Academic engagement and co-creation of knowledge: The significance of proximity

Line Mathisen
UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Eva Jørgensen
UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Introduction and aim
This paper explores the collaborative process of co-creation in academic engagement. Many universities use academic engagement as a way to strengthen knowledge transfers between industry and research. One major reason for this is linked to the effects this is suggested to have on entrepreneurial activities (Audretsch, 2014; Perkmann et al., 2013). However, literature on academic engagement reveals little of to what extent this type of engagement fosters knowledge transfers, e.g. result in increased entrepreneurial activities. Our paper takes the position that academic knowledge is not easily transferred and that knowledge use and development depends heavily on achieving positive knowledge flows through knowledge co-creation activities (Alves, Fernandes, & Raposo, 2016; Vargo, Maglio, & Akaka, 2008). This means that access to knowledge is not enough to enable positive knowledge flows, as the knowledge that is accessed has to be both understood and used to enable entrepreneurs to act on opportunities to create new entrepreneurial activities (Audretsch, 2014). This point to proximity (Boschma, 2005) as a mediating mechanism for co-creation of knowledge. Our study aims to gain more knowledge of the dynamics between dimensions of proximity and knowledge co-creation in academic engagement. More specifically, we want to know how different dimensions of proximity influence co-creation and integration of knowledge between “industry professors” and academic researchers, and the effects of this on the partners ability to use and develop this knowledge to create new entrepreneurial /educational activities.
Research methodology
This study use a multiple case-study design (Yin, 2017) with rich data from 10 entrepreneurs in adjunct positions as “industry professors” at Norwegian universities. Further, have interviewed their academic counterparts about their experiences with hiring industry professionals. In addition, we intend to collect information through documents and observe on-going activities if possible. Our paper has a semi-inductive approach using our research question as a point of departure for our exploration (Charmaz, 2014; Goldkuhl & Cronholm, 2010). As such, our paper have a priori conceptualizations anchored in the framework of proximity and the logic of value co-creation (Alves et al., 2016; Balland et al., 2015).
Results and implications
Our data indicate that the dimensions of proximity influence knowledge co-creation in different ways. First, cognitive and institutional proximity is important to identify and hire the industry professors with the right type of knowledge and norms. Academic professionals actively select industry professors assessing both individual qualifications in terms of education and the knowledge base of their organization. There has to be a fit or overlap as differences in norms, and the “way things are done” reflect potential knowledge creation. Thus, industry professors accept such positions because they see the importance in reconciling academic knowledge with the tacit knowledge that is so important for problems solving and innovation. As such, the value of industry professors lies not in what they know (micro level) but in their ability to influence cognitive proximity between new partners at both micro and meso levels of activity. We will explore this interesting tentative finding further in our paper. Secondly, social proximity influence cognitive and institutional proximity in the long term. The main reason being that strengthened relations facilitate trust and therefore can result in e.g. renewals of contracts. Moreover, over time social proximity influence knowledge co-creation directly. Time is a critical factor and long-term engagements can increase the chance for knowledge co-creation. Further, our data suggests that geographical proximity, or face-to-face meetings are essential to identify, understand and agree upon common needs in terms of future knowledge creation.
The findings of this study will contribute to develop new theoretical insights about the nature and conditions of co-creation in academic engagement. In addition, our findings demonstrate the connection between mutual value creation in academic engagement and the concept of proximity (Boschma, 2005; Perkmann et al., 2013). The importance of knowledge for new entrepreneurial activities highlights the necessity of extended empirical research on mechanisms facilitating knowledge integration and development across different levels of operation (micro, meso, and macro). To collaborate does not necessarily result in co-creation, as the partners collaborating often fail to integrate and create new knowledge, or that the knowledge created fails to travel in the partners extended networks within and outside their organization. Moreover, the findings will have practical implication both for universities that seeks to strengthen their connection to local and regional industry (e.g. design of infra structure, attitudes, norms) and entrepreneurs (e.g. attitudes to working with academics, involvement with students) who seek to increase their value creation through new entrepreneurial activities.