Critical success factors in university-industry collaborations

29 Nov 2012 | Viewpoint
University-industry partnerships have never been more important in developing a knowledge-based economy. This makes it critical to understand the drivers and barriers to effective collaboration, says Tatiana Schofield

In today’s fast-moving business and commercial environment, university-industry collaborations are playing a critical role in helping countries, in particular the emerging economies, to develop and maintain a competitive advantage.

In recognition of this, national governments are formulating policies that foster university-industry partnerships, to encourage open innovation and accelerate technology commercialisation, stimulate national growth, improve competitiveness.

One important tool here is the so-called ‘Triple Helix’ development strategy in which interactive relationships between universities, industry and government are used in a deliberate and thoughtful way to develop innovation mechanisms and build stronger links between the private and public research sectors.

This model is increasingly being adopted by developing countries to accelerate the transition to a knowledge-based economy.

Contradictory objectives

The university-industry landscape involves multiple stakeholders with multiple - often contradictory - objectives and organisational cultures. Companies are facing relentless pressure from growing competition, shortening product life cycles and increased complexity. They must therefore look outside their boundaries, to explore external sources of innovation, new ideas and new capabilities, and to gain access to the latest academic research.

Developing partnerships with universities helps companies leverage government funding and reduce the cost of their R&D.

At the same, universities are coming under pressure to move from an ivory tower mentality to an entrepreneurial mindset, and are becoming key contributors to national innovation. They are demonstrating a growing appetite to exploit their knowledge bases and to commercialise technologies.

Different time horizons

Despite what could be seen as a unity of purpose, university-industry collaborations are characterised by inherent differences in objectives and organisational cultures:

Firstly, there are differences in time horizons, with universities focussing on long-term development, while industry has to look for short-term financial returns.

Secondly, there are different approaches to the question of confidentiality, with universities aiming to publish their research results, while companies want to protect their knowledge as a source of competitiveness.

Thirdly, organisational culture in universities is based on curiosity-driven research, which can be at odds with the practical, problem-solving approach that is required by industry.

These generic differences can present a challenge to the smooth-running of university-industry partnerships in general. But to understand the contribution university-industry partnerships can make in the context of emerging markets – and to create a supportive policy framework - it is critical to take a holistic approach that considers all the specific factors that are in play, and integrates external, internal and cultural analysis.

-    At an external level, the evaluation process needs to consider market conditions, economic, political and legal risks. Knowledge transfer collaborations in the emerging market context have additional challenges such as market stability, knowledge absorption capacity, local education and capabilities.

-    Internal factors include the type of knowledge that is being transferred, the organisational structures of both partners, and their relationship.

The knowledge context is characterised by knowledge application capacity, technical risks and technology maturity. A company’s organisational context relates to its ability to integrate knowledge into its value chain.

In term of how a university can support collaborations, it is critical to have an incentive system in place, reinforced by policies supporting industrial engagement with dedicated resources and support from senior management. In addition, researchers must be motivated to work with industry.

Finally, mutual trust, long term focus and transparency are important ingredients in building and developing university-industry collaborations.

Cultural differences add complexity

While university-industry partnerships are increasingly expanding into the global research arena, national cultural differences add further to the complexities of developing and implementing international research collaborations. Cultural intelligence and cultural empathy are key success factors in developing university-industry partnership in emerging markets.

The factors discussed above can form a framework to be used as a decision-making tool when evaluating potential research collaborations with international partners. Considering all these levels of analysis during the evaluation process and addressing potential challenges in advance, can significantly reduce risks and increase the probability of success.

University-industry partnership is increasingly playing a key role in developing innovation supply chains and knowledge transfer ecosystems. It is critical to understand the nature of this form of collaboration, the critical success factors and the potential barriers.

Tatiana Schofield is Business Development Manager at Imperial College Consultants, London

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