When Michael Rosemann talks about business and innovation he speaks with the same insight and passion that an artist will about art or a musician on music. What once might have seemed mundane, or inaccessible, is revealed to be a fascinating landscape replete with opportunity and challenge.

Rosemann is Professor for Information Systems and Executive Director, Corporate Engagement at the Queensland University of Technology. As the head of the School of Information Systems he established three Innovation Chairs funded by Woolworths, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Brisbane Airport.

In his role as the Executive Director, Corporate Engagement, Dr Rosemann is responsible for establishing and managing university relationships with corporations. His role, in part, is to design “sustainable, mutually beneficial partnership models between significant industry partners and QUT”.

What this boils down to is a mission to show the hardheaded bosses of business and industry that, given the opportunity, universities can be trusted partners in their innovation ventures.

Trusted partners in innovation

It is a “desired state”, he says, that universities be seen as trusted partners in business and corporate innovation.

But while many companies partner with individual universities and specific researchers, the higher education sector as a whole has not yet developed a reputation for being an essential source of inspiration for corporate innovation ventures.

So how does it build trust?

A university typically might seek to engage as a research partner with corporations and companies, and look to business and industry for work integrated learning opportunities for its students.

But this, he says, is a very “me-centred” view.

Instead, universities need to work to engender “mutual value” and “mutual trust” so that both parties understand each other.

Here he references Clayton Christensen’s Milkshakes and the job to be done model, asking “why do companies hire someone … why would anyone hire a university?” What is the job to be done?

There is a need to develop the right mindset – “you have to ask yourself what can I do that helps these organisations, and why would engaging with them help us?

“It is really understanding the needs of both parties. But also understanding that, of course, each has a different agenda. For example, corporations might look at universities as a partner in reducing their innovation latency, while universities in return benefit from early insights into real world problems as a means to reduce their research latency.”

Genuine trust, he says, is built on a beneficial relationship, one that empathises with, and offers help to, potential clients.

The role of university management

University management has a key role to play in developing rewarding relationships with business and industry.

“The university leadership has to recognise the importance of dealing with corporations”, he says.

“If I am a senior executive in a university, I need to understand what is the benefit of looking at and partnering with profit or not-for-profit organisations out there.

“Once the strategic and tactical benefits have been defined, universities can work on professionalising and maturing the way they engage with corporate partners.

“Engaged professional university management is crucial to building notions of trust and mutual value.”

Building a compelling narrative

It is important to have a compelling narrative, both internally and externally.

Rosemann believes that “the collective understanding of industry partnerships in the Australian higher education sector is underdeveloped”.

“If you look at how we get closer to, and partner with, business and industry, there are a lot of things we could be doing better – finding the same language, being able to blend into each other’s environment, and understanding the culture.

“The competitiveness and the time pressure is very different”.

Rosemann says universities generally could do a better job at “scaffolding” researchers who are, or who want to be, engaged in industry partnerships.

It should not be a one-person effort – a university could model itself so there is capacity to conduct the pre-sales, contact engagement, account management and the like, while PR and marketing could compose the individual researcher’s promotional “success story”.

“The question is: what am I as a university willing to do, to scaffold my academics and to provide the infrastructure and support needed, such as the target group identification, the cold calling, the building up of the relationship, the budgeting, the value proposition, the quality assurance and so on?

“However, the reality is that most academics have never been trained in corporate engagement. Thus, it does not come naturally to them and therefore we face a tremendous entry barrier to engaging with corporate partners.”

The value of students as boundary spanners

The university has another core asset when it comes to cementing relationships with business and industry – its students.

“These days, students at any university are typically digital natives. They have high levels of digital literacy, navigating the digital environment comes with ease and they can articulate their contemporary requirements across various industry sectors as they tend to be future customers.

“If I want to know how people will bank in five years, how they will travel, how will they use insurance – students are the best people to ask.”

Consequently, universities could act as a broker between the corporate world trying to innovate in a digital economy and those digital natives who provide a rich source of insights.

“An organisation could put an issue or problem on the table and we would give them access to say 50 students from diverse faculties in a single day for a Student Design Jam and at the end of the day of discussions, prototyping and mentoring, these students pitch their ideas.

“The incentive might be internships, scholarships, or they get tasked to an exciting opportunity or problem.

“It’s not just about universities giving access to the academic expertise but also to the thousands of digital natives who are pretty good at not just fixing a problem, but spotting the opportunity. This is a key value proposition that goes beyond academic evidence as a service.”

Corporate innovation eco-systems

Rosemann’s desire to understand and improve corporate innovation eco-systems began several years ago when he realised he was very much engaged in “corporate pain relief” – working out what was broken, and relying on techniques such as lean management and Six Sigma to incrementally improve the processes.

The passion for innovation came when he understood that comprehending what is possible, creating a new process, and ultimately creating new jobs, was more interesting and rewarding than fixing what was broken.

Today, he says, the world is opportunity-rich.

“Every day, the feats of growing global entrepreneurial capacity produces new innovative services utilising fast developing technologies – and this transition from a problem-rich to an opportunity-rich environment is very exciting. However, this shift also exposes corporations to the boundaries of their thinking capacities.”

Most companies, he says, cannot innovate by themselves.

“The classical retailer, logistics provider, bank or government entity, often don’t have a large R&D department – they are not like Google. But in the world of digitalisation and disruption they have to change quickly, they have to understand what tomorrow could look like and react accordingly and quickly.

“This is a great opportunity for universities to step in and use their enormous resources and expertise to help companies find an evidence-grounded way forward in a fast moving world.”

Digital mindfulness

This is not some high-tech meditation exercise. It is a way of thinking for those involved in the corporate world and higher education.

Rosemann came up with the notion when he realised that a lot of people may be able to describe a driverless car, a social media provider such as Facebook, or Google and the like – but they can’t explain the deeper impact of it.

“For example, most digital companies like LinkedIn or YouTube get better the bigger they are, i.e. they benefit from positive network effects. However, the typical corporation doesn’t work like this, which makes them receptive to disruption.

“Your bank, your insurance company, they don’t really change with the number of customers – indeed, they might have negative network effects and it takes longer for them to serve their customer base.

“In our industry-facing research, we try to work out with a digital mind how to create a bank that gets better the bigger it is. This is one example of digital mindfulness.

“The second example can be explained using the driverless car: Google has a digital mind and they understand if they give the world a driverless car they unlock 100,000+ years per year that mankind doesn’t have to drive any more.

“How much of these 100,000 years can they convert into digital attention time?

“If you don’t think in terms of ‘share of digital attention’ you don’t think with a digital mind. You see a driverless car but you don’t see 100,000 years of driving time that becomes time attention.”

In an environment where students will start to make the digital experiences they have with a university a key selection criterion, share of digital attention will become a metric the higher education sector can no longer ignore.

Butchers, not turkeys

When it comes to digital disruption, he says, you can either be disrupted – by something that comes as a big surprise – or be the disruptor who saw the disruption coming.

“On Thanksgiving you want to be the butcher and not the turkey because as a turkey it’s a big surprise.

“What we often ask a boardroom is – how can we make you butchers and not turkeys?

“Working at corporate speed requires a different way of conducting research. We have to go beyond a focus on tracking research effectiveness (e.g., number and quality of publications) to an additional consideration of research efficiency.

“When you really want to engage with industry, you will find they have certain expectations when it comes to turn-around time that often do not match typical turn-around times at universities.

“And that will probably mean that your efficiency and effectiveness has to improve to satisfy them in order to become that trusted partner.

“It’s a role for us to curate, to assess, to eliminate noise, to help corporate stakeholders to focus – to show that an evidence-based mind, an academically trained scientific mind, can help a company to sharpen and focus their thinking so they can derive the maximum value from the opportunity-rich digital environment.”