Chapter 10: The Blank Sheet of Paper: Crafting Curated Solutions for Strategic Partners

by Chris Howard, D. Phil.

Posted on April 16, 2020

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Pittsburgh is having a moment. 

High-end hotels and condos are springing up all over town. The tech, energy, and advanced manufacturing sectors are booming. We have a superb restaurant scene, great sports teams, and you can’t open up the travel sections of The New York Times or The Washington Post without coming across articles gushing over Pittsburgh as “the next Austin” or “the next Portland.”

There is, however, a “but.” The economy may be growing, but the population is not, and this Rust Belt city that once had too few opportunities for its people now has too few people for its opportunities. Colleges and universities such as Robert Morris University (RMU) compete for a shrinking pool of college-bound high school graduates, and, according to a seminal 2016 study by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the regional economy faces a shortfall of 80,000 skilled and professional workers over the next decade. (I’m a member of the Board of Directors of the Allegheny Conference, a 75-year-old civic leadership organization that was the driving force behind the city’s famed “Renaissance” and is at the forefront of its rejuvenation today.) 

Like most colleges and universities, Robert Morris is tuition-driven, so the demographic decline is bad news for our bottom line. But we’ve known for some time we were approaching the edge of this cliff. Therefore, in 2018 we implemented a new strategic plan, RMU 100, which aims to diversify our revenue while also helping the Pittsburgh region address its human capital needs—central to our mission since we were founded in 1921. A key component of the plan is a talent and leadership development initiative in which RMU partners with corporations and other Pittsburgh-area employers to provide employees with new skills and credentials, as well as to transform individual contributors into managers and managers into leaders. 

The Blank Sheet of Paper
Overseeing this initiative is Derya Jacobs, Ph.D., senior vice president for corporate relations and strategic initiatives, who reports directly to me and is a member of the President’s Cabinet. Dr. Jacobs has previously served as the dean of the RMU School of Business and oversees a range of other initiatives, including online education, programs for veterans, and our Center for Cybersecurity Research and Training. Our partners include an NHL franchise, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (a public transit agency), a global manufacturing company, and a restaurant chain that also provides RMU’s campus dining services. 

What has made this program successful, and what makes RMU’s brand of corporate relations distinct, is what I call our “blank sheet of paper” method. Too often in higher education we pitch prospective corporate partners on a selection of our institution’s existing educational programs, as if they were ordering dinner off a restaurant menu. 

Dr. Jacobs and her team eschew this one-size-fits-all approach. When they meet with a corporation, they get out their notebooks and start a conversation—and it doesn’t begin with what RMU has to offer, but rather with what the employer needs: what are the challenges unique to their industry and their market? What are their opportunities and strategic goals? What do their employees need to meet their professional goals while helping the organization move forward? 

This consultative mindset allows RMU to deliver a talent-development program uniquely suited to each of our partners, and these programs are as varied as the organizations themselves.  

This consultative mindset allows RMU to deliver a talent-development program uniquely suited to each of our partners, and these programs are as varied as the organizations themselves. The first partner to sign on, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, pays for select groups of employees to earn a certificate in organizational leadership that can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree at RMU. That certificate program is available to the general public, but Port Authority employees complete the program as a cohort, which provides them a built-in support network and allows them to apply what they learn directly to their careers. 

Interdisciplinary Learning and Collaboration
Some partners desire a highly customized and collaborative program that leverages all the university’s expertise and resources to forge a partnership that meets each employer’s needs. A prime example is a Pittsburgh-based global wood product manufacturer which partnered with RMU to launch a leadership forum for plant supervisors, project engineers, human resources staff, and others the corporation is grooming for upper management roles. The program consists of four learning modules, each lasting two and a half days, alternating between RMU’s suburban campus and the corporation’s headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh. Some sessions are taught by RMU faculty and staff, and others by the company’s own leadership team. 

We’ve utilized our faculty and academic assets in unconventional yet highly effective ways.  

What’s more, we’ve utilized our faculty and academic assets in unconventional yet highly effective ways. An example is the RMU Research and Innovation in Simulation Education Center (RISE Center), a state-of-the art medical simulation facility for our Department of Nursing. The RISE Center provides clinical education and training through lifelike computerized mannequins and “standardized patients”—human actors trained to portray patients and their family members. 

For this leadership forum, our nursing faculty put together a business simulation scenario featuring the actors in the standardized patient program. They included lessons adapted from the TeamSTEPPS teamwork training system, which was developed for healthcare workers by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and U.S. Department of Defense. This same corporation also worked with Eliada Griffin-El, Ph.D., director of RMU’s Massey Center for Entrepreneurship, on a “hackathon” with students from across our four schools to identify innovative ways to update their new employee on-boarding program. 

Leveraging Existing Relationships
RMU’s relationship with this manufacturer did not begin with that leadership forum. The corporation’s CEO earned his MBA from Robert Morris, he’s a member of our Board of Trustees, and the company is a founding corporate sponsor of the UPMC Events Center, our new sports and entertainment venue. From that firm foundation we’ve built an enduring and mutually beneficial partnership. Similarly, the leadership development program we provide to a National Hockey League franchise grew out of negotiations for RMU to enter into an advertising and sponsorship agreement with the team. 

We crafted a deal to become one of the team’s official higher education partners, which included advertising and in-game experiences for RMU, guaranteed internships for RMU students in the team’s front office, and naming rights for the conference center at the team’s arena. But it’s a two-way agreement: the team pays Robert Morris to provide leadership training to a cross-section of staff at all levels of the organization. 

This program reflects the team’s philosophy that all its employees need to be able to understand strategic planning and organizational dynamics and that everyone needs to speak the same language when it comes to the organizational mission, vision, and strategic goals. Twenty-four team employees were in the first cohort of the program, which took place on campus and at the team’s arena, and two more sessions are planned through spring 2020. 

We rarely have to look far for partners. The family-owned company that provides our campus dining services also runs a popular chain of restaurants in western Pennsylvania, and they pride themselves on a culture of continuous improvement and employee empowerment. In the spring, RMU provided a 10-week, specialized online course in service quality and customer relationships to a dozen employees of the restaurant group through Reimagine Retail, which is part of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. Surveyed after they completed the course, employees said they liked it in part because they learned skills they knew would benefit them even if they changed jobs or careers. 

A User-Friendly University
RMU’s success in building these partnerships stems from its entrepreneurial character: we were a proprietary school of accounting that became a business school that became a nonprofit junior college that became a four-year college that became a nationally ranked, doctoral-granting university. Because we are a professionally focused institution with a high employment placement rate, we’ve earned a reputation among the corporate community and other local employers for faculty who stay on top of industry trends and for graduates who make an immediate impact on the job. That has stayed consistent even as we have added, over several decades, programs in education, communications, engineering, nursing, and information technology, to name a few.

Many colleges and universities have smart faculty and hard-working graduates. But let’s face it: we can be tough places to do business. We’re consensus-driven with siloed bureaucracies, which means that we don’t always move as quickly as we need to—and certainly not as quickly as some for-profit organizations would like. 

Our willingness to be flexible in crafting a talent-development program to each partner’s specifications and our nimbleness in getting it off the ground have been the keys to our success.  

Which brings me back to the blank sheet of paper. Our willingness to be flexible in crafting a talent-development program to each partner’s specifications and our nimbleness in getting it off the ground have been the keys to our success. Those traits are part of our institutional DNA, reflecting the business school roots I described above as well as one of our most important core values: responsiveness. Including this program in our strategic plan, with a measurable goal, has also helped to get institutional buy-in. By 2021, RMU aims to generate at least $1 million in net revenue each year from our corporate partnerships, against a total annual operating budget of $130 million. 

Buy-in also comes from the widespread understanding on campus that our talent and leadership development initiative will yield dividends beyond the revenue it produces. As a professionally focused institution, RMU’s brand rests on our ability to launch students into great careers and great lives. This initiative has strengthened our reputation among some of the Pittsburgh region’s largest employers, which benefits our students when they seek internships and full-time jobs. It gives the University insight into the specific needs for talent at our local corporations, along with valuable intelligence that helps faculty, career counselors, and others charged with steering students into careers. This initiative also develops relationships that our development team can leverage for corporate sponsorships and other gifts to the University. 

Ultimately, we’re creating for RMU what we like to call “the seamless cycle of engagement,” where aspiring professionals can earn their bachelor’s degree, where early and mid-career professionals can get a graduate degree or upskill with a certificate or digital credential, and where corporate managers and executives can build programs to help their employees advance. Along the way, we are creating more opportunities for all our students and opening up new avenues for fundraising. It’s a win for our region, and a win for Robert Morris University.