Centralized vs. Decentralized Business Engagement Center (BEC): Research University Comparison

Establishing a successful business engagement function within the university environment is one of the most valuable strategies an institution can undertake.

Robust business engagement has the potential for significant impact for both university leadership and their corporate partners. In 2022, UIDP hosted a town hall to address, compare, and contrast some of the issues that arise from setting up and managing a centralized versus decentralized office of business engagement. Over 200 member representatives attended, indicating high interest in the topic.

To effectively develop and manage a successful, efficient office of business engagement, it’s important to compare the pros and cons of the different models. This column will draw from case examples from prominent universities, such as Georgia Tech and MIT, and from surveys conducted by David Schwartz and Steve Lewis published in the University-Industry Engagement Advisor over the last several years.

Not long ago, there seemed to be almost unanimous agreement among industry engagement leaders that the ideal office model was a centralized structure that served as the “front door” to all partnership-related activities on campus. Today, a variety of models aim to find more effective ways to achieve that holistic approach by learning to speak the language of the business partner. Most mid-to-large companies are structured with research, development, and operations as separate units. Faculty need strong support structures in their institutions to enable external partnering for their research. Based on years of experience in both industry and academia in the business engagement role, UIDP can also say there is a strong argument for a decentralized approach, led by a business engagement leader in a central office who manages a small group handling high-level activities across the university. This model places a corresponding business engagement office in each of the schools’ business offices where these dispersed teams have direct responsibility to their respective deans but also have a dotted line for reporting to the central business engagement leader.

This blog is not intended to offer a firm recommendation for one model over another; that determination should be made after a careful assessment of an institution’s specific needs based on experience, management preference, and the institution’s current climate for business engagement

Pros and Cons

Centralized Office – ProsCentralized Office – Cons

  • A focused reporting function for all business engagement leads to better distribution and management of resources with less overlap/duplication.

  • The BEC acts as one voice for the university and projects unity to the partner/customer base.

  • Combined resources for functions such as marketing, licensing, advertising, and event management, leading to more efficient use of resources.

  • Results in a necessary job/resource overlap between the central and school units, with schools taking primary direction from their leadership.

  • School leads and faculty feel their needs are not always met or are as important a priority to the central office.

  • Customers/partners may feel they can’t drill down into enough detail on research or department attributes.

Decentralized Office – ProsDecentralized Office – Cons

  • Greater/more detailed interaction with the research community in select departments; quicker response to needs/inquiries from faculty.

  • Customer/partner obtains more depth for their specific needs, including interaction with key faculty.

  • Greater visibility into both the needs of the customer, new research thrusts, and department activities in general.

  • School/department BEC leads are driven to become more self-serving units and not as attuned to the greater activities around campus.

  • Greater potential for COI issues with less motivation to communicate school business activities across the institution or to the central office.

  • Potential conflicts in reporting between deans, VPR, advancement, and central BEC.

However, one of the most important attributes of a successful BEC is having a well-oiled customer relations management (CRM) tool that enables sophisticated communication across the institution. A great CRM leads to better management of external partners. It takes strong leadership to help set up, monitor, and manage internal communications process and activities, and to rank and rate companies the university is pursuing.  Having a flexible and user-friendly database, capable of accommodating various users data requirements and visualizing multiple connections of contacts across campus, is immensely powerful.

Driving the Need for an Organized, Integrated Model

Many universities are considering new integrated models of corporate relations and industry collaborations designed to help leverage critical partnerships and foster new relations with industry. A great example is the office of corporate engagement at Georgia Tech, which serves as the central clearinghouse and hub for all partner relationships and transactional activities. It coordinates and collaborates with relevant campus units, including technology licensing, venture lab activities, industry contracting, economic development, career services, professional education, and the Enterprise Innovation Institute. According to Georgia Tech’s vice president for development, this strategy is grounded in the development of a cohesive, collaborative culture to both manage existing relationships and set the standard to develop new relationships going forward.

Organizational studies and models provided by the Education Advisory Board and recommendations made by the Association of Public Land Grant Universities provide insight into the “why” behind a centralized approach.

Key Benefits

A centralized approach offers a number of benefits. Organizations report increased collaboration across campus, increased intelligence on faculty expertise and interests, increased visibility into who is managing select relationships and the current status, selected business-in-process status, increased ability to focus on the customer and on strategic accounts, and increased value of the relevant department (as seen by campus leadership).

Another benefit is holistic reporting. Collecting statistics in a centralized model enables reporting to the universities’ key partners about all aspects of their investments, the results to date, IP or technology generated, number of students hired, and overall ROI, as well as where relationship holes exist and where improvements need to be made.

Companies also desire a single point of contact (POC) for university partnering with alternate points of contact as they drill down more deeply into various business (contractual/licensing/startups) or research units (school-level sponsored research administration) or associate deans.

Building Support Across the Institution

Gaining support and interest from the widely varying cross-campus units that seek engagement with industry can be accomplished through a summary report that shares the breadth of relationships (information about their unit, their partners, and opportunities to strengthen partnerships) and offers all, the opportunity to join/participate. The approach lends itself to thinking of the organization as a holistic pipeline of relationship building. Companies know what their needs are, so engaging with them as long-term strategic partners and meeting with them across the year to fill in the tactical details with a business plan offers essential support for their overall business strategy.

Customers, whether government agencies or industry, need help navigating the university and finding the person they need to connect with. Not having that clarity is a major roadblock to building a long-term relationship. Corporations like a “concierge” approach where the university takes the lead in understanding the problem or need, defining a corporate value proposition, and the best strategic approach to working together.

Implementation Recommendations

If your organization is considering a change to a centralized engagement model, an early step should be a change in attitude and even a change in name to reflect the new mindset. An example might be “Innovation Partners,” which indicates that the university’s mission cannot be accomplished alone. This pivots the culture and encourages adoption of the new way of thinking about business engagement.

One recommendation is to start small and make continuous movements toward developing a comprehensive view of engagement with companies. Early steps include bringing faculty to corporate sites and visibly behaving as a single unit; before long, university staff and faculty will begin to view the new organization as a single customer engagement unit. Other recommendations for implementation include establishing a more structured approach to working with industry, including:

  • Targeted workshops addressing specific industry needs, or workshops on a chosen theme aimed at multiple industries;
  • Activities targeting specific innovation needs, IP approaches, or research capabilities;
  • Events engaging a high-profile guest speaker, held in conjunction with a larger event on campus.

Closing Observations/Recommendation

Three elements stand out as critical for business engagement center success. First, strong, broad-based communication using a shared CRM is a necessary tool for developing and managing successful corporate engagement. Second, support from leadership in the offices of the VPR and advancement/development is also essential as it helps to promote and encourage support for change across campus. Third, reach out to UIDP or UIDP-Collab to engage directly with some of our experts who have had direct experience with refining the Business Engagement function at Research Universities in the past.


Interested in learning more? I recommend the book, “Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between America and Its Colleges and Universities,” by Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein.


Dennis Fortner

Consultant, UI Collab

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