Worlds apart

-“You want to be a PhD student because you are afraid to leave the safe haven of university.” –“You go into corporate life because you’re not smart enough to be in academia.” Two sentences I have heard illustrating how some highlight differences between these the academic and corporate worlds. However, these two worlds can benefit from each other greatly.

Too fundamental

In academia PhD students – for example – devote four years of their professional life to the pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of how proficient the student is, practical applicability is not a requirement of their track. New, fundamental knowledge that can later be used, or ignored, is the main product: Innovation in its purest form.

However, this approach runs the risk of losing connection with the ‘real world’. The knowledge may end up in a dissertation that is cited a number of times within a confined area of research and that’s it.

Risky Innovation

In the corporate world innovation is a business risk. Only a percentage of new ideas lead to profitable applications so it is often smart to be a quick follower rather than a first mover. This risk creates a trade-off between exploration (or the aforementioned innovation) and exploitation (doing everyday business producing revenue).

Exploration is an activity you can only engage in if revenues generated through exploitation cover the risk of time wasted on explorative work that does not lead to future revenues. The result of this risk is that companies lack an incentive to generate new knowledge or ideas even though they often face questions that go beyond every-day activities.

Combining the two

The two worlds described in the previous paragraphs can benefit from each other tremendously. If the two can meet somewhere in the middle, collaborations may result in applicable innovations that contribute to the academic state of the art.

In my current job I am expected to embody this combination, which is translated in its structure. I work 40% as a Technical Consultant, exploitation as described above. I work 20% as a PhD student. The remaining 40% I spend in between these two worlds.

An example of the work in between these two worlds is the current master thesis I am supervising. In this study the owners of the website hardware.info acknowledged that the audience of their website may have changed over time. They however do not have the means (time and knowledge) to investigate this themselves. Drawing on the body of scientific literature provided a way to answer this question, which resulted in a study on their website that answered the original question and an additional, academically relevant question here broadly described as “what can we tell from objective behavior of visitors on websites?”.

This first step in combining corporate questions and my own academic research illustrates how a “real-world” question can be answered in a way that is beneficial for both a company and academia.

In general

This type of collaborations is the future. Budget deficits in the university departments increase the need for external funding. The need for innovation in companies increases. And both these needs create room for negotiation for the two to meet each other in the middle.

And both worlds can benefit from these collaborations: Companies have a way to access innovative power with a limited investment, and by ‘out-sourcing’ the research they provide resources to an academic partner. Apart from monetary, these resources also consist of the opportunity of moving research away from the university campus into society, increasing ecological validity and thus scientific value.

For universities knowledge valorization is becoming a prominent issue on the agenda, with the goal of moving academic research towards the market, increasing visibility and possible revenues. Collaborations between companies and universities guarantee this knowledge valorization.

Apart from benefits there are challenges. One example is the possible issue of intellectual property. A university is appraised on publications that may result in a company losing its leading position or first mover’s advantage. Another example is the different standards (i.e. corporate research reports are not assessed with the same level of scrutiny as academic publications), thus finding the right balance here is another challenge.

Even though corporations and academia are said to be worlds apart, instantiating collaborations between them in the right way will advance both worlds. Acknowledging the benefits and challenges and simply trying collaborations in this form will be way to move both of these worlds forward.