Effective collaboration between academics and companies is critical for management research. It can (1) inspire research topics that are relevant to business and (2) encourage implementation of research findings. However, conducting collaborative research is not always easy.

This primer summarizes challenges and best practices for collaborative research. It is based on webinar entitled “Collaborative Research: How to meet the needs of both academic and industry partners” that included leaders of business sustainability research centres at universities around the world.

Featured speakers included:

  • Dr. Stephanie Bertels of Simon Fraser University and her corporate partner, James Gray-Donald of Bentall Kennedy
  • Dr. Omar Romero-Hernandez of the University of California, Berkeley and his corporate partner, Steve Hahn of Dow Chemical

Six challenges to collaborative research and solutions for addressing them

1. Different incentives

Academics seek data for publication and funding to support their research. Corporate motives can vary by company and by person and include philanthropy, brand recognition, access to new technology or information, student recruiting and relationship building with a specific researcher.

Collaborators should clarify their motives early and ensure they understand what their potential partner is seeking from the project. Failure to align these interests can cause the relationship to fail or even prevent the collaboration from launching. For example, a manager seeking brand recognition will not likely be motivated by promises of access to the latest technology. Pitching a benefit that doesn’t align with the corporation’s interests could dissuade them from engaging.

2. Different ideas of deliverables

Companies are accustomed to dealing with consultants, hired to solve a company-specific problem and committed to providing a pre-determined product. These products are typically concise, highly visual and can be quickly applied to decision-making. When working with consultants, companies also own all intellectual property (IP) arising from the work.

The outputs of academic research are very different. Products are typically longer, publicly available documents, including book chapters and journal articles. Additionally, researchers own the IP arising from a research study. This can be unnerving for companies that worry about downstream use of the data.

Discuss the deliverables that each party expects explicitly and early on. Use this understanding as the basis for written agreements, such as contracts, which are legally binding, or memorandums of understanding (MOUs), which are less formal.

3. Written agreements

Reaching consensus on written agreements, including contracts and MOUs, takes time and compromise. James Gray-Donald, Vice President of Sustainability at Bentall Kenney notes, “universities aren’t used to contracts in which there are restrictions placed on the research. This can be seen as infringing on academic freedom.” On the other hand, managers feel it’s reasonable to be promised some outcome for research they are funding.

Crafting any agreement should start with a solid understanding of all parties’ concerns and expectations. Afterall, an MOU is a memorandum of understanding. Legal departments should also be consulted early on. This will allow identification and mitigation of potential legal concerns.

When developing MOUs and contracts, less is more. Crafting broad, high-level agreements can provide room for flexibility as projects evolve, reducing the need for changes or new agreements. This saves time and frustration for all involved. Dr. Omar Romero-Hernandez of the University of California Berkeley has also had success using “master contracts” to cover multiple related projects. “We did a very large series of projects with the financial sector,” says Romero-Hernandez. “A master contract allowed technical people on both sides to come together quickly and do their thing [for new projects].  Each new project then became an addendum of the master contract.”

4. Perceptions of pace

The research team and participating companies can perceive project pacing very differently. “In the early stages, researchers really want to get rolling with a project, but it takes times time for companies to move things up through the appropriate channels,” says Dr. Stephanie Bertels of Simon Fraser University. “Then, when [researchers] start digging into the data, companies can feel like we’ve disappeared and we aren’t doing anything.”

Partners should explain how processes work in their organization and give expected timelines for each part of the project. Unclear communication as to the activities being undertaken and the timelines involved can lead to misunderstandings and frustration.

5. Risk associated with a single corporate contact

Allowing one person to be a researcher’s only contact within a company exposes a project to risk.  If the contact leaves, the researcher could lose the support of the institution and the collaboration may end. At a minimum, the researcher will have to invest considerable time selling the project to someone new. If the contact’s motives for collaborating were individual and not organizational, it may be very difficult to move forward.

To ensure project continuity in the face of staff turnover, aim to develop strong contacts with 2-3 people.

6. Building relationships takes time

Developing and managing research partnerships takes time and skills that aren’t always easy to find. To progress from reaching out to companies, to getting them excited about the project, to completing written agreements, can take many months.

One way to ensure relationship building receives dedicated attention is to work with an intermediary. Intermediaries could be:

  • Individuals. Some organizations hire a dedicated “relationship manager”. For example, Barb Steele, Director of Strategic Partnerships at NBS, is charged with recruiting new companies for various projects. This includes generating new leads, selling projects and negotiating contracts.
  • Institutions. Organizations, such as industry associations, can provide warm introductions to companies and vouch for the credibility of a researcher or project. These organizations can also provide a channel to public policy makers, who can implement research findings.

About the Sustainability Centres Community (SCC)

Hundreds of sustainability centres at business schools around the world are dedicated to driving sustainable business. These centres teach, conduct research and work with industry to facilitate social and environmental change. The SCC advances collaboration between centres by allowing them to (1) find one another using searchable profiles, (2) share opportunities on a Community forum and (3) share best practices through success stories published monthly.

SCC Webinar Series

Quarterly webinars allow direct dialogue between centres from around the world. Webinar topics are decided by SCC members and focus on an element related to sustainability teaching, research or practice.  This document summarizes discussion on effective collaborative research during a webinar hosted in January 2013.