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What Are the Success Factors and Risks for Relationships Between Industry and Academia?

This is the second of five questions from a roundtable discussion with the directors of sustainability research centers at six top business schools. See part one here.When we think about relationships with industry, we think of three key success factors.

This is the second of five questions from a roundtable discussion with the directors of sustainability research centers at six top business schools. See part one here.


When we think about relationships with industry, we think of three key success factors.

One, we go back to partnership principles to look at these relationships as longer-term investments. If a relationship is simply transactional, as in the case of a fee for service, then it becomes a consultant relationship, and that’s not what we’re looking for.

The second success factor is finding and respecting our complementary roles within the partnership. We’re trying to help our company partners be more competitive, but our deeper objective is to create new opportunities for learning with our students and thought leadership for our scholarship. That requires that our company partners also prioritize their contribution to education and research as one of their business objectives.

And, finally, relevance is key. We recognize that by the nature of scholarly research, professors want to dig deeper and deeper into a field of expertise. But I think part of our job as an institute is to keep that research relevant to industry. So as part of our industry partnerships, we’re always asking ourselves: How can we take that deep expertise and translate it into tools and methodologies that can be implemented? How can we develop research that informs thought, practice and policy?


I’ll add onto that a little bit.

We take a market-based problem-solving approach. We try to look at things from the company’s point of view. What are the issues they are exploring?

We don’t go to them with a theory and say: “Hey, can you provide us access to information so we can test our theory?” Instead, we ask them: “What are the challenges that are keeping you up at night?” And we build the engagement from there.

Later, in reflecting on the work we do together, we look to generate new insights to share with others that will improve practices.


I would say that the key success factor is that both parties are in it to learn.

So the risks are that people are in it for other reasons — like they’re in it for the visibility and reputational aspects of being attached to a university. Or conversely, we are getting to be attached to the real world of practice. Or it’s a financial motivation.

So I think the key success factor is that there is an intention to mutually learn together over a period of time through multiple points of interaction. That’s really what makes it successful.

Then of course, as with any project, there is the question of clear and realistic expectations and scope. We have to be sure that companies understand what our students and faculty are capable of doing.

With MIT, the expectation can be: these are techies; these are engineers. In fact our management students have incredibly diverse backgrounds, and our faculty are for the most part leading social scientists.

That said, we often tap into engineering colleagues and the wider strengths of MIT, and that’s when things get really fun.


The main risk I see is getting excited about lots of different projects and failing to focus on and be known for “core” expertise areas. We have value to contribute to the extent that we have faculty who are interested in a particular problem — in understanding and then contributing to it.

There are three umbrella areas where our faculty are working across all disciplines. They are Business Value, Innovation & Competitive Advantage; Operations, Supply Chain Management & the Circular Economy; and Law, Ethics & Transparency. Those are the areas in which we’re going to continue to pursue closer relationships with companies, so there is two-sided value add.

It can be challenging — like somebody alluded to earlier — to make sure there is alignment between faculty research interests and industry needs. But trying to find that sweet spot is important. In that sense, key success factors are understanding faculty interests and industry needs well, and spending the time to find the right match.

Setting expectations on both sides is also quite important.


To continuously develop and improve curriculum through the integration of projects, we really want a clear and well-defined scope of work, a communication plan, and have the client set the critical measures for success. That way all expectations are clear.

Along the lines of the earlier comment from Monica, we want to know “what keeps them up at night?” We want a real problem to solve, so that generating value through problem-based learning is a key piece of a student’s experience. This also allows an opportunity for faculty to leverage intersection opportunities from best practices and scholarly activities.

Success depends on our ability to work with a project partner and the lead person for the engagement. When necessary, we also want open communication with their whole team. This way the project partner and our internal teams understand the necessary time for meetings and updates.

To mitigate risk, we also have faculty outside of the instructors for the project courses, who work as mentors with teams and can liaison with project partners on the client side.

To further mitigate risks we pretest our project updates with our faculty. We also pretest them with the client before we go to final deliverables, so the client has no surprises.


I’ll try to focus on things that haven’t been said, but certainly communication and clear project scoping are important.

For us, having long-term relationships also is a success factor, so that there is a process of iterative learning. And even if we’re not going to have repeat engagements, it helps to have good debriefing at the end of an engagement so both parties have the opportunity to look back and analyze what worked and what didn’t work.

I think an important risk we’ve tried to mitigate is on the expectation side. This means being clear up front about the time commitment and the need for continuous engagement, access to information, and dialog. As part of that process we do regular check-ins to make sure the team is staying on the right path to deliver what the clients will view as most valuable.

This is the second Q&A in a sponsored series of articles running on Sustainable Brands this month, called: “Academic Engagement: How Business & Business Schools Partner to Drive Sustainable Innovation.” Download the complimentary series to read the full discussion and feature articles.