How to Work with Academic Research Centers:
Funding & Commitment

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.

One of the questions was: What are your expectations for funding or engagement time when working with industry?

Robert Sroufe

For curriculum-based projects, we don’t lead the discussions with anything that involves a fee for services.

Funding is left up to the project partner, and it’s not part of that initial engagement and development of the scope of work. Instead we want a complex and real problem to solve, and an opportunity to deliver a value to the partner. Then we can extend our network and engage our students in innovative pedagogy. That simultaneously helps with student placement and finding research opportunities for faculty.

If there’s enough value created in our deliverables, we provide an opportunity for project partners to support program events or host cohorts on international trips. With a relatively small cohort of about 35 students it can be relatively easy to do this.

So that’s within the pedagogy context. We don’t really step outside of that too much for a fee for consulting and applied research. But that is an open door for the new institute, which can engage in research and fee-for-services work.

Our project partners also have an opportunity to give back to the program in the form of a donation.

Monica Touesnard

We come at it from a very different perspective.

As we see it, we are a non-profit that doesn’t get funding from our school, and we need to be financially sustainable. So we do ask a fee for engagements with organizations, regardless if it’s an entrepreneur, nonprofit or a multinational.

To be clear, the funding doesn’t cover all of the costs of the engagement, but it is important on many dimensions. We found that we have better engagements when organizations contribute resources to support collaborations and that they understand why those resources are so important for helping to maintain a cutting edge program.

Frankly, it also helps build accountability for the project on the organization’s side. So they’re more engaged and more responsive. It is also true that their expectations are higher, which puts more pressure on us, which we think is motivating.

Beril Toktay

Well, we are a new center. We started last year with funding by the Ray Anderson Foundation and the Kendeda Fund, so we had the flexibility of establishing relationships and demonstrating value without asking for funding. But this is certainly in our future.

In terms of time commitment on the projects, we are specifically setting the expectation ahead of time that the sponsor of the project really needs to be committed and available for meetings regularly, et cetera. That’s a very important part of the pre-engagement of the project scoping.

Carol Hee

So the answer is: It depends. Because there are several different ways that we do projects with industry partners.

In exchange for this financial commitment, the client company receives services akin to what they’d receive from a major management consulting firm — that’s the bar that we set for ourselves. Teams comprised of 5-7 undergraduate, MBA, and executive MBA students work under the guidance of a faculty advisor with significant business consulting/corporate experience and provide over 100 hours of work throughout the course of a semester.

We also have consulting projects that are done as part of a class or as a student’s independent study, and these don’t have fees. So it spans the gamut, from free to a fixed amount.

Jason Jay

Our action-learning projects, with students in our courses like Sustainability Lab and Leadership Lab, are the typical entry point for companies to work with us.

There are a couple of different classes and they have different structures, but the bottom line is that there is no fee for participation. This is part of our “co-creation” as opposed to “client service” approach. Students own the intellectual property that comes out, the way they would with thesis research, and we really look at these as contexts for mutual action learning and innovation.

This said, there are classes that require travel, where there would be a three-week immersion in the month of January at a host site. The Leading Sustainable Systems, or “L-Lab” class that Peter Senge and Wanda Orlikowski teach is that way.

When we have students travel to a site, we ask that the companies cover the cost of travel and safe accommodations during the three-week on-site. And so, that is the financial cost for participation in the student projects.

Then the bigger investment by companies is collaborative research, where sometimes you’re paying into a consortium of companies to support an effort, or it’s a single-sponsored research contract, and that happens much more in longer-term relationships with companies.

As for time, with the action-learning projects, what we ask for is time from two levels of people. We want someone to be a project manager on the company side, who can have regular communication with the students and monitor progress. Then we also want executive level — SVP level or above (or whatever the equivalent is in the organization) — to be able to help set context at the beginning and review findings at the end.

So we basically tell companies that: “Yes, this is free, but you’ve got to commit that kind of time and attention to the project.”

As for time in other forms of collaboration, let’s consider when companies are part of a research consortium or a sponsored-research project. That varies a great deal by project. Sometimes they’re just funding someone’s research and checking in at various milestones, and sometimes it’s a much more active collaboration, where we’re studying what’s going on inside their factories or their supply chain, and there’s a lot of data exchange. So that’s very much customized to the nature of the research project.

Terry Nelidov

Both funding and time are essential ingredients for a successfully shared project. But if the project really is important to both parties, then funding is only table stakes. What matters most is the company’s commitment in time and attention.

We need the real commitment and enthusiasm of an internal project champion who can open doors within the company, provide access to information, and provide context for our students working on projects in that company.

Equally important, after the project work is done, we need that company to partner with us to help communicate our shared learnings to the broader industry — including peer companies — and raise those learnings up to an industry level, where we can have broader joint impact.

Funding is the fuel that makes projects go, but what’s really going to make the partnership relevant to learning — and exciting to our students — is the time, commitment, and enthusiasm on the part of our company partner.


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