Clarifying and resolving the real issues in university-business partnerships

Peter Ereaut
University of Bristol

Frances Frith
University of Bristol

LinkedIn profile

Prof Ben Hicks
University of Bristol

Universities are increasingly being seen as one of the main sources of new ideas and innovations for companies to become more efficient, productive and competitive. However, the drivers, priorities and cultures of universities and companies are often not fully appreciated by each other, which hinders the development of long-term successful relationships, and in extreme cases can result in conflict.
This paper explores the real differences between universities and companies that need to be addressed if relationships are to be truly successful, and describes the approach of the University of Bristol – a learning journey with our partners - and the models that are emerging for our most effective partnerships which can achieve great things together.
A business focuses on creating value for its shareholders and a strong case has to be made to invest outside the organisation. They may need to reach out for innovation and skills, but this usually has to be tangibly value-adding and, as far as possible, risk-free. University research may typically be regarded as uncertain, expensive and difficult to justify, even before negotiations commence around IP.
Universities are complex organisations that are poorly understood – even by many of their employees. Senior management often has little control over the activities of its academics and can achieve little without the buy-in of that community. Individual academics face many demands, drivers, incentives, priorities, pressures and opportunities that leave little time and resource for working with business. Furthermore, such work rarely offers the incentives and rewards that other activities do, such as prestigious awards and £multi-million research grants.
The process
The University of Bristol has been working for many years developing and maintaining ‘strategic’ relationships with external organisations. Through this we have, and continue to increase our understanding of the key issues and how to resolve these successfully. More recently the University has established structures and processes to support the gearing up of this activity, particularly in response to government issues such as the Industrial Strategy.
The ‘best’ universities for companies to work with are those that support academic freedom, out of which new ideas and innovations emerge in ways that could not happen in a more controlled environment. Successful relationships need to embrace this, usually as part of a wider portfolio of activity, while engaging in an environment of openness and trust.
Specific features adopted by Bristol include:
• Ensuring appropriate attention, priority and consistency of practice through appointment of an academic Director of Partnerships and Alliances, reporting into University Senior Management and with close and regular engagement with Faculties.
• Developing a framework of tools, resources, systems and processes that properly incentivise, enable and support staff in developing and managing partnerships across the full spectrum of engagement.
• Establishing a partnerships board, with representation from all Faculties and support functions, in order to gain buy in, establish communication channels, and ensure appropriate alignment and teamwork towards strategic goals.
• Advocating close collaboration, co-design of activities and co-creation, mutual respect and benefits; a holistic approach from the outset.
• Single points of contact for each relationship – established in each organisation – each chosen to represent and coordinate across the entirety of the organisation.
Features that are key to the very best and highest performing relationships include:
- Willingness to listen and understand each other.
- Good communication, both across and within organisations, and at all levels; important in influencing mindsets, motivating, facilitating and interpreting as required.
- Taking the long view and also noting that universities are increasingly looking for quick wins and a quick return on investment.
- Incentives to engage. For academia this means recognition of business collaboration as part of academic endeavours.
- Openness and trust. Willingness to share and to have frank open dialogue.
- Commitment to partnership that is truly mutually collaborative; never a buyer-supplier relationship.
- Cross-institutional teams that co-create wherever the opportunity arises.
- A holistic view that cuts across all disciplines and functions.
Results and Impact to date
- Processes and systems have been established that support an institutional wide consistent approach that addresses the fundamental issues in university-business relationships.
- Our approach has been widely welcomed by our partners, rapidly establishing an environment of openness and trust, and give-and-take.
- We support each other to deliver to each other’s goals and benefit more indirectly, measuring benefits across the entire relationship.
- The scope of our relationships have become much broader – covering all of skills, recruitment, undergraduates, facilities, research, collaboration, consultancy and services.
Conclusions and learning points
• Healthy and sustainable university-business relationships take time and commitment to establish, and usually involve culture change in both organisations.
• Demonstrable commitment is needed at the highest levels in both organisations, along with appropriate communications and incentives.
• Relationship managers within each organisation are essential to build a common understanding and ‘team’.
• Successful partnerships are always of the willing and develop at a pace that is appropriate – they can never be forced.
• All relationships are different. The key to success is open communication and co-creation/co-design of joint activity.
• Understanding each other’s needs and drivers is crucial.
• Trust is crucial – and takes time to build
• Partners must each continue to enhance the relationship, and learn together.