These days there are lots of reasons why a university researcher might need to collaborate with a non-academic organisation. By a non-academic organisation I’m including the private sector, public sector, voluntary sector, civic society and communities. Communities might include, for example, patient groups or clubs.

Over the last eight years or so, the emphasis placed on getting some kind of benefit to the economy or society from university research has increased, with the weighting for impact case studies in the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) increasing to a massive 25%, compared to only 16% for REF 2014.

But working with organisations outside academia isn’t all about impact case studies for the next REF. It can also be about undertaking collaborative research and innovation. Funders, including Innovate UK, have funding calls for such activities. Other types of collaborative activity underpinned by academic research include, public engagement activities for schools and families, sharing of facilities, and real-world project ideas for undergraduate students.

Not all academic staff are practised at engaging with different organisations or people from other sectors. It can feel scary if you haven’t done it before. You can end up wasting a lot of time.

Regardless of the purpose of your developing idea, if you haven’t engaged with another type of organisation before, you want to improve your skills, here are my top tips for you.

Be clear about what you want

First of all, ask yourself some questions. Why do you want to collaborate with another organisation? What, broadly speaking, do you want out of the collaboration? Your answers will help you to pin down the type of organisation you are looking for.

Identify the organisation

You may be clear about which organisation you wish to approach because you are already aware of what they do, how they work and perhaps you already know someone with a contact there. If so, that’s great. If not, you will need to do some ground work.

There may well be more than one organisation you could consider approaching. Your Research or Knowledge Exchange department may be able to provide a short list. Alternatively, you could seek out potential collaborators at appropriate networking events or conferences.

A few university-external organisation matching tools are available. One, Konfer, has been created by The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) with Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Starting and building the relationship

Do your homework on the organisation. Look at their website. Make sure you understand their main business and their values. Their annual report should be on the web, so take a look at that. Try to think long term and consider how to build a long-term relationship with benefit for everyone involved. As with any relationship, try to find some common interests on a personal level early on. They will want to know who you are (and may have looked at your web page or Linked In profile).

But professionally, how can you help them? One approach I have successfully taken is to offer to give a talk to their staff about my research, and sometimes a few of my students or research fellows have contributed. It’s a good way for a number of people from the organisation to find out about what you have to offer and also to understand who they would be working with.

Aim for a win-win

If you have done your homework as suggested above, you should have some idea as to what the organisation is about and what their challenges might be. When you meet them, it’s important to ask good questions and listen to them. Think about how your expertise and their knowledge can help you both to addresses their challenge.

In other words, avoid starting off by telling them about your pet idea. Unless it is clear how it helps them, the conversation may end. When in academia, my starting point was to explain my role, that my university was in easy reach of them and that I was interested in finding out what opportunities there might be to work together for mutual benefit.

Getting to know them better

It’s always a good idea if you can meet both at the premises of the organisation and the university. Aim to do a tour of both – at least your own immediate areas. This really helps to understand how the university and organisation work and is also an opportunity for you and them to be introduced to further colleagues.

Be flexible about how you will collaborate

There can be a temptation, especially if you are approaching a large company, to assume they have lots of money available. They may have some money, but perhaps their research budget is fully committed for the current financial year. Maybe a collaboration can be based (at least initially) on ‘in-kind’ contributions.

Perhaps you would benefit from their expertise, access to some of their equipment or data sets, or would like someone from the organisation to sit on your advisory board. If you are after funds for a research fellow or research student, make sure you can speak briefly about schemes like Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTPs) that will reduce the cost to the company. Perhaps a project undertaken by an undergraduate or Master’s student is a good place for you to start to work together?

It’s a long game

Relationships are built on trust and personal connections. Make sure you keep in touch and nurture the relationship. Don’t wait until you want something before getting in touch again. Aim to evolve the relationship by sharing relevant knowledge and opportunities – especially around funding opportunities that might help you to collaborate more easily.

Remember, relationships may have a limited duration for all sort of reasons. Organisations change and people move on. Your research may evolve into a different area which is no longer relevant to the organisation. That is normal, so you may want to have a few good complementary collaborations on the go at any one time.

Good luck in your collaborative endeavours!

Acknowledgement. This post was inspired by serendipitous conversations with some participants in the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education Aurora Programme for future senior women leaders.


Author Jenny Ames

Working with Universities, Businesses and their Stakeholders to benefit Society.

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