Exploring the gaps between universities and industries

When working on technological change and the improvement of innovation systems, the topic of the different gaps between universities and industries often comes up. This is true for South Africa, but also for my work in Europe and Asia. The gaps are described differently by development projects, academics and business people, and my job is to usually figure out where the opportunity to close these gaps lies.

In my experience of trying to close some of these gaps, it is important to be as specific as possible about nature and maybe even the effects of these gaps. It is important to go to businesses and to find out what they expect from universities, while also going to academics and researchers and finding out what they expect from the industry. Often, the expectations expressed by these two groups are unreasonable and hard to reconcile. Sometimes people are simply wrong about what they think is needed or should be done.

However, these different expectations are not the biggest obstacle to closing the gap. Often the bigger obstacle is a lack of imagination of what is even possible in terms of cooperation, interaction and information flow. This is made worse by low levels of trust by one side of the other side. Also, stakeholders often have little insight into how others value certain interactions and information flows.

Over the last 14 years I have worked occasionally with a Faculty of Engineering at a University of Technology. In the image below, I share some of the different interaction patterns that we have observed over the years of closing gaps between selected departments or technology centres and industries. I am grateful to Dr SJ Jacobs who agreed that I can share this illustration.

Of course, some relationships are more important than others. Also, not everybody agrees with the direction of the arrows that I have used in the diagram. I also know that some academics find it hard to believe that they can learn from industry. At the same time, many business people are surprised when they realise that their own companies have learned through the personal relations of their employees with their alma mater.

Even if a certain relationship adds little value in the bigger scheme of things, for the people directly involved it could mean a lot. For instance, for an engineering student to find an industry project that they could work on as a research project is a big deal, even if this may not be so important for a company or even for the academic department involved. In many post-graduate degrees, students are required to work on a real-life project, which often requires a company to give a student access to their facilities, data, senior management or other resources.

To reflect on the relations between a university and a community or a region would require another picture, but I will do that in a next project.

To be transparent, for many years I have used a simpler version of this map that was developed by the late Jorg Meyer-Stamer in the early 2000s. I include the original map below. I think many of my readers might have seen this map in RALIS (Rapid Appraisal of Local Innovation Systems) training course material or RALIS diagnostic processes.

While this original map is still useful to explain the different kinds of interactions between the private sector and a university, I found that we need a more detailed diagram if we want to improve relationships, design new services or improve the performance of programmes.

What do you use to map the relations?

What are some of the common myths or gaps that you come across often when you work on this topic?

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