next exercise.

Drawing from the exercise above, the participants were invited to identify top six stakeholders in the form of people in the system, one of whom had to be a DVC in charge of entrepreneurship. They were tasked to mention the fop five challenges of the system, except funding; top five things that were working in the system; the top five external challenges (i.e. those outside the university system) and the top five unique contexts. Hereafter, participants were tasked to pick three stakeholders (excluding the DVC), and draw an empathy map of the three. The exercise analysed the selected stakeholders by imagining their thoughts, opinions, actions and feelings - within the entrepreneurship space. Each variable was interrogated from the stakeholders' point of view. The participants were required to depict what each of the three stakeholders was saying (significant quotes and key words); what they were doing (actions, behaviours); what they were probably thinking and what they were feeling (emotions they could be experiencing). Lastly, the participants showed per stakeholder, what their needs were and what insights could be drawn from the collective of the stakeholder words, actions, feelings and thoughts.

Developing an empathy map of a DVC

As things turned out, the exercise above was preparing the participants for the final activity planned for Day One, which was to zoom in on the person of DVC. The participants were assigned to develop an empathy map similar to what they had just completed for the other stakeholders, but this time focusing solely on the person driving entrepreneurship within a university, in the form of the DVC.

An interesting picture emerged, of the five groups' perceptions of what the DVC says, thinks, does, feels, and needs. According to the first two teams, the DVC says: we all need this [i.e. entrepreneurship] and also need a strategy, resources, policy and people; thinks: It is important for both staff and students; how do we strategise and create awareness? does: creates an environment conducive for entrepreneurship development, by consulting deans, establishing structures; identifying champions and establishing processes; feels: is worried about enemies of progress on campus; feels frustrated when they encounter challenges, but energised when things go well: needs: space for incubation; policy; buy-in from deans and faculty and also resources. One insight drawn about this DVC is of someone preoccupied with funding criteria, while another is of an individual embracing teamwork.

Thoughts also emerged, of DVCs feeling overwhelmed by the amount they need to get done. One group portrayed a DVC saying: there are too many problems; no direction from Council; no support; another role added to my portfolio: doing: aligning structures to the institution's mission statement; delegating or relegating; thinking: why me? This is a mammoth task; we need to appoint an expert; needs: training, support and buy-in. In this instance, the group deduced that entrepreneurship at this DVC's institution is not integrated in the university's core functions of teaching and learning, research and community engagement. It resides in the DVC: Research portfolio; is not prioritised and, as a result, has become a pet project of the interested DVC.

While the teams conceived of DVCs ranging from eager and optimistic to despondent, the common denominator was of willing DVCs - provided they got sufficient support through policy, resources and infrastructure conducive to driving the entrepreneurship agenda.

Creating the model of an ideal entrepreneurial university

All the brainstorming from Day One culminated in an interesting development on the morning of Day Two. The participants were able to build a model of an ideally entrepreneurial university - drawing from their understanding of key stakeholders (i.e. the key challenges and issues confronting stakeholders in the internal environment; what is working and what is not, and external influencing factors).

model of an ideally entrepreneurial university
presenter describing the model
This is just one example of a model of an ideal entrepreneurial university, built, presented and defended by one team. Four other models were presented - with each team explaining the thinking behind inclusion of the different features and how those worked together to form an entrepreneurship ecosystem. There was no right or wrong about them. What mattered was the inclusive process of developing the prototype that would, presumably, be tested and debated before implementation.

Although the teams did differ on some detail of certain aspects (structure, key stakeholders and infrastructure features) of their models, they mostly conceded that a truly entrepreneurial university affords entrepreneurship a dedicated focus; a dedicated structure and home and a central champion at senior leadership level. Some felt that while the DVC was the rightful home, entrepreneurship should be decentralised across faculties. However the co-ordinating role must reside at a Director's level to free up the Dean to perform senior leadership functions. The ideal scenario creates an entrepreneurship precinct (comprising a co-ordinator, administrator, dedicated office, classrooms and an incubator; the Technological Transfer Office; computer labs and library) which builds and maintains a close relationship with external stakeholders (government, professional bodies, non-profit organisations and industry) and the internal university stakeholder support system (finance, supply chain, IP office). Furthermore, the entrepreneurship precinct is also situated in close proximity to classrooms to ensure students are sufficiently exposed to the environment, to promote networking and also to reduce the silo mentality. People converge in this space to discuss and drive entrepreneurship.

While some groups believed government must play a role to lessen the bureaucracy of creating a business through policy, others felt that entrepreneurship within the university environment could succeed even without government's active support. This and other matters were debated - albeit minimally, in the interest of time. All groups agreed that resources and structural processes must be in place (strategy, curriculum, personnel and communication) for entrepreneurship to take root, and thrive.

Closing feedback

DVCs group
The senior academics embraced the Design Thinking approach to solving problems. They want to be back for a follow-up session in no more than two years.

Asked what had worked for them, over the 1½ days in one room, the participants said they had enjoyed the interaction, creative approach and the methodology of delivery. One individual said even though she had found the method strange, it was also interesting. "It pushed me out of my comfort zone." Someone said they were happy their DVC had been in attendance, hearing the information, first-hand. Others had enjoyed the cross-pollination of ideas in groups, with one individual saying "the diversity in my team brought out a huge amount of insights." The team work had stimulated creative thinking, team learning, networking, and had opened up a whole world to the participants, of how other people processed information and did things. In the end, the participants said they had enjoyed how the design thinking process had unfolded in both the group settings and in the plenary. "I enjoyed listening to the ideas that went into the model-building," one of them fed back. "I had lots of fun." While one participant found the idea of an ideally entrepreneurial university very complex; he said he was fascinated by the design activity and, in the end, was convinced that this method could work.

The attendees' biggest wish was for more time to engage and debate. Someone wished she had been exposed to design thinking during her prime career 10-20 years ago. A few invited the facilitator to come to their institutions to offer this to a bigger team. Others wished vice-chancellors could also be exposed to the methodology. Ultimately the participants requested to advance to the next step sooner, rather than later, i.e. "not in the next 10 years but in the next two years."

USAf's Director of Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme, Dr Oliver Seale, who had sat in to observe, said "I loved the methodology. Learning should be fun. In our permanent mode of crisis management within our institutions, we hardly get time to reflect on how we are doing. That is why, at HELM, we encourage people to take time off, every now and again, to reflect. One and a half day is the ideal time to take people away from their work stations." Through this workshop, Dr Seale said he had experienced the value of taking academics out of their comfort zone of perpetual intellectual analysis to learn through a different methodology of building models and blocks.

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