This is my first blog post and I decided to make it on an extremely relevant topic: industry university collaboration. But why should you value my opinion? (if you already know me you may chose to skip directly to Reason 1)
If you are from industry, I have played your role for several years, being the owner of a software company (from 2004 to 2012). Thus, your point of view is surely considered throughout the text.
If you are from university, currently I am a professor at the department of informatics at PUC-Rio (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). According to the Times Higher Education University Rankings 2017, PUC-Rio is the leader in industry income in Latin America.
Concerning industry-university collaboration, the research group I am heading at PUC-Rio conducts research in close collaboration with industry and has active collaboration contracts. Hence, the collaboration model described below is being applied in practice. Many of my publications concern applied research. This year I had the honor of being chosen to co-chair the industrial track of one of the main conferences in my area (International Symposium on Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement – ESEM 2017). Recently, I started to serve the editorial board of the Journal of Systems and Software, which values contributions of practical relevance to industry. …
Given that context, hereafter you can find seven reasons why industry should collaborate with universities.
Reason 1: (Industry Benefit) Research triggers Innovation and Operational Excellence
Product and/or service innovations aren’t an option in today’s business. The days when companies could rely on traditional products or service business models are long gone. As stated by Steve Jobs, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”.
Process innovation (with effective change management) is needed to stay competitive in today’s global society and to achieve operational excellence and higher profits.
While some companies (e.g., Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and many others) have internal research groups focused on product/service or process innovation, others do not have the budget to establish such groups. Note that, besides requiring hiring highly qualified and trained researchers, this involves providing them with the infrastructure for cutting-edge research and also funds for travelling the world to leading conferences, to stay at the avant-garde of knowledge in their areas of expertise.
Thus, the first reason is clear. Research triggers innovation. Innovation triggers success. However, establishing an internal research group is expensive.
The good news is that companies do not need to establish an internal research group and that even small and medium sized companies can have access to the benefits of triggering innovation and success with research. The key is industry-university collaboration. This leads us to the second reason …
Reason 2: (Industry Benefit) Investing in Applied Research doesn’t have to be Expensive
The solution is partnering up with research groups of universities. Basically these universities already have highly qualified researchers, including professors with PhD’s in their area of expertise, staff including post-doc trainees (also owning PhDs) and PhD and MSc students (please remember that at high-quality universities only the best share of bachelor students tends to be accepted at MSc and PhD level courses).
People in these research groups already have some kind of basic income to produce research results (i.e., knowledge). They also have the needed infrastructure (equipped research laboratories, access to research papers and books), and the responsibility to keep up with what is being discussed in top conferences and journals in their areas.
This is were the power of synergy comes into place and this whole discussion starts to become particularly interesting. The ideas of entrepreneurs and the problems of specific company environments may become fruitful terrains for applied research. The mission of generating knowledge doesn’t have to be decoupled from industrial practice (more on this matter in Reason 5). This synergy is what enables the research with low(er) (complimentary) investments.
Instead of establishing and maintaining a research group, all a company has to do is a basic investment that allows the head of the already established research group to complement the income of the involved research group members and to help him maintaining his research lab. As long as there is mutual interest in investigating the topic, all will benefit. In the particular case of software engineering (my area of interest) any combination of context and software process can provide such win-win collaboration situation. There is always place for improvement (adoption of cutting-edge and innovative technologies) and continuous experimentation towards both, innovation for product/service or process improvement on one side, and evolving the knowledge in the field and research papers at the other. Last week I established one of these partnerships, which usually result in excitement from all involved parts at the beginning and, thereafter, in establishing new relationships of mutual trust.
Of course, bigger companies will always have the option to invest beyond these boundaries, according to their needs and investment capacity. For instance, they could set up complete focused research innovation units at the university side (we have some of those at the Informatics Department at PUC-Rio). This would allow them staying close to the environment of the universities, to the researchers that tend to be references in their areas, and to postgraduate students that could be prepared to integrate their research teams in the future.
Reason 3: (Industry Benefit) Access to Knowledge and Innovative Technologies
In the area of technology, the main research conferences tend to have strong participation of the leading ICT companies, interested mainly in knowledge and innovative technologies. In the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) 2017, for instance, 52 out of 127 accepted papers in the research and practice tracks directly involved researchers from industry (source: blog of David Shepherd, co-chair of ICSE 2017 Practical Track). Companies such as ABB, Accenture, Blackberry, BMW, Cisco, Ericsson, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, Siemens and many others had an active participation, including accepted research papers. The International Symposium on Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement (ESEM) 2017, had an increase of 50% in the number of submissions in its industrial track.
What about the small and medium sized ICT companies? Shouldn’t they have access to this knowledge and the leading technologies from the front as well? Well, there are some people attending these conferences every year that are well-aware of what is happening in their areas. Yes, I am talking about professors and members of their research groups. Thus, unless a company believes that the leading ICT companies are all doing it wrong, it should be worried about teaming up with a university and get access to the latest knowledge and innovative technologies on its fields of interest.
Reason 4: (Industry Benefit) Visibility
Imagine a small or medium-sized company that is internationally recognized for investing in research for innovation and operational excellence. Furthermore, having its name associated with top universities and institutes, such as TUM in Europe, MIT in North America, PUC-Rio in South America, Tokyo Tech in Asia, …*
* The intention here is just to mention a few, of course there are many other universities and institutes of excellence within these continents.
Imagine them publishing research papers about cutting-edge technology applied in their companies in internationally renown venues together with giants such as Google, IBM, and Microsoft.
There is no doubt that these companies will be recognized as key players by industry, universities and students, in particular of the universities in which they decided to conduct their applied research.
Reason 5: (University Benefit) Applied Research Focused on Practically Relevant Problems
Synergy between science and practice is what explains the extend of the whole win-win scenario described by these 7 reasons. From my point of view, the mission of generating knowledge should be aligned with the needs of the industry and the wellness of our society. Thus, research groups should support and leverage industry for the benefit of society. By investigating innovative practical ideas and solutions of problems faced in real industrial contexts scientists can focus on generating knowledge that is really needed and relevant.
As a result, scientists will produce papers of higher impact for both, science and industry/society. Nowadays, at least in my area of expertise, many high impact factor journals value applied research focused on solving practically relevant problems.
Reason 6: (University Benefit) Motivated and Highly Skilled Researchers
Researchers usually become naturally motivated with industry collaborations to investigate real-world problems, as they can easily see the benefit of their research to industry/society.
Conducting research to solve real-world problems is challenging and requires deep knowledge on scientific methods. Researchers will have the opportunities to apply such methods in practice (e.g., action research, case studies, continuous experimentation) and to evolve them, developing skills that are highly valued by the leading companies and research institutes.
Reason 7: (University Benefit) University Autonomy and Better Paid Researchers
Industry-university collaborations enable the head of the research group to complement the income of his research group members. Sadly, and contrasting their expertise, these researchers are typically not well-paid. Basically the government relies on their will to pursue an MSc or PhD title to pay them extremely low (in some countries almost miserable) research grants. The role of science and governmental investments in science are being questioned by the global society. Scientist should react and take a move in the direction of becoming more independent from the government.
As head of a research group, I am happy whenever I have the opportunity to complement the income of my students by partnering up with industry and aligning their research with concrete industry needs. Moreover, paying well allows selecting highly skilled research group team members, which in turn will enhance research outcomes in the long term. In the future I would like to see many postgraduate students around the world focusing on applied research in partnership with companies, solving relevant real-world problems, publishing high impact papers of direct interest to society and being well paid for that.
While I can make some effort to help companies in the area of software engineering and to complement the income of my own students, changing the status quo in the large requires a more coordinated effort. Sharing this post is a step in this direction.