The Benefits of Collaboration

Last week I gave two presentations – well to be more exact I did that academic thing and did two versions of the same presentation.  The first was a presentation to a UKCGE workshop on Collaborative Doctorates; the audience was academic and policy colleagues from across the UK who are focused on industry-academia collaboration especially around PhD study.  The second was at the second Local Data Company Retail Leaders Forum (details of the first here) where I was invited to discuss how research leads to be better decision-making as part of a two-handed session with Ben Dimson (British Land).

As is known to readers of this blog, we have had a long-standing retail partnership with the Local Data Company.  This is focused around our ESRC/SGSSS collaborative PhD on new measures and understanding of town centres and their management, and around our Annual Scottish Summit which presents the latest LDC data on Scotland, including vacancy rates.  For me, LDC have been an interesting partner, not least for the data, but more importantly in a wider context of their willingness to engage with academics in selected Universities to drive a research and knowledge creation agenda forward.

My theme in both presentations was about the nature of collaboration and industry-academia relationships and the need to recognise the differing agendas, languages, timescales and expectations.  Why do either universities or industry engage in research collaborations, and are they always successful (whatever the term means in this context)?

At one level this might seem like self-indulgent navel-gazing, but for various reasons it is now much more important than it may have been in the past.  Anyone reading the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy will see the large sums of money being put into (especially STEM subjects) research and the role of industry-academia partnerships and Innovate UK that is expected.  Similarly the UK Research Councils are placing much more emphasis on collaborations with industry and pathways to, and realities of, impact of the research on industry, policy, competitiveness, productivity etc.  Universities are being increasingly measured on such things.

This is both a little odd for me, and yet an opportunity.  As a researcher in retailing, from the outset I was certain that I could not do my job without close interaction with retailers.  This has been fundamental to my career, so to meet academic colleagues who don’t (yet) engage with the outside world, or for whom it is a challenge/imposition is a strange feeling.

The LDC seminar at Oxford brought together various academics who work with LDC and some of the retailers interested in this data and who also get involved with LDC and the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre.  Sundry professors (Longley, Singleton, Dolega, Reynolds and myself) and various retailers and property specialists (Dimson – British Land, Clarke – Tesco, Purvis – Tristan Capital, Lee – Clarks) together with Mathew Hopkinson of LDC explored aspects of consumers/people, places/towns/high streets, data and analytics and research collaborations.  It was a lively day with a high degree of audience participation; others will in due course provide a more coherent commentary than I can in this space.  At its heart though it reaffirmed the need for data, research and communication, especially given the rapid and extensive pace of retail change, expertly summed up in a keynote by Alan Giles (ex Fat Face, HMV and now non-executive director of Rentokil and the Competition and Markets Authority).

But, in one sense were we all ‘preaching to the choir’? All present live and breathe this stuff.  My worry, based on how long and winding these collaborative roads have been, is that as a key plank of UK government strategy, there remains a belief that such collaborations are easy, quick and always produce positive results.   We can hope for this, but all the evidence points to them being more tortuous than that, but then when they do work, as with the LDC and CDRC efforts, they really are worth it, and a delight to be part of.  The output from these LDC collaborations are impacting businesses and universities, and proving the benefits of collaboration based on mutual understandings and goals.