Article - Issue 18, February/March 2004
Seeking excellence and relevance: articulating business ideas
Sir Robert Malpas CBE FREng
‘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:
Sir Robert Malpas CBE FREng