Six years ago, in a major report entitled A Review of Business-University Collaboration, Professor Sir Tim Wilson reflected on academia’s contribution to a knowledge economy. He wrote: “Universities are an integral part of the supply chain to business – a supply chain that has the capability to support business health and therefore economic prosperity.”
This sounds tremendously encouraging for all concerned. “Knowledge economy” is an expression that positively trips off the tongue, and it’s heartening to think that scholars and businesses are working together to make the concept a glorious reality.
But is this really the case? There has certainly been evidence to suggest the supply chain Sir Tim describes might not be operating very efficiently. In 2009, for example, the Confederation of British Industry reported that only 10% of innovative enterprises in the UK were cooperating with a university or some other form of HE institution. In 2011, remarking on the gap between “what the further and higher education system provides and what manufacturers need”, the British Chambers of Commerce cited “complaints that universities are often hard to work with… and that too much research does not find its way into viable British companies”.
This rather flies in the face of the accepted definition of a knowledge economy, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an economy in which growth is thought to be dependent on the effective acquisition, dissemination and use of information rather than the traditional means of production”. With Brexit and other challenges looming, it also does little to calm fears over the future competitiveness of British firms. So how might both sides go about achieving a more productive relationship?
The wrong type of give and take
It hardly need be said that this situation is especially pertinent to those of us who earn a living in business schools. After all, if business schools can’t align their interests with those of businesses then who can?
It’s interesting to note that the first business schools were established as collaborations between economists and traders. The oldest of all, École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris, was co-founded in 1819 by Jean-Baptiste Say, who coined the word “entrepreneur”, and Vital Roux, a businessman who advocated the kind of experiential learning that’s now increasingly back in fashion.
Nigh on 200 years later, despite globalisation and smart technology and any other significant advance you may care to mention, we’re still trying to master what we might call the co-creation of knowledge. In many ways the problem can be expressed in a simple question: what should the flow of knowledge be when academia and the “real world” engage with each other?
Unfortunately, many collaborations – if they can even be described as such – are characterised by the wrong type of give-and-take: businesses give, business schools take. Our students get an insight into life after graduation, and companies get precious little in return. Research has suggested that even those business schools that do choose to engage with firms seldom have much to offer, especially if the would-be recipient of wisdom is a small or medium-sized enterprise.
The art of two-way knowledge exchange
This is a tragedy because the fact is that business schools have plenty to offer. The problem is that we’re sometimes slow to realise how we might assist and even then struggle to impart our expertise. We need to understand that businesses aren’t like students – they really do have other things to do – and that it’s our job to prove we’re not wasting their time. Our mission should be to communicate knowledge that’s useful – and to do that we have to develop some humility and grasp that knowledge is useful only if it’s relevant, accessible and intelligible.
Medical schools have long since nailed precisely what’s required. Their interaction with the “real world” is firmly rooted in two-way knowledge exchange, with the nature of the transaction arguably summarised as follows: “We’ll cure you of that nasty little rash if you let our students watch how it’s done.”
This, ultimately, is what every facet of academia should want from the deal. It should want to help, and it should want its students to learn something useful in the process. For their part, companies need to ask themselves precisely what sort of help they might need from a higher education institution – perhaps while bearing in mind the following quote from a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report: “The evidence shows that companies that seek advice are nearly twice as likely to grow as those that do not.”
“Synergy” is an overused word in academia and business alike, but this is one of those instances where its deployment might be justified. Not least in light of the myriad threats and opportunities that lie ahead, these two spheres have a lot to give each other: they just need to recognise as much and do more to make it happen.
Simon Mosey is a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Nottingham University Business School, Director of its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE) and co-author of ‘Building an Entrepreneurial Organisation’.