Business and Management INK

From Collision to Collaboration: Bridging University and Industry Relationships

May 17, 2024 415

In this article, Will Harvey and Paul Spee reflect on the importance of collaboration between industry and universities. This topic was the catalyst for their research article, “Walking the tightrope of academic and practitioner expectations in field research,found in Management Learning.

Collaborations between industry and universities are essential for tackling large and small challenges and for generating economic growth. Yet, many collaborations are stifled by a transactional approach to the relationship. Stereotypes of academics being stuck in their ivory towers and industrialists being profiteers can unhelpfully create tensions. For example, academics can be perceived as slow and interested in problems that exist only in the abstract realm of theory, whereas people working in industry and the so-called real world can be unfairly portrayed as hungry for quick and easy solutions to their problems.

The risk of low uptake of university-industry collaborations is too significant to ignore. We develop an alternative approach facilitating university-industry collaboration. We find that aligning expectations along three dimensions are key to a successful collaboration: time, incentives and norms. With time, academic horizons, particularly in relation to research, can be significantly longer compared to industry expectations. With incentives, high-quality research in the form of publications and grant income is an important currency, whereas in the industry, the development of a product, patent, or sales has far greater weight as an impact measure. With norms, the research process is essential for academics to ensure it is rigorous to meet the high standards of peer review, whereas with industry there can be greater emphasis on the relevance of the outcome for customers, clients and other groups. Not knowing how to start a collaboration is a key concern for both parties.

Our framework equips academics and managers to commence a collaboration and check on their progress, which is especially important given the volatility across society and the risk of collaborations failing. We help to understand what drives the behavior of both parties, recognising that this is complicated given that there is seldom a clear divide (e.g. people in industry with PhDs and people in academia coming from business careers) and can change at different stages of the collaboration.

If the arrival of a new CEO, the development of a new strategy, or a company acquisition is going to impact the progression of a research collaboration, then this needs to be raised by industry practitioners. Equally, if there are significant changes in the research team, problems with keeping to the timeline or funding issues then the sooner these problems are raised by academics, the easier it is for industry partners to adapt. Proactive communication for academics and industry collaborators establishes empathy, helps to build trust, and sustains relationships.

Academic and industry relations have been found wanting in Australia, which ranks consistently poorly in university-industry collaborations. While the ARC has promised to bolster research engagement and impact, we provide some guidance for academics and practitioners in the meantime.

For academics, understanding and adapting to the evolving expectations of practitioners, who are operating within their own distinct individual, organizational and environmental contexts, requires careful and constructive management. For practitioners, communicating with academics around any significant changes in individual, organizational, or environmental context when it impacts the planned design and agreed process of the research helps to maintain trust, manage expectations, and recalibrate outcomes.

At a time when economic growth and social division are a threat, it is important to remember the value that university and industry partnerships can bring, and to work hard to ensure those collaborations remain strong and enduring. This gives us a fighting chance of addressing some of the seemingly intractable economic, political, social and environmental challenges of our time.

Will Harvey (pictured) is a Professor of Leadership at Melbourne Business School. He is also an International Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Corporate Reputation and has a plethora of academic publications, all dealing with management and consulting. Paul Spee is an associate professor in the Business School at The University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a leading scholar in strategy and qualitative research with research interests in identifying the relevance of theory in practice and how practice can inform theory.

View all posts by Will Harvey and Paul Spee

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