In the Lab: An Agile approach to community engagement

The Business Insights Lab (BIL) is the only space on the University campus dedicated to ‘discovery-led collaboration’, an approach that is delivering workable results for a range of initiatives. Community engagement and development is a fast-growing focus area for the University itself, and we are seeing more and more groups eager to tackle their most pressing issues from this innovative angle.

Guildford Borough Council set up the Guildford Corporate Citizen Charter (CCC) recently, to celebrate – and apply – the positive influence that local businesses have on the lives of those who live and work in Guildford. Membership is now over 25 strong, which kicked Phase 2 of the Charter into motion: converting the pledges set out in the Charter into meaningful projects and actions that make a real difference to our community.

To this end, we ran a short high-focus facilitated workshop or ‘business lab’ in BIL for representatives of Charter signatories. The plan: to form a strategy and first steps for action that has lasting impact.

We started with two key questions:

  • What local community needs are not being met?
  • What can we do collectively that we can’t do as individuals?

Facilitated by CoDE’s Dr Ben Shenoy, the workshop dovetails with the many Social Enterprise initiatives that are gaining momentum in Surrey Business School; here, we’re studying the social enterprise phenomenon, and upskilling people. And creating a local culture of philanthropy falls under the category of ‘wicked problems’ – where we can’t assume we even know what the problem is, let along how to resolve it. For wicked problems, we need Collaborative Discovery: a forum and a space for conversation, exchange, and knowledge-combining.

At the workshop’s close, we were able to cluster the needs into three categories under the overarching theme of ‘Equality of Opportunities’:

  • Mental health
  • Talent and skills
  • Social isolation and community

From putting an employee on the Board of Directors, to ensuring a decent quality of life regardless of pay level, ‘equalising opportunities and strengthening communities’ spans a wide range of imbalances, needs and aims. After all, like most wicked problems, all the issues are tangled up together and can’t easily be addressed individually.

Which suits us just fine, because in our business labs we look for ideas that are good enough to get us moving, not perfect solutions. The plan we develop will certainly not be the final version – but rather an important springboard for understanding the problems.

The day’s big step forward was to focus the CCC members’ efforts on two to three local schools that could really benefit from support from local employers. Now for the ‘sprint’, and then reconvening to shape the next set of goals.

Our unique blend of provocations, workgroups and collective dialogues stretches participants’ thinking. It involves the group in a deeper, more robust conversation than is normally possible. It’s the best method we’ve found for tackling complex and ambiguous problems that have a range of stakeholders and swim in a challenging environment.

In this way, we’ll help make it possible to turn the Charter into a living and practical roadmap for Guildford’s prosperity.

Sound good? Want to get involved? Please get in touch to find out more.


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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.