| 7 minute read

Foundations for developing strategic partnerships – perspectives from an Australian university

John Szabo

‘Men are from Mars,
Women are from Venus’ – the global best seller is a great analogy describing
the differences between industry and universities in Australia. A lot has been
written over recent years about the cultural divide but now more than ever
these two sectors must look to develop sustainable, long term relationships to
ensure their future success.

About the University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

An integral building block of UTS’s
success, since its inception, has been to be outward looking and focused on partnering
with industry. Applying the advancement of knowledge to solve industry
challenges is in our DNA, part of our social charter and our commitment to
industry and community. Our reputation among leaders in business, the
professions and government is that UTS has the most industry-focused approach
of all Sydney metropolitan universities.[1]

UTS is a university
of technology with a distinct practice-oriented model of learning. Innovation
and entrepreneurship education is our key driver in our curriculum, preparing
our students for the future of work. Emerging tech skills go hand in hand with
human skills (creative intelligence, critical thinking, and collaboration).
Ranked the No.1 Young University for the last three years, UTS is agile and
contemporary, with social justice key to our core and purpose.  We are committed to driving social change
in the world beyond our campus. UTS is uniquely positioned on the southern
fringe of Sydney CBD. The Ultimo precinct is fast becoming Australia’s largest
and most vibrant creative digital hub. We hold the enviable position of being
surrounded by a high concentration of start-ups, creative firms, large
technology, media, education and corporate partners, the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

An Australian Challenge

However, at the macro
level Australia ranks last in the OECD for university business collaboration
and in respect to the proportion of academics employed by business, Australia
ranks 28 out of the 36 OECD countries.[2]

Further, in 2016, an
OECD paper concluded that Australia’s ROI on innovation spend by government is
relatively poor. While Australia is well above average in terms of innovation
‘input’ (relatively strong skill base, reputable universities, etc.), it is
subpar in terms of innovation ‘output’. Fundamentally, we are not maximising
the economic benefits from what we fund.[3]

At UTS we believe
there are four external trends that pose an opportunity and challenge to us
maintaining the status quo to industry engagement.

Two years ago, UTS
established the Corporate Relations Centre. Strategic whole of university
partnerships are cultivated and managed by a small corporate relations team.
This is a central office, reporting into the DVC (Innovation & Enterprise),
helping industry navigate the University. It is purposefully a separate function
from the research office as research is seen as one of the three key pillars
(Students/Graduates, Research and Community) of our strategic partnership
model, not the primary driver of industry engagement.

Aside from strategic
partnerships, we offer advice and strategy support to our senior leadership to help
ensure UTS capitalise and respond to the external conditions. What are the
needs of our partners? How can we leverage our infrastructure to help our
partners succeed? What are the big ideas from the university community that we
can add value too? Where are the collaborative opportunities with other
university divisions to develop new service offerings? If we are successful, we
will not only support and attract investment to support the university’s core
activities but we will be able to measure our impact to the broader community.

“Innovation is not just talking about it, but making it work by design. The starting point for any discussion of innovation must always be people: its people who innovate, not government, not institutions, not businesses, but the people inside them. It’s an intensely human activity – minds rubbing on minds.” Catherine Livingstone AO, Chancellor of UTS

How was our Centre developed?

Our starting point or
philosophy for building our Centre is that people are a key ingredient in
creating sustainable relationships, built on trust, common purpose and mutual
benefit. Strategic partnerships is a team sport. Within our team, our primary
role is to serve and add value to our internal and our stakeholders. Hiring
people with the right mix of skills and experiences in both corporate and the
university sector is important. Sharing and living the values of the university
is key.

From an operational
perspective, there were three key priority projects to establish the centre.
Undertaking an audit of our partnerships, establishing a partnership framework
and improving the data on relationships.


Our first project was
to identify who our current strategic partners were and understand their
motivations and desired outcomes from the relationship. We seek to ensure we do
what we say on paper is what we do. This process has increased our knowledge
(data) and enabled us to grow our existing relationships. It also helped us
identify an evidence-based value proposition for establishing new strategic


Industry has many
touch points across the university and it is important that we do not stifle
the great work and often specialised work that occurs in Faculties, Research
Centres and other Central Divisions. Domain expertise exists outside of our
Corporate Relations Centre. Developing a partnership framework that measures
and values collaboration is critical. We have and will continue to establish
networks and practices that encourages cross-collaboration.  To facilitate this, we spent time defining
what a strategic partnership is, our team’s role, how we work with our internal
partners and our external partners.  This
is an on-going and iterative body of work. UTS has developed a ‘Partnership Opportunity Brief’,
adapted from the MIT Innovation Lab partnership canvas.[4]
This tool helps us assess the potential of a strategic partnership but also
forms our risk assessment. We are able to use this brief to discuss our
partnership plan internally and externally. 

Data and Process

Customer Relationship
Management (CRM) systems can be big and costly systems, especially if they
attempt to solve all external engagement needs (i.e. student recruitment,
research, internships). We are cautious on CRMs being used to track all
engagement at a university. Managing complex and multi-faceted partnerships
using email, spreadsheets and other ad hoc programs makes it difficult to
deliver value. We have deliberately implemented a small roll-out of a
partnership CRM for a limited number of users with specific roles across the
university. A partnership CRM is
a crucial tool to help track activity, demonstrate value and create
transparency across the partnership network to show impact for both the partner
and the university. A CRM can be an enabler for cultural change to foster a
holistic approach to relationship management.

Remember, this is not
easy. Not every relationship should be viewed as a potential strategic
partnership. Both university and industry partners need to acknowledge
strategic partnership development takes time. It requires a long term view and investment
in resources on both sides to ensure the potential for success.

Looking ahead

In a recent speech to the National Press Club, Universities Australia chairperson Margaret Gardiner said that boosting university industry engagement could add up to $10 billion a year to Australia’s GDP. Professor Gardiner cited new modelling commissioned from consultants Cadence Economics, demonstrating that university industry collaborations generates over $19 billion a year, which could be increased to $30 billion a year if an extra 8000 businesses entered into university-business collaborations. [5] This should be motivation enough for these two sectors to start investing more time and energy into developing sustainable, long term relationships to ensure their future success.

UTS 2017 RepTrak Survey

[1] OECD (2014). Main science and technology indicators. OECD

[1] McDulling J. (2017). OECD
report shows Australia needs innovation re-think (opinion piece)
Australian Financial Review, 6 March 2017

[2] OECD (2014) Main science and technology indicators, OECD Publishing

[3] John McDulling, 6 March 2017, OECD report shows Australia needs
innovation re-think (opinion piece), Australian Financial Review

[4] Author, July 2017, Engaging in Regional Innovation Ecosystems,
Working Paper, MIT Lab for Innovation Science and Policy

[5] Tim Dodd, Wednesday 28 February, ‘$10bn dividend from closer ties
to business’, The Australian

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