The vast majority of university and business leaders in the UK would agree that business schools and business should collaborate.
And most realise that for business research and education to have relevance and positive impact on practice, policy, economy and society, direct business engagement and industrial collaboration is not just good to have, but a fundamental necessity.
But despite this and reports from Lord Young, enterprise adviser to the UK prime minister and Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, which both recommend and ardently encourage university engagement with industry, many businesses find a great deal of the output from business schools incomprehensible at best and not relevant and obscure at worst.
The truth is that many business schools are structured to serve academic disciplines rather than thinking about the needs of business. Most schools are also not responsive enough. The fact that business and related subjects constitute the highest demand in the university sector in the UK, and indeed the world, means that the focus tends to be on students. Business engagement is a ‘nice to have’ rather than a central part of a business school’s mission.
To solve this deep-rooted problem, the structure, management and governance of business schools needs to be examined and an assessment made of how many have the capability, capacity and the drive to dedicate the time and resources needed to create structural, systematic and institutionalised relationships with business.
The best place to start is to think about the value that a business school has for businesses, namely the expertise of its people and its research and educational services.
A lifetime in academia often means that many business school staff have had little or no direct experience of negotiating and delivering work to commercial clients. Their skills and competencies need to be developed so that they can understand and are able to work with industry at its quicker pace.
On the other hand, business schools are now sporadically appointing staff from industry; these individuals need substantial investment to develop their academic skills. Development programmes such as the AACSB International/ABS Bridge Programme, where corporate professionals learn how to apply their experience to a career in academia, are working to develop business school staff who have the skills to fit research requirements with business engagement priorities.
Although constructive, this is still a small step compared with the need for full blown institutional relationships between academia and business — both in research and teaching domains. Business schools could do well to consider the best practice examples of the medical and engineering schools where there is a much closer correlation between practitioners and those that teach/research.
The practical side of how business schools work can cause confusion for business, from the language used to the academic structure. Business schools need to ensure that they have structures in place to support businesses and help them navigate through what is often an opaque and confusing maze.
Dedicated teams that can introduce companies to a range of expertise are needed. There could be a number of possible routes to supporting a company, from relatively quick-fix student placements and projects, to longer-term research and development collaborations. To find the most appropriate solution requires business schools to be linked to all departments, including other schools, the placement offices, the careers service and the research and commercial teams.
Business schools are in a unique position to support businesses by helping them grow and to make a significant contribution to local and national economies. Business schools cannot sit back and wait for these ventures to come to them. Resources should be dedicated to meeting businesses and utilising business networks such as local Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry or the Institute of Directors.
There is certainly more that business schools can achieve if they take the time to communicate directly with local business and take the trouble to understand the type of support that these ventures need.
For example, all UK business schools should have an advisory board that allows schools to have top-level engagement with business. These boards must include members of the business community which they serve, as well as professional bodies, alumni and student representatives. Their importance has been recognised by the Association of Business Schools, which has created the National Advisory Boards Network to showcase exemplars and best practice. The idea is simple and effective. Alas simple ideas are often difficult to accomplish.
It is not enough for business schools to run some knowledge transfer partnerships and teach entrepreneurship. Fundamental changes must be made to the way that business schools are structured and the skills demanded of their staff. In this way business schools will ensure that collaboration with industry is at the heart of their actions, from teaching to research.
The author is dean of Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University and chair of the ABS National Advisory Boards Network.