Our Academic-Industry ‘Research Sprints’ Can Solve Problems in 30 Days

October 26, 2023
Three snails slowing moving toward 'finish' tape
If this is your vision of the pace of traditional academic research sprints, the authors of this piece have some advice for you. (Photo: Michal Jarmoluk /Pixabay)

Picture a world where academic research is fast, practical, and beneficial to everyone involved.

In reality, making university research practical, which typically requires working with industry, can take many years. By that time, it might be too late for it to be of benefit.

Research has been singled out as a key priority for the upcoming Australian Universities Accord. The review team has called for advice on “more effective” collaboration between universities and industry to solve “big challenges.”

We are a research group of academics with years of industry experience in global corporations, designers who have worked on everything from airplane cabin controls to wooden sunglasses, and early career researchers, hoping to see their work address problems that matter.

We have devised an approach to make university and industry collaboration effective.

Why traditional research needs a makeover

We have seen it way too many times: academia and industry often struggle to collaborate well.

Traditional academic research can be slow, focusing on advancing knowledge and peer recognition, while freely sharing results.

In contrast, industry research is driven by commercial dynamics and seeks practical solutions to real-world problems as quickly as possible. Often this is done in secret to protect potential profits.

This difference in goals, interests, approaches, incentives and timeframes leads to unique challenges when academics and industry partners work together.

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This article by Marek Kowalkiewicz, Ivano Bongiovanni, and Peter Townson originally appeared on The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “We solve problems in 30 days through ‘research sprints’: other academics can do this too.” This article is part of The Convesation Australia’s series on big ideas for the Universities Accord. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reimagine higher education, and set it up for the next decade and beyond.” A review team is due to finish a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.

But ultimately, the two need one another. To achieve impact in the real world, universities need to work with industry to implement their research. And industry benefits from academic research, as it is not constrained by traditional ways of thinking and timeline pressures.

Introducing research sprints

We started doing “research sprints” in 2015.

We drew inspiration from the “design sprint,” which began at Google. The idea is to build and test a prototype in just five days.

We committed to having all our research projects embrace this same philosophy. We were also guided by “design thinking,” which means we prioritize humans and think first and foremost about the people we are researching for and how the research can meet their needs, while of course ensuring research rigor.

We learned (the hard way) that five days is not enough to ensure research rigor. So our sprints are now always 30 days long – not a day shorter, not a day longer. This pace is bearable for academics and acceptable for industry.

This is how we do it

In our research sprints, we bring together researchers, industry partners, end-users and stakeholders to tackle specific problems and develop practical solutions.

First, we work side-by-side with the industry partner to define the problem, collecting data to understand user and stakeholder needs. Then we brainstorm and co-design solutions, and select the best ones. This is where we tap into our academic research.

After this, we create prototypes and test them with end-users. Finally, we provide the solution to the client for implementation.

But there’s no “handover” – we literally lock ourselves in the same room with partner organizations during each sprint. We’re down in the trenches, rather than up in the ivory tower.

40 sprints so far

Since 2015, we have done about 40 research sprints. Our clients have included state government agencies, local government departments, financial service providers, and manufacturers.

Our projects have included designing superannuation services for gig economy workers, a “digital maturity benchmark” service (which measures an organization’s digital impact) for a consultancy, or the first version of the Queensland government’s Business Launchpad, which helps start and run a small business.

We were also involved with one of the banks that initiated the Digital Fraud Reporting Exchange, which shares victim information, not just the perpetrator data.

We also run sprints for government policy. We co-created the Queensland government’s Digital Economy Strategy during a research sprint.

Research sprints have a high success rate. In about 63% of cases, the client organizations have implemented or are working on implementing our solutions.

Where do research sprints work best?

Of course, there are times when sprints will not work. Academic research often takes time, and there are situations where expecting results in 30 days is a pipe dream.

Some research questions are also simply of no interest to industry. And that’s OK.

We understand it and carefully focus only on introducing industry-academia collaboration where it makes sense. For us, this is “the first mile” and “the last mile” of research.

We recently ran a research sprint with almost 40 Ph.D. students as participants and five partner organizations. The students now have a much better understanding of the potential impact of their research. And this “first mile” sprint gives them the necessary motivation to continue their work.

The “last mile” is where we translate mature research work into industry-relevant solutions. Most of our commercial research work happens there.

How can we get more academics to ‘sprint?’

The current academic model does not encourage effective collaboration with industry. There are no incentives for academics when their research is implemented. There are no benefits for demonstrating alignment of research with problems industry recognizes as important.

When a researcher publishes a paper in a respectable journal, it directly translates to their chances to be promoted, and often leads to additional funds from the university. Successful collaboration with industry should lead to exactly the same type of rewards: career growth and research budget.

Regardless of incentives being present or not, our experience shows once academics have had a chance to participate in a research sprint, they never look back.

How can we make sure more academics are engaging in research sprints? We think we should start by giving every higher degree research student a chance to participate in a research sprint as part of their academic training.

This means every young academic would begin their career by understanding how to make research fast, practical, and beneficial to everyone involved.

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