The Fundaments of University Business Collaboration

University Industry Interaction Conference was held in Dublin this year and over 400 participants attended from all over the world. The three-day conference witnessed lively discussion on how to more efficiently facilitate cooperation between higher education institutions and businesses, including the public sector and NGOs. I attended workshops, heard several presentations, made new contacts and had eye-opening discussions – from all this I extrapolated the following three take-home messages relevant for establishing sound University-Business Collaboration (hereafter UBC).

1. In Trusted Relationships We Trust

When discussing engaging in UBC with researchers or companies, quite soon we find ourselves discussing money – viz. that there should be funding from universities, companies or the government in order to launch collaboration between academics and businesses. However, it is crucial to understand that the very basis of cooperation is not build upon money, but upon mutual trust.

Both academics and businesses value trusted relationships; meaning that the engaged parties should trust each other, be genuinely committed to collaboration and have shared goals for collaboration.

The importance of trust cannot be over-emphasized, due to the very human fact that we tend to share more with our friends. Hence, it follows that UBC is often a long-term game: first the parties meet and get to know each other better, then they start defining common goals, and finally agree on some form of cooperation. During this process, mutual trust is gradually built up, the cooperation deepens, and the gains for both parties increase. In a nutshell, cooperation starts to have an impact for academia and businesses – and finally on making the world a better place.

Again, to state the obvious, collaboration is a human business, and therefore it all boils down to communication. It is important that the parties understand each other and are also aware of the opportunities the partner can provide. Further, it is futile to try to cooperate if the people involved are not genuinely interested. This implies for universities that we should find those individuals who are interested in UBC, light the flame and watch good things happen.

2. It Is a Team Effort

Collaboration entails that at least two persons work together towards a shared objective; and this simple truth contains important wisdom. Namely, typically businesses tackle problems and find solutions to them in teams. Consequently, an efficient UBC requires an efficient team – a selection of people with different but complementary skills and expertise. Again, communication plays a key role, and the players in a team must be receptive to each other’s ideas in order to collectively work towards the most efficient solution. Ask any researcher who has experience in UBC, and she will definitely say that her mindset has changed, simply because the operating logic of the business world are different from that of academia. For that reason too, a particularly valuable asset is people with experience from both worlds; researchers with business experience or business people with a background in academic research.

The above may seem like just a platitude, but the required capabilities for team work in UBC should not be overlooked. First of all, academia tends to award individuals on the basis of individual achievements – and this already creates a very different cultural setting for academics.

Companies, in turn, need comprehensive – multidisciplinary, if you like – solutions, and for that reason they prefer heterogeneous teams with all kinds of relevant assets.

Companies need to evolve all the time, and thus they value people who are open to new ideas and capable of going outside their comfort zones. Finally, if you are looking for enthusiastic people with open minds, would you not say that students fit the picture? And of course, the earlier that academics learn the basics of UBC, the easier collaboration will be in the future. Often students are excellent bridge-builders between academia and the business world.

3. Incentives or Making It All Attractive

Academics and businesses are united in treating time like gold; everyone wants to use precious working hours as efficiently as possible. Consequently, every action should have the promise of a reward. For academia, lesson number one is that UBC should be made attractive for those rare individuals who are interested in it. Far too often you hear stories of academics who collaborate with businesses, but they are crushed under their workloads, since they still have to take care of all their other duties. UBC should be made worthwhile for academics, and their workloads should encompass the requirements of UBC activities. One aspect of the same phenomenon is that UBC activities are not acknowledged when filling academic positions. Higher education institutions willingly highlight successful UBC cases for boosting their brand images, but the risks of UBC are left for researchers alone. In that kind of setting, one should not wonder why it is so hard to find volunteers for UBC.

To recapitulate, universities should find individuals interested in UBC, and then give them resources – recognition, time and other incentives.

If anything, this should be a platitude, since many studies inevitably show that incentives are the most efficient way of producing impact and motivating academics to engage in collaboration with businesses and other stakeholders.

Krister Talvinen