Inside Plasma

It takes two to Tango

Photo of two people dancing

Partnerships between universities and businesses are nothing new, but these partnerships have become especially relevant in today’s economic environment. Businesses face growing economic pressure and global competition, the problems to solve are becoming increasingly complex, often requiring interdisciplinary approaches. It is crucial for commercial organisations to continuously innovate products, processes, and services in order to provide unique solutions for their customers.

  • Industrial partners offer university researchers access to resources, and funding. The collaboration also gives the academic partner the opportunity to test the practical applications of their research on real-world problems and so inform future research.
  • Academic partners bring in-depth expertise and research data to the table. The industrial partner gains access to cutting-edge expertise and techniques that they don’t have in-house, enabling the development of new approaches.
  • Both partners benefit from the development opportunities for their teams to learn new skills in research and commercial understanding.

Such partnerships can be mutually beneficial, with outcomes leading to powerful solutions to the challenges faced in our complex and rapidly-changing world. Or they can be a painful, and costly, reminder that working with people, who may well think and work in a different way, isn’t easy!

I spend a not inconsiderable part of my working week supporting and facilitating collaborative partnerships for Oxford Instruments, Plasma Technology. As part of this I read an article on the subject some time ago which made the case for industry-academic collaborations being akin to partners skilled in different dances trying to reach a compromise between waltz and salsa. Rhythms, pace, and expected outcomes can be frustratingly at odds, as university researchers prioritise education and research and corporate scientists pursue products and profits. This analogy stuck in my mind not least because my wife and I have been dancing socially for the last 10 years. Think “Strictly Come  Dancing” / “Dancing with the Stars” / “Mira quién baila” / “Let’s Dance” …..  without the sequins, Lycra or celebrities (or judges) but apart from that it’s exactly the same.

Historically I would agree with the article, however over the last 10 years I have seen a marked change, more in collaborations than in our dancing. To keep with the dance analogy, the waltz has become the quickstep and the salsa has become the jive. The partners are not quite in step, but the gaps in rhythms, pace, and expected outcomes have diminished, everyone involved is more likely to leave the floor still talking to each other having gained from the experience most of what they had hoped for.

Success in any given collaboration depends on finding common goals and negotiating plans that give both parties what they are looking for. If it’s my wife and I dancing, that can be as simple as still being on speaking terms when the music stops. For industrial – university collaborations it’s more likely to be results which pay off financially and intellectually for all parties.

It also struck me that there are other analogies to be drawn between the world of Ballroom & Latin and collaborative partnerships:

  • Both take commitment (time and financial), effort, application, and an ability to learn from ones mistakes.
  • Both require clear leadership, communication (as much non-verbal as verbal) and a shared understanding of each other’s needs, skills and capabilities.

The more you dance, the better you get at it, and the more you understand how to dance well with any given partner. If you continually dance with the same partner (politically and financially safest if this is your partner) you make even greater improvements. The majority of Industrial – Academic collaborations have tended to be one offs, created by a mutual interest which fades at the conclusion of the given project. The best results we have seen have come from those collaborations which have evolved into long term partnerships, where mutual trust and understanding has been built up over time.

With a shared vision, mutual understanding based on a foundation of mutual trust, and a joint willingness to invest in the partnership, a long-term collaboration can reap great results by building a body of work over time. Some of our collaborations include: Glasgow Uni, TU/e, ITRI and Cornell Uni.

Slow Foxtrot anyone?

Author: Frazer Anderson, Strategic Marketing and Business Development Director

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One Commnet on “It takes two to Tango

  1. A fascinating insight Frazer. Success in these kind of asymmetric partnerships is as much about trust and communications as the more usual levers of project management. I particularly liked your articulation of the cultures of the private sector and academia. It seems obvious but everyone enters into partnerships thinking the other partners see the world in exactly the same way. Surfacing the differences early on will go a long way to prevent things stalling. Thanks, Adrian

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