Successful collaboration unpacked

March 21, 2017

Professor Andrew Rohl, Director of the Curtin Institute for Computation, compares academic collaboration with partnerships that involve industry.

Successful collaboration

Contrary to popular belief university researchers are good at collaborating, but often this is limited to collaborations with other university researchers. In fact, the Nature Index, one of the many university ranking systems, produces multiple rankings of world universities – one of which is based solely on successful collaboration with other universities.

So, what are the prerequisites for successful collaboration?

I believe there are three key ingredients:

  1. Awareness of the drivers of each institution in the collaboration
  2. A shared understanding of the problem the collaboration is trying to solve
  3. Trust between the people collaborating

The most recent Nature Index list of the Top 100 bilateral collaborators provides some interesting insights into the collaboration process. Almost all collaborations in this list are between institutions in the same country, and often within the same city.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology top the list with most collaborations, while the only entry that includes Australian institutions is one involving Curtin University and The University of Western Australia. In both cases, the collaborating institutions are strong rivals.

What does this data suggest about why there is so much collaboration occurring between university researchers?

The first prerequisite is a given because at the highest level the drivers for all universities are essentially the same. The shared understanding often comes quite quickly as the collaborators are often experts in the field they are working in, and therefore start with a common vocabulary.

Building trust is the most time-consuming part of collaborating, but as the bilateral data above shows, close physical proximity helps and trust can be built between researchers – even when their institutions are in competition.

What about collaborations with industry?

In Australia, there is a lack of appreciation in universities of industry drivers and vice versa.

In the Cisco IoE Innovation Centre, located on the Curtin University campus, Cisco, Woodside and Curtin have developed an innovation centre and workplace for customers, partners, start-ups, universities and open communities. One significant outcome of the first year of operation is an understanding within the three founding members of their drivers and differing corporate cultures, which has proven to be a relatively time-consuming process.

A shared understanding of the problem is often also a challenge, as a different vocabulary is spoken by the collaborating parties. In the past, the model was often that the industry partner provided money and left the university researchers to solve the problem, contributing little input into the process. This often led to a suboptimal solution or a solution to another problem than what was intended.

In our projects at the Cisco IoE Innovation Centre, we meet as a joint industry and academic team on a weekly or fortnightly basis, which allows us to develop a shared understanding of the problem and evolving solution. Finally, building trust is always an involved process, which can be made easier between industry and academia because of the absence of competition between the collaborating organisations.

In summary, the secret to successful collaboration between academia and industry is no different to one within academia, provided additional attention is paid by both parties to cultural differences and the development of a lingua franca.

Professor Andrew Rohl

Director, Curtin Institute for Computation

Read next: Brad Furber, COO of the Michael Crouch Innovation Centre at UNSW Australia, paves the path to easier, faster and more impactful collaboration.

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