The business buzz-word of today seems to be innovation. As competition strengthens, companies are continuously required to come up with new products and services, and push them into the markets as quickly as possible. Constant need to innovate forces companies to look outside their own organizations for the best expertise and know-how - for new ways to grow. As simultaneously the federal research budgets are shrinking in many universities and, for example in Finland, universities are finally given the opportunity to rearrange themselves to be governed as an independent foundations (not just government bureaus), their need to look for outside funding grows steadily. "Consequently, just as companies are searching for new capabilities, sources of knowledge and means of growth, universities are feeling the urge to come down from the ivory tower and do business with corporations in order to keep their labs open." (Wright, 2008) This presents great opportunities for successful partnerships between universities and corporations.
Historically, not all partnerships between companies and university research groups have been all that successful. Randall Wright gives three most common reasons for this in his article, "How to Get the Most From University Relationships" (MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2008):
- First of all companies tend to see the university as a vendor, and thus they focus on making transactions with the university. They go to the university to buy a solution, and finish the transaction swiftly. However, this is not how the academic world thinks. University faculty and researchers have a long-term approach to research, and are "devoted to academic freedom and publication". Randall states that "Dialog is at the heart of this process."
- Because of insufficient dialog companies end up "''putting price ahead of content''". Negotiating the price of the project before even agreeing on the scope, only pushes the academic faculty to take a defensive position from the start - not very beneficial for the process of building trust and understanding.
- If and when the company manages to beat down the price and complete the "transaction", it not only lowers the respect of the researchers for the company, but also works the other way. The company continues to see the university as just a vendor to go to for cheap solutions for specific problems. The faculty members are viewed as narrow specialists, instead of experts who could "shed light on major issues".
Wright goes on to give three distinctive features apparent in partnerships that have actually worked out well for both parties:
- "The relationship moved beyond short-term vendor relationships and became lasting partnerships that built new capabilities for the company."
- "Senior management was highly involved"
- "The companies involved the university in their strategy and not merely in a technical task or isolated problem in their business"
Like building sustainable competitive advantage, the company needs to view the projects coordinated in liaison with universities as long-term strategic investments. Wright sums up: "That is not simply because major success takes time to implement, but because proper relationships take time to cultivate." He highlights the importance of dialog and communication to raise the right questions and to find the right people to work with. Engaging the senior management not only shows commitment, but also broadens the discussion to go beyond the initial problem and include a more comprehensive approach.
So these were the underlying ideas behind successful partnerships between companies and universities. But what about a bit more concrete issues that should be addressed to get the most out of the projects? Wright emphasized the importance of dialog; is there anything to be done to promote communication within and between the groups involved? What should be done to ensure mutual benefits for all parties? Does for example technology and the internet provide possibilities to enhance beneficial collaboration?
For a very informal description of the issues that desperately need to be addressed, read "The Tale" (unfortunately only in Finnish)
For researchers to be able to conduct quality studies, that would eventually actually benefit the firms or other institutions commissioning them, requires communication between the groups involved. Quality research benefits absolutely no-one (research for the sake of advancing science is a whole other thing), if it doesn't provide answers to relevant questions. Therefore, it is critical that there exists sufficient dialog already during the planning phase of the research process for the focus to be defined correctly. In most cases, it would also be extremely healthy if the dialog and communication continued during the whole process of the study, as changes and new ideas emerge.
Also, it is often the companies and organizations, who ordered the research, that provide the researchers with a lot of the essential data, statistics and back-ground information. For efficiency's sake, there needs to be established a functioning channel or platform for the exchange of data, knowledge and ideas. At the moment, most of the collaboration and communication is done via emails or occasional meetings. This is not efficient, not at least when there are many people involved. People just end up with cluttered inboxes (Email over-use and cluttered inboxes have been proven to be major productivity hindrances for knowledge-workers; see e.g. Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast - NY Times, 2008-06-14) and it is often impossible to get everybody to attend meetings because of tight schedules. Furthermore, even if you manage to set up a gathering, much of the time is spent on project status updates or something else, that should have been clear to everybody already before the meeting. Efficient collaboration is impossible if communication between the groups is not working as it should.
In addition to inter-group collaboration, researchers usually conduct their studies collaboratively with each other. Once again, communication is key to efficiency, innovation and finally, success. Most likely, a lot of the communication is again done via email: article drafts, status updates, questions and answers flow from inbox to inbox - the email-anguish just gets deeper and deeper. Is email really the best tool for research project management? How about the instruments for initially finding the right people to collaborate with, the true experts on the subject in question? Things get even more complex when you consider a situation where multiple research groups and various organizations are all collaborating with each other.
OK, now that the research is finally finished, it does not do much good if all the new and valuable information just sits in the minds and hard drives of the researchers. The information needs to be distributed to the right people. Some studies culminate into articles published in peer-reviewed magazines or online (some even joining the Open Access movement), but for certain research the only objective is to provide information for a specific group of people, e.g. a company's management, to back up decision making. However, many times the news, that a research on some specific subject has actually already been conducted, never reaches the right people. Either the managers can't find the research papers, because there are just too many different groups, with too many different databases involved in the process, or just because the firm's own intranet is too hard to navigate successfully. In many cases, enterprise intranets end up becoming a jungle of shared folders, with different areas for all divisions of the organization. The information gets "siloed" as people in one division can't access the information residing in the other divisions. Best practices, experiences or already completed research results don't get shared effectively. Information not being put to use is simply information being wasted.
Alternatively, the research may indeed be published in a magazine covering the subject. However distinguished or reputable the magazine may be, the information about the publication might not reach all parties interested in the subject. Information over-flow is already becoming a serious obstacle for finding what is truly relevant. Is there a solution for these problems? Are there any means available for constantly keeping track of what is going on in some specific field of research - even within your own organization and its partners?
This was a brief introduction to the issues that the tools represented in this project aim to address. As mentioned earlier, the research questions can pretty much be summed up as follows:
- How could Web 2.0 tools optimize collaboration between various research groups, firms & other organizations?
- What is the ultimate purpose? What value do these applications create?
- "To make them collaborate" should not be the ultimate purpose.
- Could they help tackle the current problems with information flows within and between the groups?
- Who and what are all these various tools for?
- How should the tools be implemented and used to derive actual benefit from them?
- What are the underlying prerequisites for the social software usage to take off successfully?
- What sort of problems may emerge and how to prevent and overcome them?
Explore and analyze the SOLUTION: A Wiki-based Portal
Do remember that this is in no way a perfect representation, but instead a proposal, a draft that needs to be perfected, modified and personalized for each case individually. For some organizations these tools and approaches might not even be suitable. However, I firmly believe that in many cases, considerable benefits can be obtained by taking advantage of these new light-weight technologies.
I welcome you to comment, criticize, complement, add and edit. _I trust people who end up exploring this wiki to be savvy enough to appreciate the work of others, even if they don't think much of it.
- Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast - NY Times (2008-06-14)
- Wikipedia: Open Access
- Wright, Randall, "How to The the Most From University Relationships", MIT Sloan Management Review (Spring 2008)