EIRA Quick Guide: Enabling Knowledge Exchange
Knowledge exchange (KE) is a term that refers to policy, investment and people who work together to design and implement projects between universities and non-university partners.
Knowledge exchange can refer to projects focused on catalysing innovation in product, services, and methods. Projects are often diverse in terms size, disciplines and objectives and can be privately or publicly funded (or a mix of both). Central to all these collaborations is the leveraging of academics and student expertise in support of mutually agreed objectives, defined through working with partner organisations. KE recognises the central role that Universities can play in generating economic and social benefits for our communities and nationally. KE activities involve a diverse community that is inclusive of business teams, government and non-government partners, academics, students and professional services across many different areas.
KE activities are undertaken by Universities alongside their traditional roles in research and teaching. Often knowledge exchange teams are employed to enable collaborations, from design to delivery. Within these teams Knowledge Exchange Managers (KEMs) play a pivotal role in promoting, networking, designing and championing projects through this process. This guide explores and identifies important factors associated with enabling the successful design and implementation of KE projects.
The KE Process
Central to all KE activities are the methods by which people come together to explore, design and implement projects. These can be divided into five stages of development:
First Contact (Inception)
Contact between the university and potential KE partners can occur in many different ways. From receiving a direct enquiry about KE opportunities, to meeting and talking with possible partners at events and online. The initial contact provides the opportunity to share information, explore possible ideas and identify funding support available. If there is a potential fit between what the business needs and what the University can provide, then further discussion can clarify the project idea in more detail, including what expertise is sought and what can be provided through a potential KE collaboration.
A central enabling factor during these early conversations is for the KE professional to listen, ask questions and provide a short but comprehensive overview of the options available to support future projects. An important element of this process is to develop realistic expectations around what can be provided and what will be required from all parties to develop and implement a proposal. Not least, a recognition that some of the options will require formal project submissions and evaluation before funding is made available.
The design phase is focused on defining the project in more detail as the basis for a formal proposal. This will include identifying goals and objectives, timeline, approach and the expertise and resources required from all the partners. The process will normally take several conversations allowing the KE professional to identify academics and explore their availability. In some cases, partners will have a clear idea of what they require and what the project will deliver for their organisation. In other cases, there is a process of discussion and exploration as the business, KE manager and the academic work together to define the project. During this phase, it is important to discuss and address the IP arrangements to be adopted for the collaboration. In this context, the primary objective of both parties should be a fair solution reflecting the value that both parties bring into the project and which is generated through working together. (See Enabling Commercialisation Guide here).
Most KE programmes have an established process and templates or tools that can be used in drafting a formal proposal, including budget and Intellectual Property (see EIRA Enabling Tools and Resources Guide).
Approval and Set up
The final project proposal will be submitted with an agreed budget. This submission will provide the basis for review and approval from the Universities or funder. If approved, a process of contracting and set-up will be required to establish the administrative arrangements that will govern the project, enabling it to proceed. These will include reporting, finances and IP arrangements. A key issue is to ensure that during the design phase, adequate time is allowed for this process to be completed prior to activities starting.
The delivery team will meet to confirm the work plan and timetable as the basis for implementing the project is approved. The team will communicate and meet regularly to deliver the work packages, review progress, monitor and manage risks and ensure that the project is on track to deliver its objectives as set out in the project design.
On completion, the project experience may be used as the basis for follow on activities with partners, often building long-term relationships through internships, placement years, academic consultancy of further collaborative RD projects and more.
What does success look like?
At the simplest level, success is defined as achieving the project’s stated objectives within a given timeframe and budget. However, it is also important to recognise that success can be interpreted differently by the different stakeholders:
It is vitally important that the direct project outcomes have been worth the time and effort committed to the project, and that the outcomes have a lasting and positive impact on business performance in terms of commercial returns and enhanced service delivery. KE projects can also generate indirect benefits that go above and beyond original expectations. Often building on the relationships developed through the initial project that provide the basis for follow up networks and projects with academic partners. A cross cutting theme for all is the value of knowledge sharing through the act of working together. Ultimately, if the project objectives were not achieved, the continuing relationships are valuable, and can lead future opportunities and success.
Academics and Students
Over and above any financial incentive, academics are motivated by their research and teaching interests. Specifically, that the project has provided an opportunity for their expertise to have a positive impact in the world beyond the campus and that new knowledge and insights are gained that can contribute to future research, teaching, upcoming projects and academic papers.
Students, where involved in KE projects, gain invaluable experience and insights into their chosen discipline through working on a real-world collaboration. This experience combined with feelings of having contributed to something that has generated value and is appreciated, can have a positive and lasting legacy as they transition into their working lives. Students gain from knowledge exchange initiatives by enabling them to expand their professional network, add real work experience to their CVs and be paid for their time.
Knowledge Exchange Managers
The role of KE managers and the wider team is to enable successful KE collaborations. To support a project from its earliest stages to successful completion generates a sense of achievement. KE managers benefit from successful projects through their continued collaboration and acting as champions for businesses and academics working together. A successful project adds value and builds trust and reliability between stakeholders, and this can be attributed (at least in part!) to the role of the KE manager. A KE manager who has a portfolio of successful projects under their belt can establish new relationships quickly because of their credibility and ability to showcase the value of these partnerships.
Universities are committed to ensuring that KE generates tangible benefits for academics, students and the wider community. Significant resources are committed to ensuring that the expertise and experience of KE can be leveraged to create social and economic value for our wider communities and beyond. Successful KE projects should demonstrate the wider social impact that universities can have in the world, beyond their teaching and research.
Important Challenges and Enabling Factors
Some important challenges that can be encountered through the project development process can include:
- Ambiguous roles and responsibilities;
- Inadequate counterpart time and inputs;
- Unrealistic expectations around deliverables and timing;
- Lack of agreement on project aims and deliverables;
- Not addressing Intellectual Property early on.
A cross cutting theme in addressing these challenges is the need to develop a shared understanding about the project, the team and how the collaboration will work. Central to achieving this shared understanding is sufficient time to meet, discuss and respond to questions and queries. In this context it is essential to be open and transparent in sharing irrelevant information. Key themes to be addressed include:
Project Context and Objectives
It is critically important for the team to understand the project context in terms of business need, opportunity and how the scope of the project will help. To reach a clear understanding of what deliverables will be in terms of form and content – and a clear understanding of what success will look like, both for the project as a whole and for each participant.
Team Norms and Values
Team norms address the culture that is established in team working that will shape how the team interact with each other and wider stakeholders. Key factors are associated with developing high trust and mutual respect which can help facilitate an honest and open exchange of ideas and views. Teamworking can be explored further through tools such as Belbin Team Roles.
It is important to develop a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities between the team in support of project delivery. This can help mitigate confusion and misunderstanding during implementation.
Approach refers to the methodology adopted by the team in addressing the project objectives. This will reflect a synergy between the academic and partner organisations own expertise in relation to achieving project goals.
All KE projects involve a significant element of administration in the preparation of the proposals, approval and post award contracting and delivery. It is critically important that all partners have realistic expectations in terms of timing and what they will need to provide at different points on the project journey. Digital tools such as Trello, or Slack can be used to assist in project management.
Projects do not take place in a vacuum and key stakeholders need to be kept informed of challenges, milestones and progress. Managers and wider stakeholders should be provided with short updates and what (if any) inputs they may need to provide. The marketing function can also assist in gaining stakeholder buy-in and communicating important project updates to the wider world, so it is a good idea to involve these teams from an early stage.
Top Tips for KE Teams
The following tips address the social nature of all KE collaborations and the importance of recognising the challenges and opportunities of working together. KE professionals and teams have an influential role in supporting these processes and can use a variety of tools and methods to achieve positive outcomes. These include programming regular catch ups, ensuring agendas include key topics identified above.
One important tool that can support the process of project design and problem solving is mind mapping. This works best in a workshop styled meeting (virtual or physical) where the team meets to explore the context, options and potential solutions (outcomes) of the collaboration. A key success factor to this process is adopting a creative and open mindset where judgement is deferred while the options are identified and explored. This type of method can be extremely useful where the project design and outcomes are not clear and where the team can co-create the design of the project and find solutions.
KE professionals can play a key role by acting as facilitators in the design and curation of this process in an impartial way and thereby creating the conditions for successful co-creation and problem solving. Use of facilitation tools and approaches to supporting the team achieve clarity, shared understanding and agreement, as well as helping address any challenges that arise in project delivery. Whichever approach is adopted, it will need to address the following:
Enable Knowledge Sharing and the Generation of Ideas/ Solutions (meet and talk)
It is important for the team to meet and talk about the project at regular intervals. Key stages include during inception and design. Establishing a culture where formal and informal meetings and conversations take place that can include the idea generation and facilitation tools outline above.
Explore to Understand (be open, listen carefully and ask questions)
Project design (usually) follows a pattern of iteration and exploration before crystallising ideas into the agreed project proposal. This allows for creativity and the development of a shared understanding of what is being done, why and how it will be achieved. A further element to address is exploring team interests, expertise and expectations around the project.
Understand Motives and Respect each other
Team norms, supporting open discussion and respectful disagreement and questioning are critically important to fostering success. Given the limited time teams normally have to establish themselves, it may be useful to make norms an explicit agenda items for early stage discussion.