A business guide to collaborating with university
Unlimited research power. A readymade future workforce. First-grade facilities. Unbridled ambition for the future.
Scroll though the Partnerships (or Collaborations) section of any university web portal and you’re more than likely to stumble upon different versions of these buzz phrases.
If you’re about to dismiss them as mere marketing speak, don’t, because they’re anything but.
Tried, tested and true, these are some of the real benefits businesses stand to receive from collaborating with a university.
And if these aren’t incentive enough to lift business participation in higher education, this might: a study last year by Cadence Economics commissioned by Universities Australia found that the 16,000 companies who worked with local universities derived AU$10.6 billion from the collaboration.
But as we’ve heard through speaking with numerous business operators, university collaborations may work very well for large enterprises with time, teams and big budgets to spare but not so much for the capital-and-talent-hungry SME.
The SME argument against collaborating with universities are often the same:
- We don’t know how to work with you
- We have no projects suitable for your student intern
- We don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to a partnership
- There’s nothing your university could do for us that we haven’t already done
How much of this is true? What benefits could companies, already struggling with talent recruitment, possibly derive from employing student interns?
And exactly what kind of value could members of academia, often with very little commercial acumen, offer businesses in an increasingly competitive marketplace disrupted by technology and globalisation?
To get to the bottom of these questions and more, U2B caught up recently with Lisa Middlebrook, Macquarie University’s Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives Director.
Here’s what she had to say.
There are many ways to work with a university
Partnership arrangements come in various forms and depend on matching a business need with the university’s specialisation areas and available resources.
“Each relationship is different,” Middlebrook says. “At Macquarie, we have a set of procedures that we follow but each relationship is different because what each company might want to do with that is different, based on mutual benefit and mutual interest.”
“Sometimes, we might reach out to a company first because we know it is interested in some of the things we’re working on. Sometimes the relationship is initiated by the company to us. Or sometimes, we come together, having been brought together at an event, or at a conference, and having found an area of mutual interest to discuss.”
At Macquarie, one of the ways in which partnerships are forged are via the industry-led Macquarie Park Innovation District (MPID), a central hub for innovation and high-growth startups in Sydney’s Northwest.
The hub brings together university researchers, entrepreneurs and the world’s most recognised names in business (Microsoft, Oracle, Sony, Canon, Foxtel, the CSIRO, Orix and Goodman-Fielder to name a few) to incubate activity and build innovative solutions.
Enterprise centers and innovation hubs like MPID are big business generators and certainly, a lucrative form of collaboration for all those involved. Here, industry and academia’s best and brightest work alongside one another in spaces kitted out with the best gear. In such an environment, opportunities abound; new ideas are incubated and guided quickly to proof-of-concept and onward to prototyping.
But there’s more than one way to work with universities. For SMEs looking for a less-involved partnership arrangement, there are many other options with varying levels of engagement available to them. Here are some examples:
- A business in need of academic expertise could form a research collaboration with a university.
- A business in need of fresh talent to help boost productivity can take on student interns.
- A business on the cusp of a big expansion plan could seek advice from a student-led business consultancy.
- A business in need of access to state-of-the-art research facilities and equipment could consider relocating their operations to a university campus.
- A business wanting to upskill its current workforce could get a university to tailor an executive education programme that matches their needs.
And the list goes on.
“It’s a simple matter of reaching out and going: can the university offer me something?” Middlebrook says.
“And when they lay out their problem, their ideas or their project to us, or at least something they are trying to achieve, we will go back and we think: what do we have across the university that might help? And we will bring in different things that a corporate entity may not have thought of in the past.”
The mechanics of a partnership
Universities, particularly institutions that engage actively with businesses, typically have teams dedicated to forging and managing their business partnerships.
Macquarie’s Corporate Engagement office, for example, is a 15-member team responsible for all the university’s corporate partnerships – and these number to the thousands. According to Middlebrook, the university has a rich network of over 3,000 local, regional, and international partners across corporate, public, community-based, and not-for-profit sectors. The MPID alone is home to something like 350 companies, she adds.
These relationships are handled in a centralised manner via the Corporate Engagement Office, with its members involved in all projects across all faculties. At the same time, the office also dedicates at least one person in each faculty to help with the projects, ensuring each one receives the attention it deserves.
“So there isn’t just one person who works on corporate engagement in each of the faculties. Many of the faculties have corporate engagement people to themselves but the centralised office also has one person based in each of those faculties,” Middlebrook explains.
“This person will work with that faculty to identify projects of priority, look at opportunities and identify the activities that we can do… based on how we want to work and where the mutually beneficial ideas might come from.”
In her four years with Macquarie, however, Middlebrook says finding the sweet spot between business need and university priority can be challenging. Businesses don’t always know what they can get from partnering with a university, even those that go out in search of collaboration opportunities.
“They don’t know what kind of ideas might work,” she says.
“Sometimes we have a corporate entity that wants to do something but in the end, it really isn’t going to match our priorities and what we want. Sometimes it’s finding the right people in an organisation.”
The best way, Middlebrook says, is if the business is able to dedicate a person or people within the organisation to the relationship.
This is how Macquarie does it.
“We know that they have an interest in it, but getting beyond and talking to the right person who will actually be dedicated to working with us (is a challenge). Sometimes what we do is we suggest to them that the best way for a project to proceed is if they dedicate someone to the MQU relationship.”
Interns can build real value
To many SMEs struggling to survive the global marketplace, hiring interns to fill certain operational gaps could sound like a poorly thought-out strategy.
After all, what could these young, inexperienced recruits do that current full-time staff cannot? Plenty, as it turns out. And the benefits go beyond just filling immediate business needs.
“We often tell our corporate partners: what is that one project that you always try and do each week but never seems to get done? That’s what you can give to a student intern,” Middlebrook says.
“This has worked very well with some of our corporate partners.”
One such partner is multinational technology company Konika Minolta.
Middlebrook explains that four years ago, the firm took on its first batch of two interns as part of its participation in the university’s Professional and Community Engagement (PACE) programme. And because they weren’t sure what they could give the interns in the form of work, Middlebrook says the students were initially assigned to shadow the firm’s HR director as she went about her business.
“They didn’t know what else to do with them and were just going to give it a try,” she recalls.
Eventually, the HR director thought of ideas and work for the interns, and began giving them small projects to work on that she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Seeing the value of the extra pair of hands and the quality of the work the students were able to produce, others in the office began putting in requests for interns of their own.
Today, four years later, Konika’s partnership with Macquarie for PACE continues, with the firm taking on more than 60 interns in every part of the operation.
Macquarie’s PACE programme, meanwhile, has gone on to win a multitude of awards and commendations in Australia, recognised for its achievements in enhancing student learning and boosting employability.
Advice to businesses: Think outside the box
As we have written before, the value and impact of the work universities do with business are far-reaching. From helping businesses establish new revenue streams and unlocking new markets, to accelerating speed-to-market of new innovations, the commercial benefit of partnerships and their knock-on effect on the economy, are to the tune of billions.
As Middlebrook notes, there’s no limit to what universities and businesses can achieve together.
But as with anything, to derive true value from a university partnership, effort must be put into establishing one that works on both ends.
Middlebrook invites businesses to consider reaching “beyond the traditional ways” when considering a university partnership opportunity, and putting real thought into what the institution could offer them.
“Think outside the box,” she says. “What is the project? What is the idea? What is the bottom-line priority that you’re trying to achieve?
“That’s the first thing: it is thinking about your bottom line priority–your pure business-driven goal–and then thinking about them in a new way.”
She also urges businesses to consider the benefit of the relationship for the university, stressing the importance of striking a partnership that’s win-win for both parties.
“There’s got to be a sense of give and take. Where we will provide benefit for the corporate, we also might ask for support for something that is related,” she says.
Support could come in a variety of ways, from taking on student interns to providing thought leadership by contributing to curriculum design, or contributing to research, whether in the form of funding, data or expertise.
Finally, Middlebrook repeats her emphasis on the benefits of appointing a dedicated member of staff to the university relationship. Despite the often-cited problem of manpower constraints, she maintains it would be a worthy investment.
“The person doesn’t have to have a full-time role… but it helps greatly if someone can devote half time out of their job to devote to the relationship with us,” she says.
“The company,” she adds, “will get much more out of it.”