Universities taking a seat at the innovation table

In 1957, a young engineering university was founded to overcome the economic decline and support manufacturing in its region. It went on to inspire Canada’s ‘technology triangle’, the birthplace of Blackberry and in excess of 500 new technology companies. This story contrasts with many other Canadian regions that went through a similar decline but without a similar university-driven rejuvenation.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Worldwide, policy-makers are attempting to reposition universities as central players in a knowledge-driven (smart) regional or national innovation system.

Beyond being merely a source of next generation technologies, a broader vision has emerged that higher education institutions have a leading role to play in their region through education, research and knowledge leadership contributing to the human capital and innovation value chains of industry.

In this scenario, mutually beneficial cooperation between university and business means that students will be better prepared to meet the talent needs of employers, that research output will be more in line with industrial innovation and that regions can develop smart specialisations and promising new ventures.

The story of how Canada’s ‘technology triangle' developed in a relatively short period of time, driven by strong leadership at the University of Waterloo, provides inspiration for how good-quality education and research can co-exist and prosper through embracing university-business cooperation.

For those universities successful in navigating the path of industry engagement, there are significant bounties on offer, including improved reputation, greater and better quality research output, improved finances benefiting students, business, universities and academics alike.

University leadership required

However, if universities are to find an appropriate balance between this ‘third mission’ and the traditional values offered by universities, such as blue sky research and academic freedom, strong, skilled university leadership will be required.

To truly take a seat at the regional innovation table, universities need to take a more comprehensive and holistic approach to this readjustment by addressing a number of key issues facing universities which seek to collaborate with industry.

Combining the results from the largest international study completed into cooperation between universities and business, together with more than 15 years of practical and research experience of university-business cooperation, we offer the following playbook for university leaders wanting to transform, or at least adjust, the focus of their institution towards greater industry collaboration.

University Leaders’ Industry Cooperation Playbook

Below are some barriers to full cooperation and some suggestions of how to overcome them.

  • Issue 1 – Collaboration with industry is not yet aligned with the role(s) of the university

    Despite a recognition by most university leaders of the need to cooperate with business, there is a lack of clarity about the role the university should have in respect to business and a narrow perspective of where there are areas of collaboration potential. This partly relates to a lack of clarity about how the two can collaborate, especially with regard to education and management.

    University managers and academics who perceive that cooperating with industry is part of the university mission are significantly more likely to engage in cooperation.

    Action: Create a workshop for university management and trusted industry partners to discuss to what extent the university could collaborate with business and how it could make a more substantial contribution in the region generally.

  • Issue 2 – There is a lack of top-level commitment to cooperate with industry

    Frequently, university leaders name university-business cooperation in the mission, vision and strategy for the university but then fail to provide real commitment to creating relationships with business.

    Back up the mission statement with a responsible board member, dedicated resources (for example, finances, support personnel, infrastructure and equipment investment), ensure work time is dedicated to it and positively promote it. Those universities that dedicate resources (not just ‘paper strategies’) to developing cooperation are significantly further down the path towards better cooperation.

    Action: Give a board member the role of industry engagement backed up with a dedicated budget and personnel responsible for the area.

  • Issue 3 – There is a lack of incentives for academics to cooperate

    Globally, academics are often forgotten in the university-business cooperation equation. They consistently say that most benefits from university-business cooperation go to students, then business and the university and that they receive the least benefits.

    University leaders should establish adequate incentives for academics such as rewards, reduced teaching time or including university-business cooperation in the performance assessment and career paths of academics.

    Action: Leaders could run a focus group or interview academics to identify how they could be incentivised to cooperate.

  • Issue 4 – There is a lack of focus on relationship-building

    Both business and academia worldwide list their biggest driver for undertaking university-business cooperation as ‘mutually-beneficial relationships’. Despite this, the focus of university-business cooperation efforts at many universities is on making money from technologies rather than building respectful relationships. Furthermore, nothing kills a new relationship faster than unrealistic expectations and a bureaucratic labyrinth.

    Management should seek to build respect and understanding on both sides as well as the environments in which these relationships can develop. A significant source of university-business cooperation is through past and present students, so look to already existing relationships between academics and graduates and alumni as a source of such cooperation.

    Action: Leaders should reduce bureaucracy in university-business cooperation as a priority. Following this, they should start with some smaller collaborative projects that allow both business and academics to ‘test-drive’ the relationship. They should be sure to manage expectations on both sides potentially by creating a ‘how to work with business/universities’ fact sheet and-or workshops.

The way forward needs to be tailored to the situation

While we have listed the most common issues with some general suggestions and initial action, each situation is different and influenced by the faculty and institutional, regional or national circumstances. To start on the right foot, it is important to first identify the most prominent issues affecting university-business cooperation, either through a survey or internal-external review.

The possibility of leading a university into a more prominent position locally and regionally and taking control of the university’s destiny exists, but strong leadership is required to overcome the issues facing university-business cooperation within and outside the organisation.

Dr Todd Davey is a professor at Munich Business School, director of strategy at the University-Industry Innovation Network and author of the book Entrepreneurship at Universities. Dr Victoria Galan-Muros is a senior consultant at Technopolis Group and author of the book The University-Business Cooperation Ecosystem. Arno Meerman is the CEO of the University-Industry Innovation Network. All authors work or collaborate with the Science-to-Business Marketing Research Centre, Germany. Identifying the extent of cooperation and the most prominent issues facing university-business cooperation in Europe is the focus of their current study for the European Commission in 2016-17. An international version of the study was launched in November. To partake in the study or find out more, click here.