Is it a real relationship? You and your industry partner

“Do you think they’ll call again?”

“Don’t look too keen!”

“Did you play hard to get?”

The process of finding an industry partner in research is often compared to forming a romantic relationship.

Analogies abound! Some internal schemes that encourage industry links are colloquially known as ‘wine and dine’ funds. Everyone talks about courting the industry partner, finding common ground, evaluating whether there’s a connective spark between the research team and organisation, and how one doesn’t talk about money too early.

I’ve been wary of using dating/wooing analogies in my posts. Maybe it’s my Women’s Studies 101 kicking in (hard) at the often sexist or exclusionary modes of representing these dynamics.

Maybe it’s because I never dated much.

I did read a fair share of Cosmo and Cleo in my teens, though, so I feel semi-qualified to dabble.

At the risk of morphing into a research Agony Aunt, these are my top 5 ways of knowing if what you have with your industry partner is worth it.

You know it’s the Real Thing when:

1. You bring out the best in each other

The project pushes the research team to the top of its game; the partner is blazing a trail for its own industry or sector. The new knowledge that the work produces will have impact and value for academia and the broader public sphere, and all participants want to be a part of that process.

There’s nothing better than finding an organisation with whom you can see yourself making significant, innovative progress. For universities and research-engaged industry partners alike, finding that organisation is the stuff of dreams. That dream doesn’t necessarily come easy, of course. All good connections require consistency and hard work.

2. You don’t play games about what you want

Every good relationship needs trust and honesty, where each party knows where they stand.

The industry partner is not Mr or Ms Money-Bags. You don’t shop a project around to industry; you need to get word about your skills and knowledge-base out there to find an organisation that will assist in conceiving of a mutual project and its possibilities. It’s the difference between going to a dating agency, or building a closer attachment out of a friendship.

3. It’s an equal relationship

The ideal research-industry connection is one where the interests and enthusiasms of both parties are met. All too often, particularly in the humanities and many areas of the social sciences, academics lament the need to bend themselves to nefarious corporate or industry desires. The pressure to apply for industry-engaged grants means renewed frustration from academic disciplines that are traditionally not engaged with applied research.

At the risk of stating the obvious and making target-obsessed types frenetic: Not all research lends itself to industry partnerships.

Some are better off as pure research projects that may have fundamental, discipline-changing repercussions. Critical projects can retain more integrity when carried out independent of any funding from interested bodies.

That said, many fields could think more creatively about what they do and how that might be appealing to non-university groups. It’s worth finding out who may be a fellow traveller in your broader research trajectory. It certainly doesn’t hurt to think beyond the ivory tower.

When the research project and industry partner see equal value in the collaboration, that’s when you know you have something going on.

4. You’ve had time to see each other as you really are

Fruitful industry relationships take time to build.

It’s not just about getting that application into the next round for X scheme; it’s about having someone on board with your team and research direction for the longer-term.

The industry partner will understand the drawn-out timelines of academic funding rounds, and the fact that having project findings circulated (possibly with conditions/embargo) is a Good Thing. The academic researchers will understand the prioritisation and limitations that may restrict industry involvement, and the possible compromises that may have to be made (while retaining intellectual integrity, of course).

5. There are healthy boundaries

You know you’re onto a good thing when those involved in the research project have common expectations, familiar connections, and are in agreement about the timetable. The researchers and industry personnel know what the plan for the project is, which scheme they’re going into and what that entails, when to expect calls or meetings with each other, and to whom queries about various aspects should be directed.

The researchers and industry partner should function as a team, with very clear lines of communication about roles and expectations. Just as presuming to order a meal for your date is Not Quite Right, overlooking the input and expertise that an industry partner can bring defeats the purpose of linking up.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

2 Responses to Is it a real relationship? You and your industry partner

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Thanks, Tseen.

    “Every good relationship needs trust and honesty…”

    For me, that is the key. It is possible to create a relationship simply based on perceived business advantage, and have a contract that outlines what each party will do, but I don’t think that it is anywhere near as effective.

    Industry partnerships have to be ready for the long haul. Over the life of a three year project, the business environment will change which can cause business requirements to change. The key personnel might change, too – someone new comes in at a senior management level, and needs to be convinced (again) of the value of the project. Or your direct contact may move within the organisation, or may leave entirely.

    Without trust, and some room for calling a spade a spade, you can be left with a lame-duck project – the industry is fulfilling its legal requirements, but isn’t interested, isn’t cooperating, and just wants you gone. That’s no fun.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      The key personnel might change, too – someone new comes in at a senior management level, and needs to be convinced (again) of the value of the project. Or your direct contact may move within the organisation, or may leave entirely.

      This is a very common complaint/obstacle, and the success of the project depends on mutually recognised value + organisational compatibility.

      It’s also difficult sometimes to clarify for teams what constitutes ‘consultancy’ style research, and what, say, an ARC Linkage wants to see (broader research outcomes that have relevance for academic AND industry stakeholders).

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