Aspect Business Engagement Toolkit

This toolkit was put together to help create a unified approach to business engagement within the social sciences – creating tools to make the case to academics and businesses about why it’s important to engage – and to change perspectives and assumptions about the value that the social sciences can provide.


About this toolkit

The toolkit was created primarily via the activities of the Aspect-funded “BE Pilot Projects” project. These included:

  1. Sector specific deep dives – designed to develop good practice that focuses on industry engagement in social sciences. Specific industry sectors were chosen as focus points to allow for the development of useful and insightful materials in certain areas – as opposed to creating general resources that are too vague to be useful.
  2. Challenge-led workshops – hosted to explore challenges uniquely faced by social scientists. Collective knowledge of workshop attendees was channelled into outputs that are valuable and carry more weight as they represent the thoughts and opinions of a wide range of UK HEIs. 
  3. Business Engagement “Ideas Box” – collating information from across all the institutions into one place so that universities can understand what a unified and centralised approach to Business Engagement looks like, understand the underlying policy landscape, and what a good practice support model would look like.

Additional resources and tools have been added from other Aspect funded projects which have generated insights about business engagement in the social sciences, namely, Methods 4 Change, Abacuss, and the Carer Project.

Why do we need a Social Science Business Engagement Toolkit?

In the 2019 Aspect Learning Report, it was noted that networking and partnership development for social sciences are encouraged and supported by all members, and that these activities appeared to be more established than pure commercialisation. Examples of members’ SS BE activity include a strong history of academic consultancy, and others who are using funding to stimulate collaborations between social scientists and industry. Even so, SS engagement with business remains lower than perhaps for STEM disciplines, and opportunities remain to better understand and improve the way HEIs support academics and businesses in forming productive collaborations and partnerships. There may also be benefits to members in increasing alignment of the business engagement and commercialisation offerings.

How to use this toolkit

This toolkit is designed for professional services staff based in universities who have a responsibility for business engagement. Some resources might also be relevant for academics.  While many of the resources are intended to support on-the-job good practice, some may also be helpful to those seeking to make the case for SocSci business engagement support and infrastructure.

This toolkit is not a complete guide for how to conduct business engagement in the social sciences, rather it is a unique set of resources that share experiences of what has worked well and what hasn’t – to avoid “reinventing the wheel” and to encourage a more consistent business engagement offering in the social sciences across the UK.

Challenges and Differences


The Business Engagement COP have led and participated in a series of Aspect-funded projects that have set out to develop good practice and explore challenges specific to social science engagement including:​

  1. Structuring professional services – How do you join up the different BE teams in a university to create a streamlined and coherent offer for both academics and businesses? This can be particularly challenging when the standard model is STEM-based and doesn’t account for the differences in a SociSci model.
  2. Identifying opportunities – Which sectors show potential to adopt social sciences methods an innovations? Are they different than STEM? And do we need to develop new ways of working in these sectors?
  3. Communicating the value proposition – What does industry want or need from SocSci, and how do we make them aware that SocSci can offer this? What are we defining as SocSci?
  4. Academic engagement – What motivates SS academics to engage, and how can we better reach, communicate with, motivate, and support them?
  5. Funding ​– Are existing public funding mechanisms fit for SS business engagement? What changes or improvements would we like to see made?

The sections of the toolkit below share some of the insights that have emerged from exploring these challenges.

1. Structuring a Social Science BE Support Offer: What’s different for the Social Sciences?

The Business Engagement (BE) function within universities covers a range of different ways in which academics and external stakeholders can engage. Multiple teams are often responsible for different parts of the university’s offering, each with a ‘product and service’ they provide to academics and businesses. For example:

  • Career Services (jobs, internships with students)​
  • Executive Education (training for businesses)​
  • Consultancy division (academics paid to deliver expertise and services for businesses)​
  • Research collaborations (supporting academics and business to develop strategic relationships for collaborative or contract research)
  • Use of facilities​ (fee for service offerings)
  • Etc.

Many of the processes and functions for business engagement are already well established within universities. For example, BE support teams typically will need expertise in contracts, communications, and a combination of proactive and reactive responses to potential opportunities with external stakeholders.. In most cases, Aspect member universities do not have a separate team to support SS business engagement, and these methods are already being adapted and used to stimulate more BE with the Social Sciences (SS).

Aspect members have noted, however, that a joined-up offering that brings together different professional services support teams – including business engagement, commercialisation, and entrepreneurship – leads to better results for SocSci innovations, impact and outcomes. A joined-up approach sees these traditionally siloed services supporting SociSci academics and innovations horizontally (administratively) as well as vertically (around strategic goals). For further reading on this, refer to Chapter 3.3 of Aspect’s 2020 Learning Report.

As highlighted in the Research Commercialisation Toolkit (LINK), social sciences commercialisation tends to be different to STEM as there are different IP issues and commercialisation might focus on the application of expertise instead of taking a technology to market. These differences have implications for Business Engagement for the social sciences – primarily around communicating the value proposition of social sciences to industry and communicating the value of collaboration to academics.

Learn more:

  • Business Engagement Ideas Box – Led by the University of York, this project collated information from across all institutions into one place so that universities can understand what a joined-up approach to BE for the social sciences looks like. It will also help universities understand the underlying policy landscape and what a good practice support model could look like.
  • LSE’s Commercialisation Office – In the 2020 Learning Report, LSE noted that the mixture of service and product offerings mean that LSE Innovation and LSE Consulting often needed to take an integrated and flexible approach to supporting innovations. This is compared to a more STEM based environment where the more common approach might be that a conventional license or spin out is accompanied by a separate consulting service.  

2. Identifying Opportunities: What sectors show potential for adopting social sciences innovations?

While the term “business engagement” suggests a commercial entity, in many cases university professional services teams are helping academics to engage with a much wider range of stakeholders. This could include NGOs, social enterprises, regional or national government, or charities. As a further example, the ‘Defining the Territory’ diagram from the NCCPE illustrates the breadth of the organisations that universities typically work with, in both the public sector and civil society.

This breadth of partners is particularly the case for Social Sciences Business Engagement – Aspect members have noted that engagement opportunities for social sciences often come from public sector (schools, health, government) and organizations with a social good remit (NGOs, charities, social enterprises, foundations), alongside more ‘typical’ commercial businesses. But which industries have the best potential for – or high interest in – social sciences innovations?  Resources that offer further insights on this topic are listed below.

Learn more:

  • Aspect 2020 Learning Report – To show examples of commercialisation, inspire academics and industry to participate in SS commercialisation and BE, and to build capacity and share learnings, a review of 15 case studies and a survey of Aspect members was conducted. It generated a list of 8 industries with high potential for adopting social sciences innovations. Case studies highlighted projects targeting NGOs/charities as the end users as well as identifying big industry sectors as healthcare, education, and general business processes.
  • BE Pilot Project Deep Dives – The BE COP conducted sector-specific deep dives within a subset of these industries: Fintech, Creative industries, Legal tech, and Health tech. The aim of these deep dives was to develop useful and insightful materials to support these sectors. Resources include clips, a newspaper article, and “Good Practice Guides”. These deep dives showed that these sectors were receptive to adopting social science innovation but there are still several challenges in executing collaborations.
  • Abacuss – Running in parallel to the BE COP activities, Aspect Members University of Glasgow and University of Manchester provided full-time, paid, 9-week internships for PhD students to help them diversify their capabilities. Project outputs and insights coming soon to the project page.
  • Methods for Change – This project provided training for academics and supplied them with how-to methods guides for using social science methodologies in business. The project explored multiple different applications of SS in sectors ranging from architecture, to human geography, to social policy and aimed to stimulate greater application of social science methods across industry, policy, third sector, and academia. Explore the resources on the Methods for Change project page.
  • Case Studies – Aspect commissioned unique case studies. Insights about Business Engagement coming soon to the Aspect website.
  • The Carer project – This project explored a collaboration between a start-up and a team of academics from the University of Sheffield. The collaboration was around Mobilise – a platform to support informal carers during lockdown for COVID-19. The Carer project shows both an example of business engagement in two forms: 1)  how academics are engaging with a start-up, and 2) through that collaboration it shows how social sciences can interact with local authorities. Read more in the project report.

3. Communicating the value proposition: What does industry want or need from Social Science?

The social sciences can provide unique insights into problems faced by industry such as: using behavioural sciences to analyse customer behaviour and looking at psychological trends on consumer behaviour as part of societal aims to support sustainability. However, there are still challenges that prevent social scientists collaborating with industry, primarily around the communication strategies between these two parties.

A lack of awareness amongst business about the value SS can bring is a known challenge for SS BE (see the Aspect Learning Report chapter on CHASS challenges – ADD LINK). Companies are not always aware what SociSci insights might include, and if they do, they see it as something they can understand themselves. Additionally, BE teams may not know what the specific needs are for industry with regards to SS applications.  A key topic explored in the BE Pilot Project Deep Dives is about how to position and communicate the value of SS to businesses.  More tips and examples of good practice, can be found in the deep dive project outputs and other resources below.

Learn more:

Some of the insights emerging from the deep dives include:

  • Fintech – Interviews with several small (2 employees) to medium (50 employees) companies highlighted an awareness of the value of social sciences but a lack of time, incentives, and knowledge to engage with professor-level academics. Companies often recognised SocSci problems but desired a technical solution rather than research information. Several companies also mentioned awareness of ethical and social science problems they faced, but these problems often demanded a technical solution, rather than consultation with a social scientist or social science innovation from a university. Both small and medium companies reported searching for startup or scaleup funding, and this might be an avenue of collaboration or value-add that universities can provide when seeking collaboration opportunities between the social sciences and universities. Read more here (LINK).
  • Creative industries – An investigation into activities between SocSci academics and the creative industries in the Northwest of England highlighted a plethora of activity in this area. The creative industries overall report a value in engaging with academics due to mutual interests and benefits.
  • Legal tech – A review of engagement and collaboration between law and industry at LSE and Manchester. Law firms have begun to recognise that innovation is changing the way legal services are delivered, for example using legaltech. There is a significant knowledge gap in this sector and a cultural shift is required to adapt to new ways of working. This is where some law firms believe that academic input can be valuable. Universities and academics recognise the value of engaging with industry on these topics, particularly to ensure that universities are teaching the right mix of skills for law in the future and how the legal sector can collaborate better with academia to ensure that the next generation of graduates are appropriately skilled. Discussions in this deep dive highlighted different approaches at both LSE and Manchester. LSE takes a more philosophical approach while Manchester is more hands-on. LSE did note that the interviews and workshops that were part of this deep dive encouraged reflection and engagement from their academics in these areas, which is promising for future collaborations between academia and industry. This might also be reflected in other universities across the UK.
  • Health tech – insights, comments, and project outputs coming soon to the project page.
  • Business Engagement Ideas Box – insights, comments, and project outputs coming soon to the project page.
  • Marketing Toolkit – The KE Comms CoP held two workshops in April 2021, exploring industry engagement – how to better communicate the value of social sciences to industry. Read more in the workshop summary and outputs.

4. Academic Engagement

The biggest challenges to BE with SS, as noted by Aspect members, that there is still a lack of participation and engagement from SS academics. BE COP members note this is due to a mixture of low awareness of the opportunities, lack of time (due to difference in group structure and teaching loads), and lack of interest or mistrust. This is linked to the original CHASS challenges – particularly that there tends to be a lack of “business skills” among SS researchers and that the incentives to undertake commercial work are lacking. Read more about these CHASS challenges in the Aspect 2020 Learning Report (LINK). An in-depth look at the barriers and motivators for academics engaging with industry can be found in the KE comms Toolkit (LINK).

Learn more:

BE Pilot Projects –

  • The Fintech deep dives revealed that small and medium companies were most interested in engaging with social scientists at the undergraduate or graduate levels, as opposed to professor-level academics. They viewed students as valuable assets they could train who might eventually join their company. Student internship programmes and Master’s programmes where participants can gain experience and continue on to full-time employment afterwards were noted as the preferable option for companies to engage with the social sciences.
  • The Funding Incentives workshop also commented on the importance of communication around the value of social science to industry. In particular, this workshop noted that funders should play a role in how this value is communicated through the design of their funding scheme and reporting mechanisms.
  • The LegalTech deep dive highlighted a fair bit of academic engagement with industry at Manchester due to their 4-year initative (The Manchester Law & Technology Initiative) to address the challenges faced by law firms with the rise in legaltech applications and startups to deliver law services. At LSE there is quite a bit of interest, but less activity. Academics recognise that legaltech is important for the future practice of, and ways of thinking about, law and regulation. They note the importance of LSE Law students to be exposed to these topics and although there is not yet a formal teaching curriculum in this area, it has been achieved informally and is likely to continue this way.
  • don’t see a lot of engagement, at Manchester there is a fair bit of engagement through law and technology initiative. LSE – more reflective of institutions – interest but not a lot of activity
  • The Creative Industries deep dive noted quite a bit of academic engagement with the creative industries, although this collaboration was ad-hoc and uncoordinated. The workshop group recognised the need of a framework to help academics more seamlessly and effectively engagement with industry as many academics are not aware that their university’s BE team could help them foster and execute these relationships.

  • Methods 4 Change – This project involved the production of how-to methods guides for using social science methodologies in business. Although it does not directly comment on academic engagement, these resources are valuable to maintain an open line of communication between universities and businesses.
  • Marketing Toolkit – This project was centred around a workshop on academic engagement, including the challenges faced by academics and how to improve communication around industry engagement about the challenges faced and how to communicate better. Read more in the workshop summary.
  • ENT COP Workshop Series– A workshop discussing the language surrounding entrepreneurship and understanding the role of language in reaching and supporting social science entrepreneurs. Read more in the workshop summary.

5. Funding for Social Sciences Business Engagement

As outlined in the 2020 Aspect Learning Report, the Aspect programme identified sufficient access to funding as a key requirement in providing “real” opportunities for academics to “test the waters” working with/in industry or on commercialisation projects, in addition to better understanding the transferability of their knowledge and skills. Aspect ran funded projects to provide academics with new sources of funding and new ways of generating impact and broadening the scope of their research. These projects found that many funding opportunities for social scientists were unsuitable. The funding models were adapted from a STEM model of engagement with an unhelpful focus on ROI and economic measures of success with timeframes for delivery based on technology transfer. These funding schemes also assumed a transactional relationship and were not necessarily appropriate for the majority of social science engagement with business.

In addition to providing funding to academics to encourage them to participate in these activities, it’s also important to discuss how to make this access sustainable and build in options to continue this engagement. The Funding Incentives Workshop hosted by the BE COP was aimed at a senior audience interested in how funding policy can be shaped to support social science innovation. The workshop was intended as a discussion starter and “white paper” for funders and/or policy makers.  The main talking points from this workshop were:

  • Social science leaders, funders, and universities can positively influence the concept of the value of social sciences and how best to communicate this to industry. It is critical for senior social science leaders to communicate the value proposition to a range of different audiences to motivate engagement and report outcomes.
  • Tailored funding schemes that facilitate long-term relationship-building models of engagement as opposed to transactional interactions are needed. These funding schemes should have appropriate, flexible timeframes, new outcome measures, and a flexible risk portfolio. Funders ultimately design the schemes, but they should consistently seek input from those that will apply for and use them including businesses, universities, and social scientists.
  • Rethinking organisational structures and strategies within universities is important to make it more likely that social science is considered for business engagement and social scientists can more easily access required support.

Learn more:

  • BE Funding Incentives Workshop – flexible funding, social science academic leadership, longer funding timeframes, and an appetite for risk are all key requirements to encourage social scientists to engage with businesses. Read more the in the workshop write up here.

Resources – Guidance, examples & tools

Below is a full list of the Aspect resources and project outputs, that are relevant for SS business engagement

Case studies

The full Aspect case study library – including examples form other COP areas – can also be accessed here:

  • coming soon

Project outputs

  1. Business Engagement Ideas Box. Exploring what a “joined up” approach looks like in Business Engagement. Link to project page.
  • Scoping Report. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Matrix/Model. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Workshop. Coming soon in July 2021.

2. Creative Industries Deep Dive. Exploring what best practice looks like in Creative Industries Business Engagement in both Yorkshire and Greater Manchester regions. Link to project page.

  • Report. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Good Practice Guide. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Workshop outputs. Coming soon in July 2021.

3. Fintech Deep Dive. Growing social science engagement with Fintech. Link to project page.

  • Videos. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Guide. Coming soon in July 2021.

4. Legal tech Deep Dive. Growing social science engagement with Legaltech. Link to project page.

  • Good practice guide. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Report from workshop 1. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Report from workshop 2. Coming soon in July 2021.

5. Health tech Deep Dive. Growing social science engagement with Healthtech. Link to project page.

  • Insight report. Coming soon in July 2021.

6. Diversity workshop. A guide for social science business engagement managers. LINK TO PROJECT PAGE

  • Guide. Coming soon in July 2021.

7. Funding Incentives Workshop. Discussing how funding policy can be shaped to support social science innovation. Link to project page.

  • White paper. Coming soon in July 2021.

8. Abacuss. Developing working models of intrapreneurship in the social sciences. Link to project page.

  • Case studies. Written by participating students about their project and outcomes. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Project report & Guide. An analysis of the delivery of Abacuss including a collection of student reflections and recommendations for future iterations. Coming soon in July 2021.
  • Project materials – welcome packs. Available to Aspect members only. Coming soon in July 2021.

9. Methods for Change. Impactful social science methodologies for 21st century problems. Link to project page.

  • Introduction to the project. A brief article written by the methods for change team outlining the importance of social science methodologies and how the project will seek to draw out innovative methods for the benefit of non-academic sectors. Link.
  • March 2021 project update. The methods for change team reflect on key lessons and challenges faced in their project so far. Link.
  • Research method outputs. A variety of research methods are available on the project page.

10. Carer Project. Supporting family and other informal carers as they adapt to caring under COVID-19 related conditions. Link to project page.

  • Challenges and opportunities for digitally supporting carers. A report on how digital technology can support carers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Link.

End of Toolkit