Why Should Businesses Collaborate With Academia?

A 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review with the title Nobody Has Time for Interns made me reflect on a recent experience.

Why Engage Interns?

Many professionals are hesitant to engage interns, for various reasons. Interns cost time, and they do not possess the skills and experience that regular employees do. Furthermore, their tasks need to be aligned with their schools/universities. Thus that there may be restrictions on what you can ask them to do. And finally: often at the end of the internship they leave, with all their knowledge, and your time investment is lost. Or so it may seem. My experience is different.

Exploration: Defining The Future

In his blog “Innovation” is dead. Long live “innovation”, Alexander Osterwalder describes innovation on a spectrum from exploiting innovation to exploratory innovation. Each type of innovation is important in a different context and for a different purpose. My drive to hire interns is part of my explorative innovation agenda within my company. The quest for tomorrow’s value propositions, tomorrow’s partners and tomorrow’s commercial / business models.

Especially when dealing with exploration, I believe that one needs to combine different approaches. One needs to involve different ecosystem partners, and try out various approaches. It’s the nature of exploration. You invest in ideas that you deem worthy (having passed some qualification tests), you embark on a journey with the belief (backed up with these qualification tests) that it will lead to a useful destination, and you’re willing to accept failure (to reach this destination) as part of your learning process.

How Academia Fit In This Innovation Agenda

These “ecosystem partners” are often other companies that have complementing capabilities, such that combining their offerings with yours can create new value propositions. In other cases, these are organizations that promote certain interests (e.g. sector organizations, NGOs, Government organizations). Academia is yet another such stakeholder. Having spent some years in academia myself, I’m aware that many consider academia to be a slow-moving environment with limited commercial relevance and no commercial acumen. My “wakeup message” for those who still think so is:

  1. Especially since the cuts in academic funding (a consequence of the financial crisis in 2007-2008), more and more academic research depends on private sector funding. Combining academic research with commercial interest has become the norm in many faculties and universities.
  2. Generalizations are dangerous and misleading. Those who put all academics in one box and decided to ignore this group, probably also fail to address other aspects of diversity in their professional lives. Do some reading on diversity.
  3. Tomorrow’s most highly skilled professionals are today’s students. Think about the potential of tapping into this pool of resource.

The Benefits Of Collaboration With Academia

Collaboration with academia offers tangible and intangible benefits for businesses. Some key benefits are (in random order):

  1. Access to knowledge: this is primarily useful when you need certain knowledge commercially
  2. Access to a network: academic projects give you access to a network of ecosystem stakeholders that may otherwise (in a commercial setting) not come together
  3. Brand value: collaborative research projects position your company positively in the news, when results are made available

How To Benefit From Collaboration With Academia

Like with many other aspects in life, there is no “one size fits all” answer. Different forms of collaboration are possible. Each form offers other benefits and requires  certain investment in time and money. In the past I have been involved in research projects (from the academia side as well as from the private sector side) where large investments in time and money were required from participating companies. Within my current company we do not have the capability to engage in such large-scale projects at the moment. Instead, I choose for a more lightweight approach:

  1. Find, connect to and engage with academics whose work is relevant for you, and who have a history of working with partners outside the university
  2. Define specific areas where you need support, for example testing new ideas, or performing certain in-depths analyses.
  3. Engage your academic counterparts in a discussion on how to define projects around these areas. “Projects” may entail that you give academics a “case study” to perform research on an area that is important for you. Or that you hire an intern for such an undertaking.

It’s a win-win situation.

Why I Hired An Intern

This year I had the pleasure to work closely with an intern in the last stage of his MSc education at the Eindhoven University of Technology. In formulating the intern’s task, I chose for a topic within a larger initiative to introduce new offerings (thus: exploration). Having worked on this topic for a while, I was confident that certain commercially valuable insights can be gained by analyzing certain large datasets. For quite some time we have not done the analysis because we did not have the people on my team whom we could free up to to do this task. Hiring an intern was a win-win approach:

  1. The intern received an internship position at a prestigious company with a strong global brand where his work could deliver (and: did deliver) concrete value
  2. The university received access – for the purpose of the internship – to large datasets that would normally be expensive and therefore not available for research
  3. The company profited from very concrete results that the intern produced, supporting our exploration efforts. Had the intern not intended to return to his home country, he might as well have joined our team.
  4. Based on the intern’s results, the university will be able to produce academic publications.

What It Takes To Be Successful?

Success requires the right ingredients and care. First, the internship needs to have a topic that is relevant and important for the business, to justify your investment. Second, the intern needs to have the right stills to perform the job. Third, the topic should have enough relevance also for the school/university. And fourth, you need to have the desire to mentor / coach a young professional. An intern wishes to learn from his/her experienced supervisors, and looks up to them. Consider an intern as unshaped material that you can shape by guiding and teaching. If you do not enjoy mentoring and coaching, find someone in the team who enjoys it. In my case it was a combination: I enjoy mentoring and coaching, yet my time is limited. And hence I joined forces with another colleague, and together we supervised the intern.

Concluding Comments

This article tells the story of how I engage with academia, and how I benefit from engaging an intern in my team. Many other options are possible too, and it also depends on the type of internship and the type of education of the student (e.g. university student or otherwise). What I described above fits in my context, where there was a need for someone with specific hard skills related to data science, within our current innovation agenda. The internship was a success. The intern exceeded my expectations, and delivered more valuable results than what I had expected, while also being a good team player and dedicated professional. All with all, it was a very positive experience.

I will devote a separate blog article to describe the intern’s work.


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