While the positive impact of the people factor is undeniable on the quality and nature of university-business cooperation practices, without the long-term commitment of financial, structural, and human resources, the relationship factors are less likely to be sufficient to institutionalise UBC.
As in all other organisational partnerships, the people factor plays an immense role in establishing and maintaining successful collaboration between the universities and businesses. Supported by the findings of a recent research on the state of university-business cooperation in Europe, European higher education institution managers, academics, and business representatives highlight four ingredients, mutual trust, commitment, having a shared goal and prior relations with partners as key facilitators on which they build successful partnerships. This result does not come as a surprise, since, it is often individuals who serve as early champions of partnerships by investing time and energy to build grass-root connections, and take these relationships to a solid base by persuading the leadership to participate in the later stages. It is again the individuals who act as nodes to convey the motivations of their organisations, as well as their own interests to their counterparts in cooperation.
However, despite the results revealing relationship factors as strong drivers of UBC, it needs to be accompanied by a long-term approach to cooperation to make that relationship sustainable. This approach firmly requires strategic exploitation of individual relationships, as part of a formal commitment that will bring together all relevant UBC actors around the table, help voice a shared vision, and take planned steps forward, together. It is not a rare case that partnerships are initiated by one single staff member in organisations, rather than being centrally coordinated, leaving them without a regulatory framework that define tasks and responsibilities, even when the relationships grow more complex. This carries the risk of dissolving relationships when the staff transfers to another unit, or organisation. Due to their decentralised organisational structure, this scenario rings truer for universities than the businesses, since cooperation occurs in a non-linear path, and these institutions often lack a central unit overseeing all external relationship activities. It isn’t uncommon for a university to have a technology transfer agency, career office, alumni office, science park, incubator, entrepreneurship centre and many other units not taking a collaborative approach, working in silos, and thereby causing confusion amongst potential business partners as to who to speak to. As we mentioned, relationship and long-term commitment is key, this also needs to be reflected in the internal professionalisation and recognition of the need for nurturing these relationships.
Most best-practice case studies analysed as part of the research report indicate that benefits from UBC are often experienced in a medium to longer-term timeframe. This requires a high-level and cross-organisational commitment to UBC that will allow practices stretch beyond isolated cases, and institutionalise within the culture of the organisation. The commitment here refers to the financial resources for facilities, positions and projects that will help overcome barriers to cooperation, including differing cultures, and provide a stable environment for cooperation to commence and develop. Dedication of long-term resources enables the kind of meaningful interactions and long-term planning that underpins successful UBC cases. This commitment in the form of policies, visions, strategies and other agreements are made at both the governmental and institutional level, and ideally are fixed beyond the political term of the CEO and the term of the university president/rector, to ensure longevity.
In practice, many successful cases have one important feature in common: Multi-faceted UBC relationships supported with strategies that accommodate individual interests with organisational motivations. This approach leads to an institution-wide ownership of collaborations coordinated by one or more targeted UBC structures. The example of Simon Fraser University (SFU) stands out as one of the prominent examples, on how one-person’s vision was expanded over all layers of the organisation, and helped formulating a commitment in the form of SFU’s community engagement strategy. The dialogue-driven and iterative sense making process was started by SFU president Prof. Andrew Petter in 2010 to develop the vision of the university, via the initiative ‘envision>SFU’. Its events gathered more than 150 students, staff and faculty members as well as a total of 13 focus groups, with representatives from the same stakeholder groups. The following year, community engagement activities were held, including meetings with business and industry groups, arts organisations, aboriginal people, multicultural communities, as well as meetings with the mayors and councils of eight cities. In 2013, following this extensive vision development consultation process with internal and external stakeholders, SFU has developed its first community engagement strategy, and embedded it into the 2013-2018 Academic and Research Plans.
In addition, as an example of strategic structures, there are also best practices of both business and universities who established centralised structural facilities to ensure the quality and further development of UBC activities. For instance, Siemens has developed a long-term strategic approach to manage the relationships with universities through their Centre of Knowledge Interchange. Similarly, Harper Adams University established a successful long-term partnership with Dairy Crest through Dairy Crest Innovation Centre that acts as a shared collaboration facility. The relationships between the two organisations are built on personal relationships of both the organisational leadership as well as the academics and industry researchers.
As both research and practice show, in order to undertake UBC, one needs to build trust and recognize mutual interests and differences between UBC partners. However, when it comes to establishing fully developed, mature partnerships, it is necessary for UBC actors to nurture these relationships and ensure an organisation-wide involvement and investment of resources.