Universities and software process development companies could hold the key to business survival in the networked economy.
More than 2,500 academic and business delegates at a recent Rational-Software user conference in Denver, Colorado, heard that as the global recession bites, learning institutions have the power to educate key computer professionals in ways that mesh more effectively with business needs.
John Lovitt, senior vice-president of professional services with the e-development company, said software process development companies could ensure that these key workers had a full toolset that would avoid catastrophic development failures while cutting costs and speeding production time.
He said that companies could develop better business processes by linking tools, documentation and practices with flexible education resources.
"In helping companies to develop best practices, we enable them to capture their most precious resource - intellectual property," he added.
Seth Ourfalian, a lecturer in the department of information and computer science at the University of California, Irvine, believed that these business processes needed to be mirrored in the undergraduate environment.
Mr Ourfalian, who has managed software testing groups at three high-tech companies, teaches a course in automated software testing where students learn about software lifecycles, maintenance and testability.
"The majority of students don't know much about formal testing methodologies - and many of those who do think it is boring or not challenging. They are unaware how important it is. Why not start them out early? There is no reason why students should wait until they graduate to receive training," he said. "Even if the students end up in development and not in testing, they are now more aware of the advantages of designing testable software."
Mr Lovitt said that the software development process was central to the strategy of any company and yet theories of the implementation of best practice were virtually non-existent. "Much of the time, the real assets of a company - the legacy knowledge of its employees - is locked away in the employees' heads. If a key employee leaves, that knowledge is lost forever to the company.
"We want to unlock that knowledge and help to distribute it, making it freely available to everyone who needs it."
Physical and virtual networking between the business world and academic institutions will speed this process.
Daniel Shiffman, Rational's intellectual property group senior vice-president, said that results of this networking would not often be immediately apparent.
"There is a long loop of development in education. For example, processes developed using unified modelling language could take time to feed back from business to university. It could be a long time before changes are made at the grass roots.
He said:"We've found that university courses produce graduates who are very capable of developing business applications with maybe one or two other people in a small team, but there is no experience of scale. In the real world, the teams are much bigger. Companies have to spend time and resources to train new employees.
"There are very few new graduates who are capable of managing software projects. There is a complex range of skills necessary for real-world development that few graduates have."
Mr Shiffman added that there was a tendency for students to specialise too early, which made it difficult for them to be flexible or even employable when they graduated. "We want to speed and enrich the in-job education process, making sure that virtually every piece of intellectual property within a company is available on the web," he said.
Rational is to publish key content from the IEEE Computer Society Digital Library on its developer network and is offering a blueprint for the release of IP assets through the meshing of its university, the Rational Unified Process and the developer network. The goal is a corporate web that distributes intellectual assets and delivers tools on demand to students and other users.