At the conference ‘Building a Virus-resistant Company’, organised by EUAS and Ülemiste City, a panel discussion was held to discuss how universities and enterprises can work together in this changed era in the most efficient way.
Professor Linda L. Singh, Head of Towson University and long-time manager, Olga Matthias, Professor at Beckett University in Leeds, Daisuke Matsushima, Professor at Kanazawa University, and Professor Mait Rungi, Rector of Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences, agreed that despite their different mechanisms, they can work together towards a joint objective.
“Curricula are not changing fast enough, do not stay up to date and are not relevant. A reform of mindsets and forms of cooperation is needed. The emphasis should be on needs: what enterprises need, what is happening in the industry and so on,” Prof Singh outlined her personal vision of what is happening in the United States.
Professor Matthias described that universities in England are generally divided into two: those focusing on research and those on applied studies. She cited the example of the system used at the University of Sheffield based on her previous work. “The desire to implement initiatives that benefit the community speaks in favour of applied universities. They have been continuously expanding their cooperation networks with local employers in and around Sheffield, where there are many small businesses. The focus of the cooperation is on broad-based practical activities,” explained Prof Matthias. “I also perceive changes in the more general attitude – universities are no longer seen as separate, but as part of the economic field. This not only concern digital innovation, but is also about looking for different triggers and thinking about how one thing leads to another.
According to Prof Matsushima, the approach to the development of innovation in Japan is based on a slightly different model. “We first try to identify the problem in society and then reach solutions through various activities. It is my opinion that this way it is both easier and more efficient for introducing innovation. Many small and medium-sized businesses ask us ‘how-to’ questions and the solutions to those questions.”
According to Professor Mait Rungi, Estonian companies have varying views on investing in research and development. “Some companies are keen on product innovation; many build on their long-term success as a subcontractor. From a business perspective, innovation is risky, costly and long-term. Today, the main focus of companies is process innovation rather than product innovation – the emphasis is on efficiency,” explained the Rector of EAUS. “Universities carry out basic and fundamental research; they want to publish and emphasise their academic freedom and the right to choose what to research and when. This may not always lead enterprises to the required and expected rapid results in business. The aim of universities of applied sciences is applied research, and they are eager to offer good R&D to companies or support them with knowhow.”
It is crucial to set priorities and create the right mindset
Professor Rungi added that society requires both basic research and more practical approaches. “In Estonia, 25% of the total volume of research is applied research; in our example countries, this number is 40-50%,” said Rungi, answering the question of the right balance. “For a long time, we did not favour applied research at all until we realised that in order to vitalise the economy, product development of enterprises must also be supported.”
“The balance between the scientific and practical side is not most important; instead, priorities are of most importance,” said Prof Singh. “Which mechanism currently provides the best solution? Creation of the right ideas and the right mindset is crucial. The time of the pandemic clearly shows that we need to step up our efforts and quickly adapt to the demands of the era.”
Prof Matthias attached great importance to decision-making skills in the right context. “Both universities and the industry need to be aware of changes in priorities. This means extremely long application processes becoming more flexible as well as a more goal-oriented management style being adopted by universities,” said the academician, who has studied the impact of information systems on business at length.
“Estonia is known for its start-ups, which have been able to successfully finance their activities from various sources. Our other small and medium-sized enterprises would need more support to reach the next level from their fragile financial position and status as a subcontractor,” illustrated Prof Rungi. “The triple helix system (cooperation between universities, companies and government – ed.) is known in the world and is now passed as a stage in many countries, where cooperation between a university and a company is supported by the state. In Estonia, we are just starting development in this area, and a discussion is underway to establish an applied research centre to support the development cooperation of higher education institutions, which will also take time to adapt to.”
Prof Matsushima emphasised that funding is always important, but without a functioning ecosystem and competent people, it will immediately lose its importance. “A change in perspective is required,” said Prof Singh, closing the topic. “Universities need to embrace the mindset of entrepreneurs and start-ups. We cannot rely solely on public support, we must find new ways to raise additional funds ourselves.”
The culture of innovation and leadership is changing hand in hand
“More important than technical innovation is a team whose proper leadership and motivation can lead to every challenge being achieved,” started Rector Prof Rungi. “Changes in the culture of innovation go hand in hand with changes in the culture of management,” Prof Singh highlighted an important influencing factor. “The position of a leader is increasingly ruthless. You need to talk and act thoughtfully and avoid mistakes. Critical thinking and critical decision-making have taken on a whole new meaning.”
“We have always thought of the leader as one person – someone who is currently on stage,” he added. “Whoever still thinks this is making a big mistake! In fact, we are all leaders. In the end, the contribution of all of us, not just those standing on the stage in the spotlight, counts.”
Prof Matthias gave an example from her field, i.e. the processing of big data. “Of course, data plays an important role in decision-making. But data are only useful if you know exactly what your objective is and what kind of data you need,” she said. “I admire leaders who can inspire team members to be the best version of themselves.”
Finally, each participant highlighted an idea on how to make cooperation between universities and enterprises more effective.
Prof Olga Matthias: “President Kennedy once asked: ‘What can we do for you?’ If both parties – enterprises and universities – are more open and willing to put aside the partner’s different mechanism of action, we will certainly see many effective joint projects in the future.”
Prof Daisuke Matsushima: “The differences between sectors are rather large. These must therefore be reduced and points of contact need to be sought. Creating a common community through different practices brings us closer to mutual understanding.”
Prof Linda L. Singh: “Think of your company or university as part of the community. If we can open this new perspective, we will become much more receptive to different forms of cooperation.”
Rector Prof Mait Rungi: “If until now, universities in Estonia have been treated as educational institutions, then thinking is now changing. We can offer much more, serve society, disseminate knowhow and be a development and cooperation partner for enterprises and the community.”