Monday, 31 July 2017

Meaningful external partnerships (PART 1): Thinking "Lean" about partnership design

Anna Nibbs
Enterprise Education Developer
Whiteboard, with coloured pen annotations on tips for working with external partners, e.g. building the relationship well in advance, working closely to develop the problem, and not overestimating effort involved.

The Enterprise Academy team is chiefly known, and widely recognised for, the support we provide to academic colleagues to embed enterprise in their specific subject curricula. USE does, however, have well-established, in-house teaching and assessment responsibilities.

'Making Ideas Happen' (MIH), USE's interdisciplinary credit-bearing module, is now almost seven years old.

Unlike everything else we do, MIH is not embedded enterprise. True embedded enterprise uses a core subject discipline as a vehicle for enterprise capability (EC) development (and vice versa), MIH's vehicle for EC development, on the other hand, is entrepreneurship education, with a firm focus on fulfilling social aims.

Embedded or not, however, the work we've undertaken on MIH feeds greatly into our work with academics.

MIH asks groups of students to develop an idea for either a social enterprise or a commercial business with social aims, addressing a problem (or problems) associated with a particular community issue.

The module places an emphasis on external partnerships - it simply can't operate without them. And to explain a little about how our work in this area has informed our wider Academy work, I'm going to give a little background.

Fit for purpose?

Despite the module running very successfully, highlighted as good practice by external examiners and seeing high attainment levels, for some while we've been keen to re-work its assessment and teaching methods, and this summer, we've bitten the bullet.

We’ve always paid good heed to the principles of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang 2011; Biggs 2003) – MIH assessments were designed to meet the module learning outcomes, and its learning activities designed to support this connection. And although we’re not connected with a specific degree programme, we endeavour to make sure the module is carefully aligned with wider University agendas, such as its outward-facing ethos, the Sheffield Graduate Attributes, and the institution’s current research priorities.

But in recent times, we’ve been somewhat uneasy about the effectiveness of our main assessment component – the group business plan – in either: a) addressing the learning outcomes; or b) adequately reflecting current thinking in entrepreneurial and startup theory and practice.

We’d already started to redesign the teaching sessions along Lean Startup (Ries 2011) principles, and we were also utilising the Business Model Canvas (Osterwalder et al 2010) as an accessible way of engaging students with the required components of a business concept. This summer we’re overhauling everything; bringing our assessment methods up-to-date, and re-working the entire module teaching to more effectively support students to think Lean, whilst also producing better assignments and gaining opportunities for deeper and wider learning.

So what does Lean Startup mean?
“The question is not 'Can this product be built?'. Instead, the questions are 'Should this product be built?' and 'Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?'” (
Lean Startup development places emphasis on agile, iterative testing and validation. A key tenet of this is that before a business model is developed, you don’t start with the idea. You start first with a problem. You develop a hypothesis for that problem, and you carry out carefully designed, meaningful experiments to establish whether your problem really exists, whether it is worth solving, for whom, and by what means. Your experiments involve talking – and, more importantly, listening – to your ‘customers’.

We spend several weeks at the beginning of the module getting our students to focus intensely on customer discovery – modelling potential problems associated with a project brief, and developing a series of testable hypotheses relating to problem, customer, and solution. What then follows is several weeks of in-depth customer development work (Blank 2013).

The word ‘customer’ can, of course, mean many things, depending on the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve. It could mean paying customers, consumers or users of a product or service (whether or not they’re not the ones paying), commissioning groups, clients, patients, community beneficiaries or a whole range of other stakeholders. This complexity will be particularly apparent in any business that not only addresses a commercial concern but also fulfils a social, societal or environmental purpose.

Community viewpoints

One aspect of the MIH groups’ business ideas that we assess is their “sensitivity towards community viewpoints” – have they been respectful? Responsible? Is it clear that they have listened to the community they are working with, rather than simply basing their business model development on their own, untested and potentially biased assumptions about their customers?

Is their resulting product or service something that meets a genuine need – something that should be built?

These are the sorts of considerations we need to be taking when we set up external partnerships in the first place. Rather than simply involving, say, a local community partner in a vanity project to serves merely to give kudos to a module convenor and their home department, that module convenor needs to ask themselves whether the partnership is truly meaningful, and mutually beneficial to all involved.

This is where the customer discovery work comes in.

"Lean" partnerships for curriculum development

In a curriculum development context it is perhaps worth, then, paraphrasing the Lean questions and asking ourselves:
“Should we use external partnerships for this project?”
And if so:
“How can we use them in a way that is both sustainable and manageable?”
And so we need to ask ourselves:
  1. Who are our ‘customers’?
  2. What problems, issues, or needs do they have?
  3. What might be effective ways to address these problems, issues or needs?
Bearing in mind, once again, the very broad use of the term ‘customer’, the first segment we need to consider is our students.

We should have some idea of the basics – if we’re considering a credit-bearing module, for example, we’re likely to have good knowledge about its subject and level, main topics, degree programmes to which it is attached, professional body accreditation requirements (if any), and some sense of who the students studying it might be.

Depending on what stage of the process we’re at, we’ll be starting to think about, or have already pinned down, aims, objectives, and intended learning outcomes, and started to consider what main activities the module might involve, and what potential deliverables  – assessments, artefacts, or resources – might be needed to adequately address learning outcomes and accreditation requirements.

In simple terms, what is the purpose of the module? What problem is it trying to solve?

Might an external partnership be of value, and if so, what kind of partnership, and with whom?

Once we’ve established the basic purpose of the module, we can start to develop hypotheses for what types of problems our students might need to solve to best address the learning outcomes, and what individuals or organisations (if any) might provide suitable briefs.

At this stage, of course, we still only have our own, untested and potentially biased assumptions about our partners.

In order to establish whether they’re worth working with, and whether our students can provide something worthwhile to them, we need, in a sensitive, respectful manner, to value them, engage them, and listen to them.

And that’s something I’ll be covering in the next instalment of this series.

This open-ended blog series is partly informed by my development of the Enterprise Academy’s External Partnerships Planning Pro-Forma.

This resource is available to members of the University of Sheffield (TUoS) via our Online Resource Bank. If you’re not part of TUoS and are interested in the tool, or even if you are but you’d like to discuss potential external partnerships for enterprising learning and teaching, please get in touch.


Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill and Open University Press.

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning Teaching and Assessment to Curriculum Objectives. LTSN Generic Centre: Imaginative Curriculum Project.

Blank, S. (2013). Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win. Bookbaby.

Osterwalder, A., Pigneur, Y., and Clark, T. (2010). Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers.

Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup. Crown Publishing Group.

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