5 July 2016 | By David Bott Community

Knowing everything isn't the route to growth

Most companies have difficulties working with most universities. Attitudes need to change

I always wanted to be a scientist. The idea of understanding how things work was hypnotic. What I learned as I progressed through my education was that the application of that understanding was even more attractive, and so I chose a career in industry. But applying knowledge is a different activity to gaining it. 

When you are trying to understand things, you are (effectively) in competition with other scientists working in the same area all over the globe. Your success is judged by being able to explain the understanding you have worked to achieve, and predict things that haven’t yet happened. It depends on being recognised by other academics.

Once you cross to industry, you have to focus on challenges and how you apply understanding to address them. Rarely do those challenges get solved in one step, but rather they require lots of different bits of “science” to be applied in concert. This means that, rather than competing with other people, you are collaborating – to share your individual understanding and produce an integrated solution.

I was fortunate in that I graduated in the days when large business had what were known as “corporate laboratories”. These were places where a reasonable percentage of the companies surplus was spent trying to evaluate the understanding that was being developed in universities around the world and match it to the challenges that the company thought it could profitably address.

It was highly interactive with universities and many of my friends and colleagues from this time are academics. We spent many hours discussing what could be done and how to do it, and devised joint programmes to extend their understanding to cover off the unanswered questions that stood in the way of innovative products and services. 

Narrowing vision

Over the last 30 or so years, most large companies have closed their corporate laboratories and focussed on short-term application of knowledge they could acquire “cost effectively”.

Sadly, most universities have adopted a path where they patent the understanding they have developed and spin out companies with the intention of exploiting that knowledge for their own profit. I see no evidence that this has contributed meaningfully to the economic growth of the UK.

On the other hand, some universities changed the way they operated to build multi-disciplinary departments, so that teams could address the challenges facing industry and build the package of understanding needed to set in train the development of new products and services.

My tour of duty as a government apparatchik taught me that most companies have difficulty working with most universities. If the university tries to “sell” what it already has and charge for it rather than asking what the problem is before addresses the challenges in an integrated manner, it will lose. If it tries to get a three-year commitment to a graduate project, when the company has six months to solve the challenge, it will lose.

Unless it starts with the problem the company thinks it is facing, helps them realise what understanding they need and then works with them (and others) to acquire and implement that knowledge, then being world class has no meaning.

Large global corporations can go anywhere in the world for understanding – and they often do – though some still invest in UK universities for the output of people that will form their future workforce. But it is today's smaller businesses that might evolve to be the large companies of the future that need UK universities to find a new and better way to support their growth, or knowing everything, but not its value, will be hollow.