The benefits of industry-academia interaction are well-known. The challenge we face is how to make it happen – consistently, sustainably, and effectively.
The first is to acknowledge that industry and academia live in two different contexts.
The context of individuals working in industry is the day to day operational and tactical challenges they face while conducting their business. In the longer run, they face evolving markets, new technologies, demands from shareholders, and changes in government policies.
On the other hand, the context of an individual living in academia is the demands of teaching, creating new “knowledge products” like research papers and textbooks, managing within the institutional rhythm of exams, projects, submissions, etc.
In the Indian context, a further, important challenge is how to push students to dive deep and go beyond the superficial “exam quality” thinking that dominates many institutions.
There are many solutions already being used, which include consulting by academics, real-world projects by students, various conferences and forums where both academia & industry people attend, inviting industry experts to academic institutions, and, of course, sponsored projects.
But the main challenge we face in all these different approaches is that they are often person-dependent or limited to specific collaborations without sustained and mutually productive engagements on either side.
Successful industry-academia interactions appear to follow a “ladder of engagement”. As the quality of engagement increases, the collaboration between industry & academia becomes more rich, more fruitful, and more sustainable.
The first step of this ladder of engagement is mutual exposure to the socio-technical challenges faced on both sides. This means an effort at articulating not just the technical but the socio-technical challenges faced both in the industrial world and the academic world. This includes exposure to implementation issues, issues of adoption, people issues, and of course issues in the state of practice/ methods, and technologies available, etc. The greater the exposure, the sharper the contribution and mutual help that can be given by academia and industry to each other.
At the next level is the need for an appreciation of possibilities. Successful partnerships account for both academics and industry managers to jointly explore new types of solution possibilities, possibilities for reducing costs and increasing value creation, new ways to achieve adoption and skill building, etc. To generate these possibilities, exposure to challenges (the previous step in the ladder) is a prerequisite.
As a clearer vision of possibilities emerges, it becomes necessary to shift focus to “protocols of engagement”. How do both industry and academia work together in a way where they respect each other’s time constraints (industry is always chasing yesterday’s targets while academia has to respect the academic rhythm and competing priorities of students), and also respect the space that academics need without being pushed, and the multiple demands on energy & time that managers need to constantly cope with.
Furthermore, there is need to respect the shared vision that drives the collaborations. The need to create value for all stakeholders if the collaboration is to be successful. A lack of respect for value creation for all stakeholders and too much focus on the “letter” of the contract can negatively impact the possibility of long-term collaborations.
As a partnership matures – both sides climb to the next and highest stage of engagement where they work together on shared outcomes. This is the stage where trust and mutual respect has reached a level where breakthrough ideas, a healthy dynamic of reflection and practice, and the harnessing of the creative capabilities and experiences of multiple participants – students, faculty, managers, technical experts, etc. – can lead to co-evolution of knowledge and true partnership between industry and academia.
The key to creating sustainable and effective partnership is not chasing more projects or more funds, but is instead nurturing a steady climb on the ladder of engagement by both industry and academic participants.