Synergizing Shared Leadership between Academia and Community for Sustainable Socio-Economic Development


By Jakaria Dasan & Fatimah Ahmedy

It is frustrating for a community to keep dealing with the issues on sustaining local businesses, especially for projects that serve as the primary sources of income for the community that heavily dependent on the continuous supply of natural resources. Concurrently, the community's ecosystems require appropriate management to ensure harmonious interaction between people and the surrounding environment. Dealing with these issues requires strategic and practical solutions from the right experts. These experts would impart the knowledge and skills for implementing these solutions to the community as the principal tool for empowerment. Many of these experts are researchers and lecturers in universities, i.e. university academia, therein abundance of opportunity for university academia to come forward and share their expertise and innovations with the community by putting sustainability agenda as the main priority.

Academia has a significant role in ensuring that the impact and output from research conducted can be shared with the community through knowledge transfer. If planned and executed in an orderly manner, the transfer of knowledge would yield long-term impact as a result of a strategic engagement between the university and the community. In reality, academia can offer expertise in various fields including but not limited to the economy, health, agriculture, aquaculture, and information technology that would facilitate the socio-economic development. Transferring knowledge fulfils the true meaning of social obligation that academia can deliver to the society.

In Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), the Centre for Sustainable Society Engagement (CSSE) is responsible for expanding the impact of university academia's research output and innovations and translated to the community. CSSE acts as the university's one-stop centre and the liaison bridge between UMS, community, and relevant stakeholders involved in community development. The centre is obliged to make sure that the sharing from academia would increase human capital development and socio-economic status of the community and preserve the well-being of the people while reducing inaccessibility and inequalities to many aspects of opportunities and services. The impact of knowledge transfer must be felt by the people, especially for those residing in the Sabah's remote and rural areas.

In this regard, CSSE intends to expand the academia's impact to the community living far beyond the boundary of the urban areas even if it means the needs to travel into the heart of thick jungle of Borneo. For instance, the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area (KIKK), Maliau Basin Conservation Area (KKLM), and Danum Valley Conservation Area (KKLD) – these are the protected areas in the Crocker Range of Sabah Parks. This intention would be achievable through a close collaboration between the community and academia, government agencies in Sabah, such as Yayasan Sabah and Sabah Parks, industry, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and philanthropists who are willing to contribute for developing targeted communities in these areas. This is just one of the many initiatives planned by CSSE towards realising the objectives of U4S (University for Society). Governed by the Ministry of Higher Education, the implementation of U4S is in line with Malaysian Education Blueprint 2015-2025 and based on Redesign University Higher Education: University, Industry and Community Engagement’ that emphasises on quadruple helix framework (Fig. 1). Here, U4S promotes sustainable relationship between academia, community, government and industry for impactful engagement towards positive long-term benefits to the community.

Creating lasting benefits through community engagement requires collaborative efforts and gear towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). United Nation is continuously updating and revising the SDGs' indicators to ensure the plan for developing any community must be sustainable and inclusive to all age groups and abilities. In Malaysia, the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department has carefully architectured the SDG governance structure, led by the National SDG Council. This council works closely with a team consisting of members from the UN agencies, private sector, NGOs and academia that form the National Steering Committee.

The implementation of SDGs in Malaysia is in agreement with the national development plan covering the economic, social and environmental agenda. Such alignment is realised through a mapping exercise that sees how the action plans, initiatives and outcomes are coherent with SDGs goals, targets and indicators. To enhance the understanding of SDGs among academia when it comes to developing a community, Akademi Kepimpinan Pendidikan Tinggi (AKEPT) and UMS have collaborated and created a leadership-based program to inculcate the quality of shared leadership among potential future leaders of public universities in Malaysia.

This program, named “AKEPT-UMS SDG Leadership” is designed through experiences that it is imperative to understand the root of challenges relevant to the contextual setting when it comes to engaging with the community. The program developed by Dr Fatimah Ahmedy (UMS) and Dr Jakaria Dasan (UMS) focuses on shared leadership as the lynchpin for successful community engagement and development between multiple entities based on the targets laid by SDGs. The program's end purpose is part of the approaches to implant U4S initiative into academia's mindset.

This module aimed to shift the typical mindset of academia that when it comes to delivering any community-based projects, the output is directed towards socio-economic development and highlights the spirit of shared leadership. It is not uncommon to observe a vertical-type leadership upon venturing into the process of developing a community. However, this type of human-relationship behaviour is negatively associated with team effectiveness. On the other hand, shared leadership stressed horizontal leadership and demonstrated through transactional and transformative behaviours from the leaders of relevant entities. The result concedes empowering action from the team players, especially among community leaders and their members.

In many instances, developing a community is stereotyped by addressing the community-based needs through individual(s) judgement marred by perceptions and executing solutions that might be relevant but not prioritised by the community. This concept lacks in the continuous engagement and impact monitoring that determines sustainability. Frequently, developing the community by the academia is inclined towards one-way relationship, i.e. the university bringing in social innovations to the community while missing the needs for a more comprehensive collaboration with other entities.

Understanding the needs for a strong collaboration with multiple entities based on this quadruple helix framework (Fig. 1), recognising each entity's distinctive virtues and expertise coupled with shared leadership quality, serve as the main skeleton in securing success with any community engagement. With numerous ethnics and geographical diversities, there are plenty of potentials for many communities in Sabah to be explored and developed. Bestowed with these challenges, UMS is honoured to receive the opportunity for turning challenges into a leadership training platform for the future university leaders in this program.

The continuity of university engagement with the community must be interconnected for a strategic partnership. A strong relationship between the university and the community with shared goals for enhancing the community's economic prosperity and environmental sustainability would pave the way for a thriving community development. University often visualised as a social institution that imparts significant obligations to the society. Knowledge transfer and sharing by the university to the community have led to the latter's needs turning to the former as the problem solver. In other words, universities like UMS have to be well-prepared and stay relevant to the social expectations, hence the needs for a long-term relationship-building.

The expertise and knowledge that usually shared through the interaction between academia (with students) and the community have now expanded and moved towards producing and marketing products and services that would boost the community's socio-economic life in the long run. A firm trust that UMS foster with the community for impactful partnership would have to involve students to guarantee an up-to-date and relevant knowledge transfer are delivered. After they have graduated, these students would return to their communities and continue the social obligations of academia.



Dr Jakaria Dasan is the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Society Engagement (CSSE), UMS. He is also a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Business, Economics and Accountancy, UMS with specialisation in the field of Human Resource Management.

Dr Fatimah Ahmedy is the current Head of Department of Medical Education, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences, UMS. As a rehabilitation medicine specialist, she is continuously working in multidisciplinary teams and practices the concept of shared leadership.

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