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Sep 23, 2023 2023-09

Gies Blueprint: A new way of thinking about corporate engagement

This article appeared in the September 2023 issue of University-Industry Engagement AdvisorClick here to subscribe.

The Blueprint program at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, crafted in large part based on models and input from the private sector, is finishing out its first year of operation with an important and growing partnership with global IT and consulting company Accenture.

Blueprint is a process as much as it is a program. It seeks to build more strategic and holistic industry engagement by working closely with the company to determine what that engagement should look like. Based on a series of interviews and fact-finding conducted long before the real brainstorming begins, Blueprint functions much like a consultancy, with decision makers on both sides of the partnership achieving buy-in to sustain a long-term legacy, not a short-term transaction.

Following a year at the pilot level, the Gies Blueprint team has worked with 10 companies from various industries — financial services, insurance, retail, B2B industrial supply, consulting, and accounting — involving companies ranging in size from $500M to $60B in annual revenue. In the case of Accenture, both partners say they’ve hit the sweet spot of mutually beneficial collaboration, with UI leveraging its vast pool of expertise while also learning from an industry partner, and Accenture gaining the benefit of world-class research, insights, and talent development for itself and its clients.

The Blueprint process between UI and Accenture came about through Arnab Chakraborty, Accenture senior managing director and North American data and AI lead, who is also a member of the Gies Dean’s Business Council. He approached the college’s staff to talk about the company and the challenges and opportunities it and its clients face, specifically with AI. From there, the conversation moved into the Blueprint framework.

While Gies has reached out to some companies to participate in Blueprint, most of its engagements were, like the Accenture partnership, initiated by the companies.

How Blueprint works

The Blueprint program is not used with every partnership, but for some it’s the perfect approach. “Companies want to expand their relationship and engagement,” says Ning Zulauf, Gies corporate relations manager and program coordinator. “It’s a different way to explore a broader relationship with a company when sometimes they don’t know where to start.”

So far, valuable lessons — some of them coming about as a result of the Accenture engagement — have already been learned.

According to Andrew Allen, assistant dean of strategic engagement at Gies, in some cases it still makes sense to do things more traditionally — bringing a company on campus and showcasing the university’s wide variety of resources and programs. But with certain potential partners, that can be overwhelming. For select companies, the Blueprint process makes more sense.

Here’s the Blueprint onboarding process and timeline in a nutshell:

  • Scoping: Complete scoping call with relationship manager, 1 hour.
  • Discover: Conduct stakeholder interviews and a ½-day discovery session, up to 8 weeks.
  • Develop: Gies drafts custom partnership agreement, 2 weeks.
  • Engage: Finalize strategy agreement and begin implementation, 3 to 4 weeks.

What Blueprint discovers is as varied as the companies it works with. A global retailer might face challenges with onshoring for warehousing and manufacturing; a consulting firm could face difficulties accelerating their brand awareness with students; and a financial services firm might need a more purposeful form of engagement with a college, its faculty, and students. The Blueprint process could result in an enhanced relationship with Gies, or even a multiyear, multifaceted collaboration. Among the suite of possible outcomes are faculty research, training, workshops, sponsored programming, student education, workforce and talent development, access to student preferences and trends, training programs, and professional certifications.

While Blueprint is housed in Gies and has only three part-time staffers working “on top of their day jobs,” once a company’s priorities and goals are known, Blueprint can pinpoint and utilize relevant university resources.

“For each engagement, we can pull in people from across campus,” Allen says. “We tailor whatever we’re working on with that company — it might be the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the Grainger College of Engineering, or the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. It depends on the nature of the engagement. We’ve had great feedback from the companies we’ve done this with. They like the refreshing approach to corporate engagement. They tell us this is different from what they’re used to with other universities.”

Throughout the process, and regardless of what company it is, the common good has to be at the forefront. “What you don’t want to do is get in front of a big company and see nothing but dollar signs,” Allen says. “We’ve learned to do a lot of listening. Our approach is ‘solve, don’t sell.’

At the same time, however, the plan for partnering must align with the school’s mission as well as the company’s, he adds. “Just because everyone’s excited doesn’t mean it’s a good idea,” Allen says. “We have to make sure we’re not creating something new just to align with what they want. It has to be in line with what we’re trying to do, and vice versa for them.”

A new way of thinking

In addition to its access to the full range of university resources, Gies can rely on its experience outside of academia to shape Blueprint’s interactions with private companies. Its staff has a wide variety of industry experience and know-how, with backgrounds in manufacturing, human resources, nonprofits, corporate leadership, consulting, ed tech, business management, retail, sales and customer service. When it comes time to identify a problem and solve it, that breadth affords Gies many avenues of approach.

A big part of what’s making Blueprint work is an overhaul in the basic philosophy of what corporate relations is and what it’s supposed to do.

“Over the past decade, our college and university has moved from a corporate relations model based on now-outdated thinking of corporate relations as philanthropy to a more holistic model, where corporate relations are a strategic investment in partnership with industry,” says Barry Dickerson, managing director of corporate relations in the Geis Office of Advancement. “This type of model requires the ability to assess gaps in our services and strong coordination across units, at the campus and college levels. At Gies, Blueprint is a manifestation of our teamwork culture and the desire to be innovative, responsive, and easier to do business with.”

Might Blueprint be exported to other areas of the university? If it’s up to Dickerson, most definitely.

“As we continue to refine the use of Blueprint to broaden and deepen targeted corporate relationships, I’m hopeful Blueprint will be adopted campus-wide for use in corporate development and strategic planning,” he says.

Built to last

The foundation of Blueprint, and emblematic of the new approach it represents, is the upfront identification of 10 to 15 decision makers within a company, allowing the partners to flesh out ideas in front of a wide audience and to find an enduring consensus. This encourages broad support within the company and guards against the quick cessation of a partnership, Allen points out.

“I think one challenge in general with university-industry partnerships is that you get one person at a company who’s really excited about a partnership, and then for some reason they leave and the partnership dies,” he explains.

But the partnership with Accenture, which also partners with the UC-Berkeley, MIT, and Purdue, looks to be a solid one. With that in mind, it’s helpful to consider what both UI and Accenture get out of Blueprint.

“For us, faculty are looking for a way to provide thought leadership and research in specific areas,” Allen says. “There are also opportunities for us to provide upskilling or professional development for Accenture employees and their clients’ employees. As an academic institution, we’re always looking at how we educate our students to be prepared for the working world. By having a close partnership with a company like Accenture, we can understand better what’s happening in that world. We can co-create curricula and programs for students so that when they go to work for companies like Accenture, they’re more prepared. For Accenture, they want to stay ahead. They want to be at the forefront of what’s happening. They know universities are seedbeds for ideas and innovation.”

Looking to the private sector

One lesson learned from the Blueprint initiative goes back to how it was developed, which sprang from ideas gleaned outside of the campus walls. When Gies was putting the Blueprint program together, organizers first looked to see what other universities were doing. But in the end, they found what they were looking for in the private sector with Big Four accounting firms Deloitte and KPMG. In fact, a UI alum and her associates at KPMG worked with Gies for about nine months to advise on the Blueprint program based on the accounting firm’s growth consultancy.

“We called up our alum at KPMG and said, ‘Can we run something by you?’” Allen says.

A big part of the Blueprint process is the interview process, and Gies staff are not afraid to dig deep into a company’s culture and practices to develop solutions. It’s often through the fresh look taken by the Geis team that a company can discover something about itself — where the magic can happen. But for that moment to transpire, a company has to be willing to explore and remain open to a new perspective.

Gies staff agree that the companies which benefit the most from Blueprint have a few things in common — they are humble enough to ask for help, curious enough to listen, agile enough to implement new ideas, and willing to imagine a different way of doing things to grow. They reach out beyond their company for expert opinions that may diverge from their internal conversations, and they embrace a culture that loves learning.

“We help to take some of the bias out of their internal thought process,” says Kristie Paskvan, associate director at the Gies Magelli Office of Experiential Learning. “Have you ever worked somewhere where everyone starts to repeat the same phrases to the point where suddenly the response is, ‘We don’t do that here, we only do this?’ Through Blueprint, we bring new insights and attention to common themes where we can say, ‘Actually, we are hearing that you could do that, and your employees are asking for it, so why not?’ It’s holding a mirror up to the organization so they can view themselves through different eyes.”