Article - Issue 18, February/March 2004

Seeking excellence and relevance: articulating business ideas

Sir Robert Malpas CBE FREng

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‘Illuminating areas of ignorance’

I follow with interest the recent spate of articles on the need for increased co-operation between academia and business and am moved to offer an approach which may make their meeting more fruitful than is often the case.

My approach is fashioned from years of experience of getting business people and researchers to engage in productive dialogue, the consequent action preserving the integrity, independence, and objectives, of both.

Establishing fruitful dialogue between researchers and business people would appear be a simple task. Just tell them to get together and dialogue will flow freely. It does not quite happen like that. No amount of exhortation, formal agreement to collaborate, or government incentive, so to do will come to much without considerable effort by both sides to establish a framework for dialogue.

Sometimes engaging a facilitator skilled at the task will help, for the two sides start far apart from each other.

Too often in my career I have witnessed sterile dialogue between researchers and business people. If they are exhorted, pressured, cajoled or even ordered to get together, the dialogue often goes something like:

‘What have you got to offer which may be of interest?’

‘What is it you want?’

Such remarks expose a mismatch which renders the dialogue short lived.

The problem is that there is a gap between the requirement of business people, who seek immediately identifiable relevance from all research effort which they fund – rightly so, and researchers who seek to pursue excellent research pushing out the boundaries of knowledge, the relevance of which may not be immediately obvious.

Thus excellence and relevance in terms of research – academic research in particular, which rightly tends towards the exploratory – are seen to be incompatible. At least this was the prevalent view some years ago. It need not be so.

As well as a gap there is a distance between new knowledge and the harnessing of it for practical use; a distance of time and effort involving many people of different disciplines, effort that requires much developmental research, in which academia can and does participate.

Given this gap in objectives, and distance in realisation, we need to find the common ground between the two. It is a mental process. Creating fruitful dialogue is the key. Recognition of the gap, and the distance, is a good start: both parties should recognise that they start from different positions, both of which are valid, and that seeking the lowest common denominator is not the objective. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Business people need to ‘step up’ their thought processes from the immediate, specific needs of their products, processes, and systems. This will render them capable of identifying and articulating the underlying knowledge required to improve them, and so excel in their chosen businesses.
  2. They need to become skilled at identifying the knowledge that will lead to new or better products, processes, systems, which for example improves functionality, manufacture, storage, distribution, sale, maintenance, disposal, recyclability, impact on the environment of the product and the means of making it.
  3. They need to involve researchers in this exercise. By so doing researchers, in helping to formulate the requirement to ‘identify areas of ignorance that need to be illuminated’ will contribute hugely to fashion the appropriate research programmes.
  4. It has to be recognised that people do not like admitting ignorance, nor do business people take easily to spending time determining where it exists, so it is not a natural process. Researchers may consider that this thought process brings them too close to utilitarian research. My experience, particularly when chairman of the LINK initiative, is that such dialogue ‘takes off’ to the benefit of both. Research programmes are fashioned that are both relevant and excellent, owned and actively supported by both parties.
  5. It is important not to aim for major breakthroughs. Too often one has seen that ambitious targets are unattainable which leads to disappointment and disillusion. ‘Life by a thousand successes’ as my colleague Professor Sir John Cadogan used to say – through incremental improvement, the successful pursuit of which leads to real advancement, hence confidence, and provides leads to major breakthroughs.
  6. It is also worthwhile that business people when having designed and launched a product, process or system, catalogue immediately the inelegancies and compromises (through lack of profound knowledge) that are always part of any creation. They provide an excellent agenda for the research and development that needs to be put in place immediately. This too is difficult to achieve managerially, for all effort is direct to launching the product, process or system. It is somewhat against human nature to catalogue ones defficiencies at the outset of something new – the latest design. Here again practice has shown this approach, which I call ‘the product – process – system – after next’ to be powerful.

Sir Robert Malpas CBE FREng

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