Foundations for developing strategic partnerships – perspectives from an Australian university

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‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ – the global best seller is a great analogy describing the differences between industry and universities in Australia. A lot has been written over recent years about the cultural divide but now more than ever these two sectors must look to develop sustainable, long term relationships to ensure their future success.

About the University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

An integral building block of UTS’s success, since its inception, has been to be outward looking and focused on partnering with industry. Applying the advancement of knowledge to solve industry challenges is in our DNA, part of our social charter and our commitment to industry and community. Our reputation among leaders in business, the professions and government is that UTS has the most industry-focused approach of all Sydney metropolitan universities.[1]

UTS is a university of technology with a distinct practice-oriented model of learning. Innovation and entrepreneurship education is our key driver in our curriculum, preparing our students for the future of work. Emerging tech skills go hand in hand with human skills (creative intelligence, critical thinking, and collaboration). Ranked the No.1 Young University for the last three years, UTS is agile and contemporary, with social justice key to our core and purpose.  We are committed to driving social change in the world beyond our campus. UTS is uniquely positioned on the southern fringe of Sydney CBD. The Ultimo precinct is fast becoming Australia’s largest and most vibrant creative digital hub. We hold the enviable position of being surrounded by a high concentration of start-ups, creative firms, large technology, media, education and corporate partners, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

An Australian Challenge

However, at the macro level Australia ranks last in the OECD for university business collaboration and in respect to the proportion of academics employed by business, Australia ranks 28 out of the 36 OECD countries.[2]

Further, in 2016, an OECD paper concluded that Australia’s ROI on innovation spend by government is relatively poor. While Australia is well above average in terms of innovation ‘input’ (relatively strong skill base, reputable universities, etc.), it is subpar in terms of innovation ‘output’. Fundamentally, we are not maximising the economic benefits from what we fund.[3]

At UTS we believe there are four external trends that pose an opportunity and challenge to us maintaining the status quo to industry engagement.

Two years ago, UTS established the Corporate Relations Centre. Strategic whole of university partnerships are cultivated and managed by a small corporate relations team. This is a central office, reporting into the DVC (Innovation & Enterprise), helping industry navigate the University. It is purposefully a separate function from the research office as research is seen as one of the three key pillars (Students/Graduates, Research and Community) of our strategic partnership model, not the primary driver of industry engagement.

Aside from strategic partnerships, we offer advice and strategy support to our senior leadership to help ensure UTS capitalise and respond to the external conditions. What are the needs of our partners? How can we leverage our infrastructure to help our partners succeed? What are the big ideas from the university community that we can add value too? Where are the collaborative opportunities with other university divisions to develop new service offerings? If we are successful, we will not only support and attract investment to support the university’s core activities but we will be able to measure our impact to the broader community.

“Innovation is not just talking about it, but making it work by design. The starting point for any discussion of innovation must always be people: its people who innovate, not government, not institutions, not businesses, but the people inside them. It’s an intensely human activity – minds rubbing on minds.” Catherine Livingstone AO, Chancellor of UTS

How was our Centre developed?

Our starting point or philosophy for building our Centre is that people are a key ingredient in creating sustainable relationships, built on trust, common purpose and mutual benefit. Strategic partnerships is a team sport. Within our team, our primary role is to serve and add value to our internal and our stakeholders. Hiring people with the right mix of skills and experiences in both corporate and the university sector is important. Sharing and living the values of the university is key.

From an operational perspective, there were three key priority projects to establish the centre. Undertaking an audit of our partnerships, establishing a partnership framework and improving the data on relationships.

Audit

Our first project was to identify who our current strategic partners were and understand their motivations and desired outcomes from the relationship. We seek to ensure we do what we say on paper is what we do. This process has increased our knowledge (data) and enabled us to grow our existing relationships. It also helped us identify an evidence-based value proposition for establishing new strategic partnerships. 

Framework

Industry has many touch points across the university and it is important that we do not stifle the great work and often specialised work that occurs in Faculties, Research Centres and other Central Divisions. Domain expertise exists outside of our Corporate Relations Centre. Developing a partnership framework that measures and values collaboration is critical. We have and will continue to establish networks and practices that encourages cross-collaboration.  To facilitate this, we spent time defining what a strategic partnership is, our team’s role, how we work with our internal partners and our external partners.  This is an on-going and iterative body of work. UTS has developed a ‘Partnership Opportunity Brief’, adapted from the MIT Innovation Lab partnership canvas.[4] This tool helps us assess the potential of a strategic partnership but also forms our risk assessment. We are able to use this brief to discuss our partnership plan internally and externally. 

Data and Process

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems can be big and costly systems, especially if they attempt to solve all external engagement needs (i.e. student recruitment, research, internships). We are cautious on CRMs being used to track all engagement at a university. Managing complex and multi-faceted partnerships using email, spreadsheets and other ad hoc programs makes it difficult to deliver value. We have deliberately implemented a small roll-out of a partnership CRM for a limited number of users with specific roles across the university. A partnership CRM is a crucial tool to help track activity, demonstrate value and create transparency across the partnership network to show impact for both the partner and the university. A CRM can be an enabler for cultural change to foster a holistic approach to relationship management.

Remember, this is not easy. Not every relationship should be viewed as a potential strategic partnership. Both university and industry partners need to acknowledge strategic partnership development takes time. It requires a long term view and investment in resources on both sides to ensure the potential for success.

Looking ahead

In a recent speech to the National Press Club, Universities Australia chairperson Margaret Gardiner said that boosting university industry engagement could add up to $10 billion a year to Australia’s GDP. Professor Gardiner cited new modelling commissioned from consultants Cadence Economics, demonstrating that university industry collaborations generates over $19 billion a year, which could be increased to $30 billion a year if an extra 8000 businesses entered into university-business collaborations. [5] This should be motivation enough for these two sectors to start investing more time and energy into developing sustainable, long term relationships to ensure their future success.

UTS 2017 RepTrak Survey

[1] OECD (2014). Main science and technology indicators. OECD Publishing

[1] McDulling J. (2017). OECD report shows Australia needs innovation re-think (opinion piece), Australian Financial Review, 6 March 2017

[2] OECD (2014) Main science and technology indicators, OECD Publishing

[3] John McDulling, 6 March 2017, OECD report shows Australia needs innovation re-think (opinion piece), Australian Financial Review

[4] Author, July 2017, Engaging in Regional Innovation Ecosystems, Working Paper, MIT Lab for Innovation Science and Policy

[5] Tim Dodd, Wednesday 28 February, ‘$10bn dividend from closer ties to business’, The Australian