The pitfalls of working with industry (and how to avoid them)

Ahead of the THE Innovation and Impact Summit, speaker Max Lu looks at the challenges of university-industry partnership

May 26, 2017
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The THE Innovation and Impact Summit takes place in Hong Kong next week


Times Higher Education recently identified my institution, the University of Surrey, as a Tech Challenger – a global list of 55 institutions that have been innovative in their approach to research collaboration and funding.

Surrey’s position is a result of its close links with business and industry. Indeed, it was this ethos that attracted me, a Chinese Australian, to move across the world to take the vice-chancellorship. 

Partnerships between academia and business must be founded on clear and shared understandings of how each partner can add value to the other. Industry has much to offer academia, not least funding, access to real-world problems, insight into technology trends, and market intelligence. In the new age of open innovation, researchers must work through multiple and varied channels, just as the outcomes of their work will travel to multiple and varied destinations. 

What academia can offer to industry is similarly varied. Companies value access to highly skilled talent – primarily graduates, but also in the form of expertise, training services, and industry network facilitation. Innovative companies look to universities, on the one hand, for new solutions to existing problems and, on the other, for pipelines to deliver future innovation. And where universities benefit from the diversified funding afforded by business, companies can leverage the research capacity that academia has developed through long-term public funding. 

However, differences in culture and organisational focus between academia and business will greatly affect partnerships, and will need to be recognised and anticipated. Business will prioritise profit and must respond rapidly to market forces; academia will look for sustained excellence, long-term reputation and infrastructure growth.

Business will tend towards low-risk ventures; academic research can be more speculative and exploratory in nature. By way of example, intellectual property can be a point of divergent expectations: in my experience, negotiations over its ownership have occasionally threatened to derail more constructive discussions about an innovation’s best applications. These different perspectives must be understood and managed, with robust mechanisms to review and assess outcomes of the partnership. More often than not, a middle ground can be found that will prove fertile for fruitful collaborations. 

There are some common pitfalls in such relationships between academia and industry. These can relate to communication, particularly when there is either inadequate face-to-face contact or too many formal interactions without due consideration of social needs. Other possible pitfalls relate to misunderstanding of roles and personnel. Companies sometimes assume the role of the university leader to be directly equivalent to a CEO. Vice-chancellors are CEOs in legal terms, but in practice they are more like the head academic, leading and inspiring the academic community. They are accountable to multitudes of stakeholders, but no shareholders.

Similarly, the motivations of academics can also be misread, given the cultural differences between academia and business, as can the motivations of university departments themselves. The key is transparency and constant communication across formal and informal channels. 

There are ways in which universities can make life easier for companies looking to engage in a partnership. Universities are many in number and can appear opaque in their operations to outsiders. Single points of contact are always useful, alongside easy access to information about the expertise within individual departments and centres.

In many countries and sectors, navigational help is available: industry and professional organisations, not least regional cluster associations, provide useful services in facilitating partnerships between academia and industry. Similarly, universities will need to develop governance structures appropriate to the partnership at hand, which consider the industry partner’s needs across the short, medium, and long terms. 

Finding complementary strengths and ambitions is vitally important. Clearly, there are substantial technical and investment opportunities, but any successful partnership or collaboration should take a holistic view of the whole spectrum of possible outcomes: from talent and skill transfer, to capacity and reputation building, to social impact.

At Surrey, we consider our partnership approach to represent our competitive advantage. Successful partnerships with business and industry will distinguish the leading institutions of the future, as they provide practice-centred education and impactful research to positively change the world. 

Max Lu is vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, and will be speaking at the THE Innovation and Impact Summit in Hong Kong next week.

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