Digital transformation in education: the case of university-business collaboration intermediary

Ekaterina Albats
LUT University

Daria Podmetina
LUT University

Introduction and aim
Digitalization is one of the major trends of the twenty-first century also in conservative sectors like education (Deshpande, 2018). Digital solutions become enablers of economic growth for cross-sectoral inter-organizational relations (Coe and Yeung, 2015). In the interconnected world, the role of cross-disciplinary innovations developed in multi-stakeholder collaborations become particularly vital for a sustainable competitive advantage (Chesbrough, 2006) – due to information asymmetries, rapidly shortening product lifecycles. That is why digital platforms and intermediaries serving multi-sided markets and bridging multiple stakeholders have already transformed (in many cases disrupted) multiple sectors (Parker, Van Alstyne and Choudary, 2016).
University-business collaboration (UBC) in education is a source of the future workforce (Galán-Muros and Plewa, 2016). However, despite major developments in university-business relations, a number of barriers hindering UBC remain. Among those is a connection problem – a challenge to bridge so diverse stakeholders – caused by differences in their nature and goals: teaching and research for universities versus profit-making for companies (Parker, 1992). Given the success of physical innovation intermediaries in facilitating UBC (Howells, 2006; Schoen, van Pottelsberghe de la Potterie and Henkel, 2014) as well as a growing role of digital intermediaries (Dushnitsky and Klueter, 2017), this study aims to understand what is the role of digital transformation in facilitating UBC for education? Despite an obvious relevance of digital intermediaries for UBC context, there is very little understanding of this phenomenon in the existing literature (Soendergaard, Bergenholtz and Juhl, 2015).
Research methodology
This study is exploratory in nature as it tackles an emerging phenomenon and requires a combination of a phenomenon-driven approach with an analysis of a context. That is why a single case study was chosen as a research method (Yin, 2017). The education-specialized UBC intermediaries are digital platforms connecting companies having challenges with university students, who are called to solve the challenges a part of their university education. As our case study we have chosen a platform with the network of participating companies and universities growing the most rapidly in Europe.
Given the need to understand the context, we designed our research as a longitudinal case study and combined multiple data collection methods. First, secondary data is being constantly collected since spring 2017. Furthermore, we carried out two interviews with the platform owner – one is spring 2017 and one in the fall 2018. Then, being university teachers, we established a collaboration between the case platforms and three different Master’s level courses we teach to observe the process of digital UBC collaboration for education. These participant observations along with field notes, interviews of the participating students and companies are collected since fall 2017. The pool of our (mainly qualitative) data is being analysed manually by two researchers and is coded and categorized with a help of NVivo software.
Results, implications, and conclusions
Our findings show that digital platforms for UBC in education like the one we studied are not only bridging universities and business (helping to illuminate the connection barrier of UBC (Galán-Muros and Plewa, 2016)), but those also actively help in decreasing information asymmetries like business-focused intermediaries do (Dushnitsky and Klueter, 2017). Furthermore, the practice-based learning enabled by these platforms increases the relevance of university education for the needs of business. Moreover, with a help of further integration into rapidly digitalizing HR management sector (via building a digital portfolio of skills enforced and challenges solved for each university student and integrating it with industrial HR management systems), such platforms become university-business interfaces for managing a powerful source of human capital (Bozeman and Boardman, 2014).
Despite many positive impacts of UBC platforms, we observed a number of challenges related to this type of intermediary. First, as any UBC, the collaborations we studied required very careful considerations of intellectual property rights (IPR), data protection and rules for those in place. Another challenge observed was in companies struggling to scope the challenges they present to students – make it not too broad and not too narrow. The third challenge observed was a dynamic nature of the challenges and the real-life context intervening a traditionally more static fixed-term study process, which to a different extent became an issue for all the target groups: university teachers, students, company managers and the UBC platform developers. Finally, in a few cases, the students' solutions appeared so radical, that they were suggesting to not only rethink the challenge offered, but to carry fundamental changes in the sponsoring company, which implies a company transformation.
In sum, our study demonstrates a presence and growing role of digital transformation in UBC for education. However, is this transformation leading to any disruption? It is yet hard to tell as from one side, the platforms like the one we studied rather complement the existing value chain: simplify the connection process, decrease information asymmetries and transaction costs. At the same time, these platforms definitely change the way all the key actors are operating. The students’ practice-based learning is becoming even more global illuminating the role of geographical proximity in UBC. The study content prepared by the teachers becomes more interlinked with the real business needs. The companies receive fresh ideas, directions for potential business transformations as well as hands-on access to the future workforce and its competences traced digitally.