Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Professor Sue Cox, a CMI Companion, urges managers to wake up to the benefits of collaboration with the university sector.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Lord Mandelson made three things clear to British businesses in his speech on the future of higher education in October. First, that to survive and prosper, British businesses need to value and foster education, research and innovation; second, that British universities are still among the best in the world; third, that to get the best out of them, British business must engage with universities to at least the same extent as its counterparts in competitor countries such as the US, Germany and Japan.

Like many other business school deans, I believe that the British economy, within the framework of the European Union, will survive and prosper through high-quality production and high-quality services. Success in research and development, with innovation and creativity in all spheres, will be critical. None of these things can be achieved without continual investment in the education system, from primary through to university level. Britain has always boasted a strong education system topped by world class universities. The importance of this is not really in question, but to what extent can British businesses and universities work together? How can we build an effective alliance?

Often, business-university alliances are seen too narrowly as a one-way transfer of knowledge from the latter to the former. But what's on the table is far broader than this. Setting aside the fact that higher education is a major import-export industry for the UK, with a built-in trade surplus, much else can be achieved.

The key to an effective alliance may be a blurring of the lines between businesses and universities. Each often eyes the other with suspicion: we need to change that culture. Working together, those in business and in universities can not only help set each other's agendas, but also beneficially influence each other's staff and ways of working, as well as developing innovative products and services, technologies, ideas and aspirations.

These lofty aims are supported by existing platforms at all levels. There are excellent examples of successful business engagement with universities. For instance, the recent MacLeod Review of employee engagement, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, singled out for praise our 'Lead' programme, a 10-month leadership and management development course for owner-managers of small to medium-sized businesses. The Centre for Performance-Led HR at Lancaster University Management School brings together our world-class experts with senior HR directors to overcome the most pressing issues facing them. We're also working collaboratively to support innovation - for example, through the Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and Science (Ideas) programme delivered by a North West alliance at Daresbury science park. Other universities have comparable successes.

My challenge to MT readers is this: what could you do to engage with your local university? An easy way to begin the conversation is to contribute to student teaching, whether by offering yourself as a guest speaker, by laying down a challenging project or by providing a work-placement opportunity. In addition to student benefit, this pro bono work produces a swathe of unexpected outcomes for businesspeople themselves. Simply discussing your needs with the managers and staff of your local university can reap rewards. I am proud to say that colleagues in my institution are ready to listen, so we can ensure the relevance and economic benefits of our collaboration on policy, business innovation and management development.

You'll find similar energy across the sector. Whatever your own experience of university, wherever you work, you'll find an enthusiastic reception. Modern universities are far more commercial and keen to work with business than you might think. Many of them now have dedicated teams working with businesses, and most of these will be running a range of events and programmes of support.

Many managers discover that, in addition to the learning opportunities, continuous professional development and graduate talent we provide, university contact gives access to a range of valuable networks, including research communities and groups of like-minded individuals from across industry and the public sector. As a sector, universities are proud of their role as facilitators of conversation, offering neutral territory for the discussion of issues and the exchange of ideas.

Of course, they can also be a wonderful source of innovation for products and processes, and provide a route to development funding, such as innovation vouchers. This is why their science and business parks are playing a growing role in the economic recovery of the UK.

As we reach the end of a challenging year, I strongly recommend that you resolve to examine what the university sector can do to help you. Universities have accepted their role in meeting the challenges that face the economy, and are enthusiastically seeking to work with business to support the recovery. Why not give us a call?


Sue Cox is dean of Lancaster University Management School and professor of safety and risk management. A former industrial chemist, she is passionate about industry-university collaborations. Cox has previously chaired the Association of Business Schools, has served on a number of nuclear advisory committees, and, as well as being a CMI Companion, is a fellow of the British Academy of Management.

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