Business getting the most from research

10 November 2010

Management and business performance, rather than technological innovation, is the main focus for companies collaborating with universities, according to major survey of businesses conducted by the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The survey shows that collaborations are primarily based on problem solving, people- or community-based interactions rather than technology transfer.

While policy and research traditionally have focused on universities' contributions to technology transfer - such as patents, licences and spin-outs - the findings show that the impact from knowledge exchange is much more wide-ranging. Survey data revealed that business motivations to enter into partnerships with researchers include service development, human resource management, training and marketing.

"Our findings show that technology transfer is important, but this presents an incomplete representation of the wide process of knowledge exchange that takes place between academics from all disciplines with partners in the private, public and third sector including charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises," researcher Michael Kitson points out.

"We believe it is also necessary to focus on the more diverse and varied impacts of business-university knowledge exchange relations. These include a range of people-based, problem-solving and community-orientated activities. The importance of diversity is also apparent. We found that different universities have different strengths and impacts on local and regional development," he adds.

The survey is part of a research project examining business-university knowledge exchange partnerships, their effectiveness and regional impact. As well as the business survey, which generated over 2,500 responses, the research included an academic survey with over 22,000 responses and several case studies. The survey of academics shows that the knowledge exchange activities had significant positive impacts on research and teaching.

Knowledge exchange collaborations were not concentrated in specific UK areas, but evenly distributed across the country. For companies entering a partnership there is frequently a trade-off between choosing nearby research centres and personal contact, or institutions further away offering more specialised expertise.

Barriers to collaborations were also identified in the research. Major business constraints were lack of resources, lack of supporting policy programmes to encourage interactions, difficulty in identifying partners and insufficient benefits. However, cultural barriers between business and academia or problems with intellectual property were not seen as major problems. Academics identified a similar pattern of constraints, the most important being lack of time, bureaucracy and insufficient rewards.

"Although the evidence from our survey shows that academics are engaged in a wide range of knowledge exchange activities, it also suggests some areas for caution," Mr Kitson says. "Major constraints include a lack of time and resources to initiate and manage interactions. What is needed are more boundary spanning individuals and organisations that can help connect academia with the business and public sectors. The recently announced initiative by the Government to build technology and innovation centres should help to enhance this connectivity and improve economic growth in the future."

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from University-Industry Knowledge Exchange: Demand Pull, Supply Push and the Public Space: Role of Higher Education Institutions in the UK Regions, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and part of the grant research initiative Impact of Higher Education Institutions on Regional Economics.
  2. The research adopted a three-stage approach using case-study and large scale survey methodologies. The first stage involved 33 case-study interviews of large and smaller companies. The second stage, of national surveys, included a web-based survey of the academic community to examine knowledge exchange supply, and a postal survey of a stratified sample of businesses in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions to evaluate knowledge exchange demand. The third stage was a series of case studies to examine the implications of the national surveys in depth. 
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total expenditure in 2009/10 was about £211 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  4. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as outstanding.