insights from our partners Learnings on Partnerships with SMEs

The pace of change today has major consequences on the socio-economic landscape of the future, for example a forecast by Dell Technologies estimates that 85% of jobs in 2030 have not been invented yet (Dell, 2022). This rapidly changing modernity affects technological innovation, scientific discovery, but also the evolution of “wicked problems” in society, i.e., particularly challenging problems such as climate change, refugees, and aging populations, that defy the borders of traditional policy areas and instead require the creative collaboration of a diverse set of actors in order to tackle the scale of these issues (Termeer et al., 2019). This ability to identify new social developments and quickly adapt to them through creative and innovative operations, is notably present in small and medium enterprises (SMEs). SMEs play a growing economic role as through their engagement with a variety of stakeholders (e.g., higher education institutions (HEIs), corporations, governments, and local citizens) and are therefore uniquely primed to fill gaps in the system by offering services, skills, resources and techniques. Despite their prominence in these partnerships, these relationships, particularly between SMEs and HEIs remain largely unexplored.

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The research conducted as part of the Unite for Horizon Europe (UNITE4H) project seeks to investigate this central role of SMEs by focusing on their collaborations with HEIs and how future partnerships collaborations could be further developed through training. More specifically, UNITE4H aims to foster the capacity for strategic engagement between the target groups of European academics/researchers, and SME representatives in order to increase the proportion of successful partnerships within the European Commission’s “Horizon Europe” funding initiatives.

In order to reach this goal, the project was segmented into the following three stages:

  1. Identify the engagement needs and challenges experiences, and also the collaborative opportunities envisioned by both academics and SME representatives across Europe
  2. Apply these learnings to develop a Horizon Europe engagement training programme that will increase awareness skills and knowledge capacity among both target groups
  3. Validate this training programme through rigorous pilot testing and workshop sessions.

The project began with a common understanding of what successful university-business cooperation (UBC) looks like, which was defined thusly: successful UBC are endeavours of individuals possessing competencies that are highly relevant to cooperation for achieving mutual benefit, collaboration, and for achieving results. This premise of successful UBC stems out of any personal or professional experience, i.e., the better people get at doing something, the more results improve. Based on this starting point we designed our research which was informed by UBC professionals, and case studies of good practices in HEI and SME collaboration and implementation of European-level projects. By gathering data on their experience and insights, our research found the following motivators, facilitators and challenges for collaboration between HEIs and SMEs:

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From surveying and conducting qualitative research with UBC professionals, we found the following motivating factors, each of equal importance given their interrelatedness. These motivators were influential in the later design of the training programme in order to foster the best possible learning experience of the participant. The most relevant motivators for UBC in HEIs and SMEs are continuous learning, social impact, excellence, social capital, exchange, and funding

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Facilitators are factors that make enabling UBC between HEIs and SMEs easier and more efficient. Similarly, a lack of the below factors in the environment will generate various challenges for initiating and maintaining collaborative projects. Facilitators of an individual, organisational and policy nature that support the above motivators include opportunities for networking, intermediaries spanning the boundary between academia and industry, and training programmes providing skill development for collaboration.

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Lastly, three main challenges that UBC practitioners from HEIs and SMEs both face include are related to a mismatch in time-orientation, strategic orientation, and focus and priorities.

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All these factors – motivations, facilitators and challenges – were then used to identify needs for skills and knowledge by interviewing UBC professionals and determining what they need to know in order to achieve effective collaboration between both target groups in Europe. From here, the project consortium defined the knowledge (in-depth understanding) in specific academic/professional areas that enable UBC, as well as the competencies (the practical abilities) on how UBC should be developed and systematically managed. They utilized both these central concepts in the development of supportive engagement training programmes, one for HEIs, and one for SMEs, to create opportunity for more strategic o-operation between both parties and support their overall success.

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Edited by Madeline Arkins (UIIN)

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Article References

Dell Technologies (2022) Realizing 2030: Dell Technologies Research Explores the Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships.

Termeer, C. J., Dewulf, A., & Biesbroek, R. (2019). A critical assessment of the wicked problem concept: relevance and usefulness for policy science and practice. Policy and Society38(2), 167-179.

Unite4Horizon Europe (2022) Towards coalition excellence report on university -SME collaboration in Europe. https://unite /05/Unite4H_Synthesis-Report-FINAL_formatted.pdf

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