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Working with business and forging partnerships

By Margaret Adolphus

Introduction and context

In the twenty-first century, universities are closer to big business than to ivory towers. As well as competing for students from every corner of the globe, they are also seeking to translate their unique resource – the knowledge that they create – into a marketable product by entering into business partnerships.

For Ian Maude who facilitates business contacts for the Faculty of Business & Law, part of Leeds Metropolitan University, it's all about being "out there" with business:

"We're a university, we've got to be out there, we can't live in an ivory tower, we need to have links with the business community."

And universities which follow his advice will gain not only a bit of executive training or the trial of a patent, but also real world knowledge with which they can equip their students to become the employable graduates that business wants.

The UK has led the field, at least in Europe, with regard to university–business partnerships. Lifelong learning and employability are firmly on the Government's agenda, and the Leitch Report (Leitch, 2006) called for more emphasis on employer-led skills if the UK was to avoid falling behind the rest of the world.

The Council for Industry in Higher Education has published a report (Connor and Hirsh, 2008) on its research into partnerships between higher education institutions (HEIs) and industry, which claims that profitable partnerships can benefit both sides and increase productivity. How these partnerships can be fostered will be explored later in this article.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council recently announced that it was planning to put £55 million for knowledge transfer accounts, to help universities turn their discoveries into economic and societal benefits.

Conscious of the Government's agenda, many universities in the UK have dedicated units and staff to help foster business partnerships. These offer a range of services including:

  • executive development,
  • consultancy at all stages of the business cycle from start-up to maturity, and
  • project placements with suitable students.

We shall now go on to explore some of the partnerships that can be developed between business schools and industry, focusing particularly on knowledge transfer and executive development. Although much work has been done on industrial applications of science and technology, we shall take most of our examples from business and management disciplines.

Knowledge transfer and exchange

While executive development is specifically about looking at the needs of a particular part of the workforce, knowledge transfer is about universities and industry co-creating knowledge. The knowledge may be about the industrial application of some research or theoretical knowledge (for example, strategic marketing) applied in a real world context.

Knowledge exchange occurs when interested parties from a university and a particular industry sector (or sectors) share their ideas in a more formal way.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

The Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) programme has been described as:

"Europe's leading programme helping businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK knowledge base" (Department of Trade and Industry, 2007).

The basic principle behind KTP is that a commercial organization has a project, or particular piece of consultancy (for example, changing its brand, entering a new market, designing a management information system or a new product). It is put in touch with a suitable "KTP associate" in the form of a well-qualified student (a recent graduate or postgraduate in an appropriate subject) to work in-house on the project, with the backing of their university.

In both 2006 and 2007, 21 per cent of all projects were in the areas of management and business, roughly the same amount as for engineering. There were 24 business partnerships in 2007.

KTP is funded by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry, which sees it as a highly successful, government-funded project in terms of profit, jobs, investment in plant and training generated. It was estimated that in 2006/07, companies stood to benefit from an overall increase in annual profit before tax of some £100 million, and the creation of over 1,400 new jobs in addition to those directly working on the KTP project.

Like all good industry-university partnerships, there are benefits to all sides:

  • Increased profit, jobs and skills base for the company.
  • The opportunity for the associate at an early stage of his or her career to become involved in a real world project of considerable importance, and the possibility of a job (60 per cent of associates end up working for their company).
  • The HEI gets the opportunity to develop genuine business-based teaching materials, and identify new research themes.

The partnership between Leeds City Credit Union (LCCU) and the University of Leeds Business School won the 2007 award for the best application of management or social science. The aim was to develop and implement a marketing strategy to help the growth of affordable financial services for a broad cross-section of clients, including those suffering from social disadvantage. The associate used a range of techniques to profile members, identify their needs and find gaps in the market, enabling LCCU to be more responsive. Those involved with the project at Leeds University gained experience of demographic profiling, while the associate got the opportunity to work on a strategic product and is now a permanent staff member.

Blah D Blah Limited is a creative design agency which was looking to update its information system. It worked with Bangor University School of Computer Science – its associate was doing an MPhil postgraduate degree – to produce a new management information system covering customer enquiries, quotations, product specs, scheduling, outsourcing, invoicing and customer-relationship management. The result was increased turnover due to greater operational efficiency. The associate got management experience and a project he could use for his degree; the university got a new case study and an enhanced profile for the School of Computer Science.

Student projects

KTP provides a highly structured programme of knowledge transfer backed with government funding. However, students have long been doing work-based projects as part of business-related degrees.

Warwick Business School offers companies the possibility of consultancy on particular projects with students from its postgraduate programmes. These include both traditional and specialist degrees, such as the MSc in financial mathematics, covering financial modelling, statistical forecasting and understanding financial markets.

Students for an MBA at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) – which prides itself on its strong corporate links and uses the slogan "real world, real learning" – carry out a consultancy project as part of their degree.

As with KTP partnerships, such arrangements can work to the mutual benefit of all, providing:

  • experience for the student,
  • real world knowledge to the university, and
  • free or low cost consultancy for the company.

However, there needs to be a structure and strong commitment from all sides.

All Warwick Business School's projects are closely supervised by a member of faculty who ensures that the project is correctly defined and that the work is of a required standard.

IMD ensures buy-in from the cooperating company by requiring the CEO to:

  • attend three presentations;
  • make an official announcement that the project is going ahead;
  • ensure access to information; and
  • assign someone to work with the delegate and the IMD team.

On IMD's side, a member of the faculty directs the project and supervises the student.

Knowledge networks

The knowledge in universities lies in their intellectual capital and the dialogue they help stimulate – the communities of practice that form around a shared area of concern. Thus some leading business schools offer not just their expertise, but also their facilitation skills in assembling like-minded people to pool knowledge.

IMD formalizes its corporate links through its unique Learning Network of more than 190 partner companies, with whom it collaborates closely. The members, often the top human resource managers, are convened regularly for feedback "from the market".

These companies contribute to IMD's governance, drive the research agenda, encourage innovation and generally help foster strong and sustained mutual learning partnerships.

According to Gordon Adler, a former director of communications:

"IMD's links with business are arguably stronger, more direct and more formalized [than other schools]. IMD's many governing bodies are populated in large part by seasoned executives. You could say that IMD was borne of business and is perhaps the only business school run like a business, with no outside funding, and very close ties to partnership companies".

The Learning Network offers weekly webcasts, as well as a number of learning events showcasing recent IMD research and addressing the challenges faced by those in strategic management. There is also a series of half-day business forums which take place around the world.

Warwick Business School also has a number of collaborative partnerships that foster knowledge networks across a range of disciplines. For example, the Strategic Sales and Customer Management Network looks at increasing value to customers from both a practical and a research perspective.

Executive education and development

One of the most sustained ways in which HEIs develop partnerships with business is through customized executive education.

As distinct from off-the-shelf courses, which plug gaps in the executives' knowledge and skills, bespoke programmes tailor the training to the strategic needs of the company, hence providing education in context.

There is thus a strong consultancy element as the business school will work with an organization to find an intervention that is appropriate to the organization's goals.

Duke Corporate Education, of Duke Fuqua University, and IMD are respectively first and second in executive education according to the FT Business School rankings (IMD is first in Europe).

Duke Corporate Education works closely with the organization to design an individual programme, and the objectives are derived from the particular business challenge it faces. The analysis involves a deceptively simple process of examining what employees need to know, do and believe in order to effect lasting change.

Image - Figure 1. Diagram illustrating Duke's analysis of corporate training requirements, © Duke Corporate Education.

Figure 1. Diagram illustrating Duke's analysis of corporate training requirements (© Duke Corporate Education)

Once the needs have been assessed the programme can be put together, drawing on the staff at Duke, their academic affiliates and partner institutions from around the world, including the prestigious London School of Economics. The programme venue is also up for discussion with the client, and the teaching method – which may be either a traditional approach or a novel one, such as action learning – is chosen to suit the objectives.

IMD's partnership programmes, of which it delivered 150 with 123 clients in 2007, are tailor-made to a particular client and the challenges they face. As with Duke Corporate Education, IMD works very thoroughly on the development process to understand the context within which the programme must take place and what should be its top priority.

According to Mike Stanford, director of IMD's partnership programmes, its training courses may be on a whole range of issues, such as:

  • helping a wholesale bank move to solution selling and building stronger relationships with its clients;
  • a utility company develop processes for buying and integrating smaller utility companies;
  • a global construction company establish a global supply chain company; or
  • the finance function of a global bank develop communication, continuous improvement and HR processes so that it becomes a unified global finance organization.

A key characteristic of all programmes is that they seek to have a direct impact on performance: "Application is the dominant approach at IMD", according to Stanford, and a variety of approaches are used depending on the issue to be addressed. One of these is action learning, "whether the emphasis is on capability building or helping a team reach its business goals", to make sure that "we have a significant impact on the individuals, teams and organizations that rely on us to support their work".

The two-year partnership with Borealis exemplifies the active learning approach to executive development. When considering executive education institutes, Borealis vice president of human resources, Jaap de Vries, knew that IMD talked the right language when they explained that management teams learn best when actively engaged in the learning process.

To turn the company from being an underperforming middling player, an executive development programme was created called Courage to Lead. The programme was specifically designed to cut across functions, cultures, age and gender, to include senior leaders, mavericks, and young guns. Its final message was to keep driving innovation forward and hence outsmart the competition, and it resulted in 30 new business projects, as well as a more integrated network within the company as the result of so many different levels working together during the executive programme.

However, according to Connor and Hirsh (2008), HEIs are not always the best providers of bespoke courses: they may not be set up to deliver courses on the short turnaround demanded by industry, and in the experiential and facilitative style preferred. In that respect, they may find themselves competing with private training providers.

Where universities do have a key advantage is that they can offer accreditation, and it is to this that we shall now turn.

Accredited courses

Employees will want to go to universities for their development needs, according to Connor and Hirsh (2008), if the latter can provide leading edge knowledge. In today's knowledge economy, professions are fragmenting and reforming; also, in many cases, the knowledge required is changing and increasing. An MBA has long been considered a useful passport to the higher echelons of management; however, we have also seen a growth in more specialist master's degree courses such as the MSc in financial mathematics mentioned above.

Sheffield University Department of Information Studies has developed a number of master's degree courses in response to what it sees as the market need: it has revamped its MSc in Health Informatics to make it international, and it is adding programmes on information literacy, electronic and digital library management and legal information management. All these support roles are carried out by information professionals.

Achieving accreditation was a part of the motivation for Emerald's partnership with Leeds Metropolitan University to deliver an MA in International Business. The management team was looking for ways of recognizing the achievements of staff who completed the company's in-house staff development course, the action learning based "Academy" programme, which involved working on a company project outside the immediate scope of their job. Enrolling on the MA programme means that this learning can be accredited.

According to Mark Hindwell, head of external relations and a student on the course, the appeal of this degree lies in its international aspect, matching the increasingly international dimension of the company which deals with people all over the world, and which has opened up several new branches in other countries including the USA and China. The degree has modules on cross-cultural management and international strategy; an MBA, he felt, would not have had the same components, but would focus instead on more quantitative aspects, such as accountancy and economics.

The course is exactly the same as that done by full-time and part-time students at Leeds Met, but is geared to Emerald's requirements in several ways. Delivery is on site at Emerald's Bingley office by Leeds Metropolitan staff, and the Emerald cohort (the programme is open to employees at all levels) is allowed time off to attend lectures and seminars.

Relevant case studies are used, illustrative of the field in which the cohort is working, so that they can transfer the knowledge gained into practice. A specific set of optional modules are chosen that are relevant to all (it would obviously not be practical for a small cohort to choose different modules, although it would have been possible to tweak modules or even design specific ones).

The research dissertation must be company related, for example one student is hoping to look at the cross-cultural implications of the learning organization.

According to Fojt et al. (2008: p. 149) the degree programme helps to fulfil the objectives of:

  • creating the company's future,
  • demonstrating the managerial and scholarly academic competences of the learner.

The fact that it is available at all levels of the company means that all employees gain confidence to put forward proposals, thus maximizing the thinking power available to the company.

Forging partnerships

The two main aspects of industry-university collaboration we have discussed so far are the creation and transfer of knowledge, and executive development. But how can universities set up beneficial partnerships which profit all parties – themselves, their students, and the industry concerned?

Connor and Hirsh (2008) are against universities seeing themselves as supplier and industry as customer, as might be a logical interpretation of the need to develop students with employability skills. Instead, they advocate relationships that are based on genuine collaboration:

"Employer demand for higher learning is more likely to get converted successfully into HE supply if there is genuine collaboration and mutual benefit in the partnership" (p. 9).

Ian Maude would certainly agree with this analysis, believing that both parties need to benefit equally from the relationship:

"We would want an organization to gain as much from us as we gain from them. It's not just that you're a business and we're supplying you with something, we see it as very much a two-way thing."

It is also important to understand that each side has a lot to offer the other. According to Ian Maude:

"Leeds Metropolitan University is a big organization, and there are lots of things you could use us for and we would want you to take advantage of that. In the same way, we would want to take advantage of what you can offer us, by helping to keep us current and find out what's going on, that keeps us ahead of the game as a business school."

Connor and Hirsh (2008) offer the following advice on how to turn a partnership into a win-win situation:

  • Businesses should clearly identify their needs and make sure that they choose the right partner. Each party should understand the other's constraints and capabilities.

Ian Maude of Leeds Metropolitan commented that Emerald was very clear about what its needs were – it had done its homework and knew that the MA in International Business was the best for its business. He finds, however, that a lot of businesses come wanting a master's degree course, and when you ask them why, they often can't say. With Emerald, however, it was a question of focusing not on what, but how.

  • Both sides should provide a clear point of contact: for the university, this needs to be both at the business centre and at the faculty.
  • Learner needs should be taken account of – they are the main customer.
  • Providers must have the resource to deliver – does the HEI have sufficient staff, or can they use external staff if necessary?
  • Are the right sort of relationships in place to sustain the arrangement, and is there support from senior management as well as the people who deal with the day to day?
  • Both sides need to recognize what the other can bring.
  • Review, including the all important learner feedback, should be built into the relationship.
  • Effective governance should be in place to support the partnership.
  • Don't just think in terms of a one-off relationship: make sure that the relationship is ongoing, for example through graduate recruitment.

They also believe that such arrangements are fundamental for universities if they are to gain an understanding of how things work in the real world and build up case studies. All this helps them to provide students with an education that will make them employable.

For universities, nurturing such partnerships can often be a slow process. According to Ian Maude, it's a question of changing people's perception of the university as purely involved in the education of 18-21 year olds, and helping them see a range of other possibilities such as continuing professional development, professional qualifications, research, etc. Partnerships develop when a business becomes aware of a particular need and sees how a university can meet it.

Connor and Hirsh (2008) believe that this is a matter of improved marketing, both external – so that relevant points of contact are developed – and internal – so that faculty are ready to support the partnerships.

Universities need to have a business-like attitude, being responsive and welcoming, but also realistic about costs and sustainability. They should also take a strategic approach, building on a particular area in which they are strong, such as recruitment.

According to Ian Maude, partnerships do not happen overnight, and can take years to nurture. You may need to build on something quite small, such as a company giving a lecture to students, or a co-hosted event. Project placements can also be a good way of developing links.

Universities should also play to their strengths, for example Leeds Metropolitan is particularly strong in financial services and law, which in turn is based on its geographical position in a big financial and legal centre. Forming partnerships with other providers is a good way of maximizing possibilities by creating a critical mass of strengths.

Knowledge House is a consortium of five universities in the North East of England – Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Teesside and Northumbria – and has been described by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as an example of global best practice for university-business engagement.

Making the initial links can be difficult. According to Ian Maude, the UK has a big advantage in that it has intermediaries such as chambers of commerce, and, being "right at the heart of these organizations" with members of the university on their boards, gives a head start with networking.

Conclusion and references


In this article we've looked at a number of ways in which universities can work with business to the mutual benefit of both parties.

It's important, however, not to forget that one of the main beneficiaries is the learner, who gains learning that is both intellectually rigorous and placed in a real world context.

As Ian Maude says:

"At the end of the day, the majority of people here are undergraduate students and they will graduate and need to get a job, and employers will need the graduates who have got the skills to work in today's world."


Connor, H. and Hirsh, W. (2008), Influence through Collaboration: Employer Demand for Higher Learning and Engagement with Higher Education, Council for Industry in Higher Education, UK.

Department of Trade and Industry (2007), Knowledge Transfer Partnerships Annual Report 2006/07, DTI, UK.

Fojt, M., Parkinson, S., Peters, J. and Sandelands, E. (2008), "The 'push-pull' approach to fast-track management development: a case study in scientific publishing", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 146-152.

Leitch, S. (2006), Prosperity for All in the Global Economy – World Class Skills: Final Report, HMSO, UK.