Collaboration
Do Sustainability Research Centers View Industry as a Partner or a Client?

I held a roundtable discussion with the directors of sustainability centers and institutes at six top business schools to learn more about how they engage with industry.

The first question was: Do you view industry more as a partner or client?

Carol Hee

I may get us off to a bad start, because I want to say “both.” I would say as a partner, because we rely on industry to give us insights into what knowledge and skills our students need to learn. But then as a client, when we’re doing consulting projects for companies.

Beril Toktay

At the moment we’re seeing industry very much as partners because we’re looking to build opportunities — career development opportunities, experiential opportunities for our MBAs.

That includes mentoring suited to the “color” of their interests — ‘dark green’ and interested in primarily a sustainability-focused job, or ‘light green’ and focused on bringing a good grasp of sustainability to their job functions. It also includes understanding how skills that are gained by addressing sustainability problems (like multi-stakeholder engagement) can help in other aspects of a job.

The mentoring partnerships are in addition to the usual engagements like project courses and research partnerships.

Terry Nelidov

We think in terms of multiple partners or audiences. These include industry, government, NGOs, students, alumni, and even other scholars and Institutes.

In all cases, we share similar objectives and are willing to invest time and resources together in meeting them.

For this reason, we see industry as a vital partner. The industry perspective is essential to informing our research and equipping our students with the practical tools, real-life experiences and professional maturity to be what we call “sustainability change agents” in organizations.

That learning environment can’t be created alone in the classroom. We have to do it either by projecting our students out into the business dialogue that’s happening every day and in companies around the world, by bringing those industry leaders and practitioners into the classroom to share their experience, or ideally by finding ways for students, faculty and industry to work together to solve our thorniest problems.

Robert Sroufe

Within the MBA program context we see them as partners primarily, but also clients.

When we engage with external stakeholders they are our “project partners,” and the projects are a core part of our MBA curriculum. But in front of our students, industry partners are talked about in the context of “the client.” We approach pedagogy in this way, because we want the students to have that client context within their project courses.

These projects also set up relationships for the development of a new institute that’s in the works. In that context, we will be providing a service.

Jason Jay

So I’m going to be difficult and say that we studiously avoid both words. The “partner” part is that MIT just doesn’t like to use the word “partner” with respect to companies, because it denotes some kind of legal and financial alliance, which may or may not be the case. And there are a lot of companies who try to describe us as partners in order to build their brand value and — well, we just don’t get into that.

The word “client” I don’t use, because I think it creates a kind of fee-for-service or time-for-service mentality. Anything that might look like client or consulting relationships, we try to think of more as co-creation. So I would substitute the words “ally” for partner and “co-creator” or “host” for client.

We do a lot of projects where our student teams go and work with companies on a problem. And we always describe those as “hosts” for a process of action learning. And that process of action learning should promote learning on both sides and it should also promote the development of tools and models and frameworks and insights that are more broadly useful outside of that context.

Sometimes those efforts lead to companies becoming longer-term allies, as we pursue bigger shifts in theory and practice together.

Monica Touesnard

I agree with points that Jason just made, though we’re probably less careful with our language.

It depends on the nature of the engagement with industry. For some of our shorter engagements it resembles a lot of what folks have already said in terms of a client. There’s a clear deliverable, and the students work with faculty to provide a product to industry, the company sponsor.

Whereas a partner — these are longer-term engagements for us where it’s more applied research. We’re working together to develop some sort of new insight for the organization. We’re working together on a particular problem and it’s more of a joint event; so it is more of a partnership.

So I see two very different engagements with the companies, and we do both.

Download the full series here to read the entire round table discussion.

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