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Centres for Knowledge Interchange

Siemens has established Centres for Knowledge Interchange (CKI) at nine universities worldwide. High management attention and a team of key-account managers are the key ingredients to foster collaboration.

Founded in 1847 by Werner von Siemens as a start-up for communication technology, Siemens is today Europe’s largest industrial conglomerate and one of the world’s leading supplier of systems for power generation and transmission as well as industrial automation, infrastructure and medical diagnosis. In times when digitalization is a major driver for all businesses, it is important to cope with short innovation cycles and foresee potentially disruptive technologies. Open innovation, including collaboration with universities (UIC) and start-ups, is one of the key success factors to stay ahead of the competition. To foster UIC, Siemens has a unique approach. “We have installed so-called Centres for Knowledge Interchange (CKI) at those universities with highest relevance to Siemens. The CKIs serve as a single point-of-contact for all research and recruiting related activities and ensure a continuous dialogue on the management level” explains Dr. Natascha Eckert, head of Siemens’ University Relations department, which is part of Siemens Corporate Technology. In 2001, TU Munich was nominated the first CKI university; today, the network includes nine internationally leading universities (see figure) with a focus in central Europe.

Five people play key roles in the relation: Each CKI university has a so called Management Sponsor at Siemens and a counterpart on the university side, the co-called CKI director. They meet regularly to review the relation status and discuss measures to improve it further. Since the Management Sponsor is usually a Siemens board member or country CEO and the CKI is a dean or vice-president, chances are high that concrete action follows these meetings. They are supported by a team at a ‘operational level’: the so-called CKI Manager is the university’s key account manager for Siemens. His counterparts on the company side are a university relation Manager R&D from Dr. Eckert’s team and a university relation Manager HR from either the Talent Acquisition or Employer Branding department.

In words of Dr. Stefan März, CKI Manager at TU Munich: “We work closely together as a team. Essentially, it is our job to build a bridge between the two organizations to make it easier for our researchers and students to ‘commute’. It starts by knowing about all joint activities, and being able to refer requests to the right responsible. We consult on the best collaboration format and partner, establish contacts and organize lab visits or technology workshops on request. In short, whatever a Siemens or TUM employee needs from the other side, we are here to help. But we also pro-actively organize several events in order to bring people together. Our “Sommergespräch” (summer talk) has already a 30-year tradition and we have organized our first CKI conference on the topic of autonomous systems last year. We run a Siemens mentoring programme for excellent TUM students or regularly host brunches where students can get to know Siemens employees in an informal atmosphere.”

Some universities, especially in the USA, offer such services in a dedicated industry liaison office. When their offer suits Siemens’ needs, these offices are used to host the CKI, as is the case for example at UC Berkeley. However, many universities still do not offer a professional liaison organization as standard and the CKI is a way to create a “custom built” liaison programme for Siemens.

But why is Siemens putting resources into the CKI programme? What’s the benefit for Dr. Eckert’s organisation? “Our goal is to focus our university collaboration on a few, strategic partners. The advantages are obvious. First, Master Research Agreements, which are a standard component of the CKI partnership, allow for easy and fast project setup without long legal negotiations. But these Master Research Agreements only make sense for strong partners with high collaboration volume. Second, we need large, long-term, strategic research cooperation to be truly innovative. But this kind of projects is only initiated with trusted partners and needs a high degree of management commitment. Third, today, Siemens is one of Europe’s largest software companies. You might be surprised to hear that and many students are as well. When we want to compete with Google or IBM for the best talents, we need to focus our efforts.”

Even when in the last 15 years, Siemens has gone through a lot of changes, the CKI programme continues to grow. What are some lessons learnt by Dr. Eckert? “Two things maybe: First, for such a programme to become effective, you’re in it for the long run. So be very careful in the selection of your partner universities and also the management sponsors. The university needs to have a proven track-record of good relation and many cooperations with Siemens and we require a solid outlook at least for the next three years. The management sponsor is appointed ‘for life’, so he needs to have an intrinsic motivation to be the face of the company towards the university. And second, UIC is a people’s business. There is no use in prohibiting collaboration with a non-CKI-university, it will only frustrate researchers. You should do everything you can to bring people together and let them discuss their work. Then they will find common interests and eventually start working together.”



About the Authors

Dr. Natascha Eckert | Head of Siemens University Relations

Natascha is active in various leading roles within Corporate Research for over 10 years. Currently she heads Siemens University Relations and is responsible for the global strategic partner programs with universities and research institutes. After two years with OSRAM Corporate Technology, she re-joined Siemens in February 2015 where she had already overseen Siemens partner management with universities and research institutes for over four years. Natascha has a longyear experience in Siemens’ international technology and innovation management and was responsible for Corporate Technology’s expansion to China, India and Russia. During two years, she worked with Prof. Requardt and built up the CTO function within Siemens.

Dr. Max Fabian Riedel | Senior consultant Siemens Corporate Technology University Relations

Dr. Max Riedel is a senior consultant at Siemens Corporate Technology University Relations in Munich, Germany. His daily tasks include consulting Siemens businesses in all aspects of university cooperation, ranging from developing a partnering strategy over finding suitable research partners to fostering long-term strategic cooperation. He is also key account manager for two of Siemens’ Strategic Partner Universities, TU Munich and KIT. Currently, he is co-editing a book on success-factors for university-industry cooperation, which is scheduled for publishing in 2017.


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