Will unsuccessful collaborators be shot? It can be a risky business.

Although there are many marvellous partnerships, business and universities start off as two things extremely unalike. Take one for instance: language. Even the words are different. In fact before partnering or contracting with universities I had only ever come across the idea of collaboration as a bad thing. Collaboration was done with the enemy. Only bad people collaborated with the enemy. Usually in doing so they betrayed their nation and were in risk of getting shot or worse after the war. There was a variant: collaboration horizontale which sounded less dangerous but also ended badly. Yet here we are: “collaborate” is what businesses and universities now do. Hopefully neither is betraying a cause. Here are two other examples of different paradigms.

Whereas nearly every employee in a business (certainly from mid-levels upwards) will have a personal incentive (usually bonus but often in terms of promotion) to see the collaboration be financially successful; usually no one will in the university. Most university staff face only downside risk in collaboration. It goes well, it is a university initiative. It goes badly… and there’s a danger of a witch-hunt to see which nitwit signed the institution up in the first place.

Secondly, most businesses are strictly hierarchical in decision-making, though democratic in tone. Universities are often the opposite. Most businesses don’t defer in manners to their seniors – there cannot be any CEOs left who insist being called on by their title. The decision-making in a business usually comes down to one decision-maker, even if there is a peer group to take soundings or juniors to influence decision-making. Most universities are the opposite. The VC is referred to as the VC, even if she/he is present in the room, but the decision-making in a university is often/usually by committees.

Different ways of doing things, neither better nor worse. But beware of the difference. Sometimes putting universities and businesses together can feel as easy as mixing a moose and a fridge. It works, can be brilliant, but requires creativity.