Academics and Enterprise

12 Sep

UK Universities have to operate more like businesses, competing for customers and external funding more fiercely, and with more consequence, than ever before. This has meant academics and researchers looking for income in far more diverse places, no longer able to rely solely on funding councils and public sector tenders. As a consequence more and more universities are promoting the application of research into consultancy and asking the question- how can our ideas and skills add genuine value to a business? Answering this question isn’t just about finding an application for a methodology; it’s about re-thinking the role of methodology in a consultancy business model.

A few years ago I became really attracted to the idea of applying my research to solving genuine problems in business. I reasoned that this is where the biggest challenges were, if my research could enhance the function of a business in an open market then it would be passing a tough test. Fortunately I found some private sector partners who thought my work could make an impact and set about adapting my methods. It was an incredibly difficult process to transform all the years of research training into products which could translate to pounds, shillings and pence; and possibly the hardest part was getting over my focus on methodology.

All my conversations had been veering toward explaining my methodology, how I would do things. Instead my conversations needed to focus on outcomes- what someone would get if they applied the methodology. Being in an academic environment, talking with colleagues, presenting at seminars, conferences, writing a PhD, all these things focused on the how-the rigorous presentation and defence of methods; this defence should demonstrate that your results were sound and contributed to knowledge. My private sector backers advised me I now needed to focus on how I add value, what return on investment a business would get. The methodology, once the centre piece, now needed to be kept under wraps.

It needed to be kept under wraps for one particular reason. It was the secret ingredient, if you gave away the methodology; you theoretically gave away a recipe anyone could try to reconstruct. This was a tough one, the open sharing of methodologies was something I took for granted in every conversation and every grant application. Instead I was told it must now be “proprietary” in a conversation which went like this-
Private sector guy- Do you know what proprietary means?
Me- (I could guess where this was going) No
Private sector guy- It means, it’s a secret I’m not telling you.

Proactive consultancy work needs to demonstrate how it adds value to a business which might already be successful, applying methods which justify an investment. It differs to a request to carry out research someone has read about, which is great work if you can get it. Moving from an emphasis on methodology to an emphasis on adding value is an incredibly tough route, it involves sacrificing what and where you publish (organisations may want completely confidential involvement), and which funding streams to focus on. Formulating the value proposition itself can take over 12 months, which is a big commitment, however, the results and research challenges can make it more than worthwhile.

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