The emergence of online technologies has increasingly enabled networking activities to take place online, which unlocked a whole new set of opportunities for universities, business, and other intermediary organisations to connect and establish multi-dimensional collaborations among professional staff, students, academics, and researchers. It is becoming more common for students to find internships in their desired field of business through their university’s online platform, or for businesses to identify researchers at universities who can assist them with the development or testing of a new technology via search databases.
Online platforms can function as a touch base for UBC actors to initiate both national and cross border cooperation, next to being a support system that complements face to face interaction, which greatly eases project management. Yet, currently, (i) such platforms are utilized by only a handful of organisations and operate more often at a regional level, and (ii) when the broader UBC ecosystems are considered, the European landscape lacks national platforms to facilitate inter-regional cooperation. Networking events, e.g. conferences and forums organised by national and international associations are without doubt valuable platforms to form relationships that build around trust. However, online platforms facilitate the active maintenance of these relationships, and strengthen collaborations when the events are over and participants go their own ways. Besides, they can provide the opportunity to network to those professionals who miss out on such events.
Looking at the activities of individual organisations, online platforms are mainly used to support promoting student employment, joint research and project development. The best practice case study series published as part of the project State of University-Business Cooperation in Europe presents successful examples where online platforms are integrated into the working systems of universities, business, and intermediary organisations, generating value for all who are involved.
One of such examples comes from University of Zagreb, Croatia. The Student Support and Career Development Centre (CPSRK) at the Faculty of Organisation and Informatics uses an online platform to connect students with potential employers. At the beginning of the academic year, the centre contacts 480 companies to open new vacancies for students. Throughout the academic year, students communicate with the centre through their online internship platform, where they are presented with a range of supporting documents necessary for successful completion of the internship. The outcomes of this online matchmaking efforts are impressive. Around 480 employers are currently involved as partners that hosted more than 1,500 unique internships. The activities have contributed to the production of over 400 employer internship agreements for vocational internships and over 300 job offers made through the website and social media channels.
Similarly, the Management Center Innsbruck (MCI) connects employers with their potential labour force via their service platform MCI Career Center. The unit provides businesses the “MCI Career Partnership” platform for posting diverse job and internship opportunities. However, it is not only universities developing these platforms. Large multinational Siemens operates an online platform that stores information about the main fields of scientific research at all major universities worldwide (UniSearch), including the Knowledge Interchange Program (CKI) university partners. As for intermediary organisations, Klaster Life Science Kraków (LSK) offers tools for networking and cooperation on their website in two languages, as well as an online platform that helps partners cooperate within the cluster. The LSK intranet provides information about projects, events, enterprises, institutions, ideas and other dynamically defined operations, funds and financing, news, data about events and projects, and invitations to collaborate on an international level. Similarly, the ASTER consortium in Italy has developed a database that provides access to professional contacts searchable by areas of expertise, description and specification of modes of collaboration and forms of contracting relevant to multi-partner agreements, a searchable database of past and current projects, and one for retrieving technology reports, which summarise research project results and outcomes in a concise format.
Online tools developed for facilitating collaboration also have proven effective in evaluating project outputs of the organisations. For example, Siemens’ in-house cooperation database (UNICO+), facilitates evaluations on a project level. Here Siemens employees determine to what extent a partnership has been successful and what kind of impression the university, directors, managers, and specialists have made while collaborating. Project leaders and researchers involved in the joint research are able to evaluate the projects, and the collaboration experience with universities. The database platform is open for Siemens employees and is accessible by the research community involved in the partnerships, allowing staff to make better informed decisions when it comes to their collaboration partners.
Although there is a lack of national platforms, there has recently been an interesting development in the UK, with the launch of Konfer, the innovation brokerage tool to open up collaboration opportunities for businesses and universities. Created by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) in partnership with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Research Councils UK (RCUK), Konfer pulls information from publicly available online sources, such as university websites, and various academic registries, and presents the results to the users in different groups; as research, researcher, equipment/ facilities, and funding opportunities. Not only making data available to the users, the platform also allows businesses and academics to publish collaboration requests and find partners.
The adoption of such matchmaking tools, or similar online platform models in other European countries could offer immense benefits to the UBC community in pushing out innovative ideas and receiving requests for cooperation to and from all sets of businesses, HEIs, and intermediaries. SMEs would particularly benefit from the service due to the limited resources to seek out expertise. Such tools could also bring non-traditional collaboration partners, such as NGOs, or cultural organisations into the picture that would potentially expand the borders of the UBC as a field. Therefore, also keeping the recent European innovation policy environment and pressuring socioeconomic challenges in mind, the digitalization efforts of the individual institutions should be scaled to the national level, with the support of the government organisations and relevant national institutions.