Why external relationships are best built on two-way conversations

4 May 2018
There is more we can do as universities to build partnerships with external organisations such as industrial, government and community partners, writes Associate Professor Eric Knight in The Australian.

The following article was authored by Associate Professor Eric Knight and originally published in The Australian.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they often are forced to step away from their employment unexpectedly, losing overnight a great source of personal meaning and fulfilment in their lives. Yet the path back to work can take longer than the physical rehabilitation because of bio-psycho-­social challenges.

In 2014, along with several of my students, I worked to develop a solution to this problem with Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers. To do so, I applied our own methodology called design strategy. This methodology positions design thinking and engineering design at the centre of the sociological processes of strategy-making within organisations.

In one month we developed five proto­types for Swiss Re decision-makers, one of which was later earmarked for further research and development. Swiss Re launched the product last year with insurers in conjunction with one of our students, Christopher Murphy, with a view to growing its distribution as it makes inroads with patients.

The Australian Research Council’s impact and engagement process is changing what it means to be a research and teaching ­academic. While discovery and ­intellectual freedom remain at the heart of what we do as scholars and educators, the way we work is evolving, especially as we are called on to maximise the social benefit we have through our core research and teaching activities.

Building partnerships with external organisations such as ­industrial, government and community partners is recognised by the ARC and others as an important and necessary part of realising this potential, as individuals and as universities. Creating these ­relationships is hard. There is more we can do as universities.

But as Chief Scientist Alan Finkel correctly pointed out at this year’s Universities Australia Higher Education conference, this is a two-way conversation: industry and community organisations also need to reframe how they think about the role of univer­sities, and their researchers and students, in propelling their own organisational and social missions forward.

At the University of Sydney Business School, we have evolved our approach within parts of our MBA during the past five years. ­Initially we thought we would scale by growing the number of external partners in our capstone units. But we then realised better results were yielded through deepening relationships with our existing partners over time and ­diversifying the types of problems we tackled with them.

Building partnerships with external organisations such as ­industrial, government and community partners is recognised by the ARC and others as ... important and necessary.
Associate Professor Eric Knight, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research - Enterprise and Engagement)

We also thought we’d have a teaching-first engagement model but are now realising that our research and teaching engagements are interlinked. Our most recent engagement with Swiss Re started as a research project, expanded to ­include a work-integrated education delivery and now is being explored for extension into ­research commercialisation.

Our design strategy methodology has been applied in diverse problem sets — healthcare, agriculture, financial services, telecommunications — with a variety of implementation formats: start-ups, intracompany product launches, consulting support and more.

For example, uBank recently launched a new Free2Spend service for its customers that applies machine learning algorithms to help Australians spend well. Contributing to the ­development of this product were embedded PhD students as well as business school MBAs Celia Wallace and Pip Butt.

Reflecting on how the conversations with partners has evolved with experience, three lessons may be relevant to colleagues:

First, we aren’t students or academics, we are colleagues. The traditional model of student placements and internships within partners can be problematic, ­especially where students feel they have been delegated menial work.

This erodes the university and external partners’ brand, but also misses the point of why we need to engage with external partners.

We found we continuously needed to remind our partners early on that we were not students or academics hypothesising fictional solutions but colleagues co-developing solutions with our partners and seeking the recognition and reward that comes when those solutions are successful.

Second, we can’t solve everything: strategic but actionable problem sets need to be prioritised. Having started a conversation, we found we actively needed to direct it towards our unique point of difference as ­research and teaching institutions compared with consultancies and talent agencies. Indeed, we turned down problem sets early on that we thought could be better and more quickly solved by external consultancies. Instead, we were interested in problems that sat on the business or government ­organisation’s 12-month strategic road map and where they had a budget to implement something if successful.

Getting this right was also about speaking to the right people within the external organisation: we found heads of business units and executives who held budget were invariably a better starting point than those leading cross-functional services (for example, human resources or strategy functions) where universities are often anchored.

Surprisingly, we also have learned to turn down problem sets that were too blue sky because they were hard to action. However, these still can have a silver lining. An ambitious solution we developed in the context of an ageing population to help people save long into independent retirement was declined by our partners but funded by Blue Chilli as a stand-alone business. The resulting Longevity App is a product in the market and run by our MBA alumna Carla Harris.

Third, don’t let scale be a mental block in the institution. When we completed our first ­delivery, university administrators were worried about whether a teaching model that worked in an MBA context could scale as student load increased, or whether its work-integrated approach could be transferred to other larger coursework teaching programs. We have found a rich engagement model has been scalable on both accounts.

In this respect, we mustn’t let concerns about scale curb creativity and experimentation in new models for research and teaching impact. In our case, digital and online learning aids have helped.

We are now launching a ­Design Strategy massive open ­online course with Coursera that will prepare students with the ­basics before they enter the classroom, and will be integrated into other parts of the university curriculum.

In addition, alumni have been ­important in delivering extra teaching units and providing coaching support to new cohorts of students.

Their energy and ­enthusiasm is a vital resource and is motivated by wanting to give back to universities that have enabled them to make the shift from being students to teachers, scholars, practitioners and beyond.


This article was written by Associate Professor Eric Knight from the University of Sydney Business School's Discipline of Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Associate Professor Knight is the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research — Enterprise and Engagement).

It was originally published as 'Building external relationships best based on two-way conversations' in The Australian. Read the article here

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