Building more productive industry-university partnerships

Michael Valos and Alvin Lee explore the benefits and barriers of fostering relationships between businesses and educational institutions.

This article originally appeared in The Serve Issue, our October/November issue of Marketing magazine »

The current crop of innovation driven companies collaborate closely with universities.

Facebook recently allied with 17 universities, and Google and IBM have always cooperated closely with educational institutions to develop areas like artificial intelligence (AI). The information and knowledge that flow from these partnerships help them gain and sustain competitive advantage.

Paradoxically, Australia – where research and discovery institutions are globally ranked in the top 1 to 2% – ranks last in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) for business-university collaboration. How do we turn this around?

 

Benefits

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 10.22.05 AMClaus Otto from Shell has a good question, “What can these university centres do better or differently than we can?”

Paul Pierotti, president of the Griffith Business Chamber and a recent collaborator with the authors on a place trust-mark creation project to increase the value of products and produce from the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area answers:

“Collaborating with university brings more credibility to a project and facilitates access to a wider range of stakeholders. University lecturers handpick students to work on the projects and deliver work that is as good as, or better, than industry at a very competitive rate. Overall, the relationship is very good value for money and has provided insights that are concrete and theory driven.”

This highlights the cornerstone of industry-academy collaborations. Universities have students who are bright and willing. Higher education also provides an external and a big-picture perspective to challenge and/or validate organisational thinking.

University researchers have developed and honed their lateral thinking skills under a publish-or-perish regime; to be published, they need to develop novel concepts and demonstrate their workability. This type of lateral problem solving is diagonal to the nature of industry work, which is often consumed by routine that leads to missing innovation initiatives.

Partnerships also let managers access academic skills in investigative methodology. Well-published faculties tend to have a depth of understanding of research processes that are not generally available to executives. This complements the executive’s knowledge about how things are done in industry and helps to solve new problems.

Undertaking applied research that addresses the needs of business, while also adding to the existing knowledge base, has been a hallmark of the research undertaken by Professor Andrew Noblet. Having worked with organisations to develop strategies that can protect and promote the health of employees, Noblet believes that developing collaborative decision-making processes that generate a sense of joint ownership is critical for building lasting partnerships.

“Our role is not to tell companies what to do. Instead, we need to work with all levels of the organisational hierarchy to identify issues and problems that are important to them and then to use their ideas and insights to come up with sustainable solutions.”

There are members of academia who work across disciplines and others with depth of focus in a small, defined area. Both add value to industry in terms of breadth and depth of expertise.

While industry uses a short-term quarterly focus, educational institutions work with longer time scales. The contrast is complementary: business focuses on doing, while academics are afforded the luxury to think through the intricacies of concepts more deeply, so that business can do it better.

A large benefit is reputational as affiliation and publication between researchers, universities, executives and companies bring synergy to projects. This builds a franchise to attract customers and better employees.

 

Barriers

MK1017 200Who owns the intellectual property that is developed? Professor Chris Dubelaar submits a solution: “The research data created in working with an industry partner is invaluable for academic publication, as long as you have a clear arrangement of what can be used. You don’t want to damage the organisation by publishing too early or in a way that defeats their competitive advantage.”

Some executives lament that academics are not commercially oriented. Indeed, some universities are populated by researchers who lack industry experience and credibility. This is improving. With university accreditation metrics that measure how universities engage with the community and industry, lecturers have to get ‘practical’ experience. Universities are also bureaucratic places that have slow processes; this is counter to the industry partner’s normally speedy responses.

Vague findings that cannot be used to create courses of action can kill a partnership. This happens because many scientists struggle to focus on key deliverables and overload the industry partner with irrelevant findings and lengthy discussion. This can be overcome through better vetting processes that scrutinise the communication processes to confer research findings.

Some researchers hurry to publish their findings, to the detriment of the industry partner. Here, industry must clearly indicate in the contract that they have the ability to embargo publication before the idea is commercialised. Sometimes, the contract needs to include provisions to maintain the firm’s anonymity to protect competitive advantages.

In the Murrumbidgee project, we worked closely with industry to tease out the strengths of each party. We supported each other to identify the result that was needed, the way to achieve the result and the give-and- take when negotiating the contract.

Despite these barriers, all is not lost. We have collaborated successfully with companies like CGU, Federation Square, Griffith Business Council, Heinz and the AFL. We have also delivered multiple projects for NFPs, NGOs (non-government organisations) and government.

Sloan MIT Management Review reports, “Too often, companies pursue collaboration with university researchers in an ad hoc, piecemeal manner. But by giving more thought to the relationship structure, companies can achieve better results.”

Success comes from cooperation mindset, integrity, flexibility and respect for the perspective that industry and academy bring.

The highlight of any collaboration is what the students bring.

Scott Gunther, general manager of customer insights at IAG, writes partnerships provide a completely fresh approach to insights and research. “Not only do we have youth and enthusiasm and a desire to do an amazing job, we have perspectives and opinions that aren’t jaded. Of note is also the generational skew that university students can bring, as they are in the Gen Z and Gen Y demographic, and this is our next generation of customer.”

 

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