Developing relationships between universities and business brings forth the analogy of one being from Mars the other Venus, when comparing the different institutional cultures, functions, and motivations. Given that these two don’t naturally cooperate and that one of the most important facilitators of university-business cooperation are the relationships between people, supporting mechanisms are often needed for successful cooperation.
The 2016-2017 European study on the state of university-business cooperation (UBC) in Europe, investigated the development of these mechanisms across Europe, specifically in relation to the question: Are European higher education institutions equipped with the right organisational structures to reduce the impact when the two worlds of universities and businesses collide?
The study findings show that these structural mechanisms are often not present and therefore jeopardise the development of university-business relationships.
European university managers indicated that there is only moderate development of these structural mechanisms with the most developed being employability and career services, followed by bridging structures (including agencies dedicated to UBC, board-level position appointed and industry liaison offices) with bridging infrastructure (such as institutes, incubators, co-working spaces) and external integration structures less developed.
Positively however, the high development of the board members committed to university-business cooperation (second most development structure) shows that European universities do to some degree recognize the importance of this topic. Given that bridging infrastructure generally requires a longer-term commitment and a high level of finance, it is not surprising that this is less developed. Nevertheless, these structures will be more evident in a mature UBC ecosystem that is conducive for the development of university-business relationships.
When creating a structure to support UBC, keep it simple
Simplicity and flexibility is the key when it comes to universities and businesses establish long, strategic relationships. It allows both academics and companies (particularly SMEs) to engage more successfully, since one of the main barriers of both actors is their lack of time. Such structures provide a framework into which stakeholders can invest time and finances without getting lost into formal procedures or lengthy conversations.
In support of these findings, many best practice institutions indicated their structures are complex and rigid by nature, which require greater efforts by the leadership and staff to simplify the cooperation processes. Meanwhile, those who identified this as a challenge and generated solutions confirmed that simplified structures have contributed considerably in the extent and intensity of the cooperations they formed.
What are some of the best practices institutions adopted to foster cooperation?
The staff of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) is very aware of the SMEs’ lack of time and resources, and therefore facilitates as much as possible the work that SMEs have to do to collaborate with them. The same applies to one of the leading Swiss research centres Empa, which permits easy demonstrations of research in practice and allows for easy-access to its facilities to test research in practice through its Demonstrators concept. The Empa Portal launched 10 years ago serves the same purpose by allowing stakeholders to find the right contact person for their needs, and establish direct links.
One other common characteristic of the good practice cases is that certain structures are established to provide greater tangibility to the activity. This tangibility made the concept easier to understand and align internal regulations to support rather than hinder UBC. AMS Institute is a tangible and clear concept co-created by a large number of stakeholders, whose collaborative work has been successfully ‘labelled’. Founding framework of the institute is described in detail, in an exhaustive vision and roadmap document with references to its three pillars of education, research/ valorisation and value platform that allows stakeholders to comprehend the model AMS adopts.
Whether it is from the perspective of business or universities, founding, naming and framing the UBC activity allowed common clear communication of the concept and reduced uncertainty. This is for example the case of Vytautas Magnus University in Latvia, whose Centre for Enterprise Practices (CEP) offer three structured and interrelated entrepreneurship programmes. The programmes gradually prepare students for an entrepreneurial career towards clearly identified set of goals for the reference of all stakeholders involved.
Simplified structures can prove much higher impact in the extent and quality of the cooperations than the partners anticipate. It is therefore of utmost importance that businesses and universities invest time to establish feedback structures to identify the bottlenecks in their communication, and implement solutions to maximize benefits from their partnership.