How Industry and Academia can Weather the Storms of Disruption

Anthony Baxendale - CCAAR

Dr Anthony Baxendale, head of horizon scanning and research at automotive technologists HORIBA MIRA, explains how industry and academia can work together to tackle disruptive forces affecting business and provides an example of such a partnership between his company and Coventry University. 

The automotive industry is undergoing a major transformation. Driven by the increasingly demanding legislation for reducing environmental impact and by the disruptive forces of the digital revolution, automation is finally making its way into the very heart of the sector, re-shaping the entire DNA of the motor vehicle and our relationship with it.

The storm of disruption doesn’t take prisoners. It leaves companies floundering in its wake if they are not braced for it. Bracing for the storm is one thing but embracing it is another thing all together, yet this is what companies like my own need to do if we are to continue to be successful.

But what does a strategy for embracing disruption look like? For me, it is about using the forces of exploratory research and development (R&D) coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit of innovation to help nudge the business on to a new course. There it can quickly learn and adapt to its new environment and create new product and service opportunities for the future whilst at the same time being able to weather the immediate storms of disruption.

Sounds good in theory but how can this happen in practice, especially in a large business with the day to day pressures of keeping the company running? We have discovered that part of the answer is working with universities. In one sense this is obvious but making such partnerships work strategically is far from easy where there is a need for collaborations that go beyond funding of individual research projects.

Conventionally, strategy starts with a big vision and is then followed by a big plan to make it happen. But, when working with universities there is a lot of initial ground work to do to build the understanding and trust that bridges the significant cultural divide. In my view, the real strength – and hence the attraction of universities – is their enquiry driven culture, while the real strength of industry is an innovation driven ethos. But merging the two is not easy, even when there is a willingness on both sides to do so!

I think the first step is to recognise there is this cultural divide and seek opportunities to talk about it. Learning to understand and value each other’s perspectives will help establish the channels of communication and professional ties that will become some of the building blocks for cooperation. Strong individual channels between interested researchers are a good start, but the real benefits come when this is scaled up.

This will need a champion on each side – in each case a person who can understand both worlds – academia and industry. They will need to have the creativity and imagination to bring the organisations together to build a shared research vision and develop innovative “instruments of cooperation” needed to deliver it. The key success factor is that these instruments need to provide mutual and sustained benefits otherwise the initiative will soon start to flounder.

From my perspective in industry, one of the most effective academic instruments is the PhD. First and foremost, it is an instrument of research enquiry but it is also increasingly becoming a tool of cooperation. HORIBA MIRA has sponsored many PhDs with many universities. The most successful ones are where they have been able to combine both the rigour of research enquiry and the innovation pathways of cooperation to achieve something we couldn’t do by ourselves.

This is something we have been building on through our work with Coventry University. Faced with the forces of disruption we quickly need to embrace and develop new technologies and skills so we have developed a model whereby their PhD students are integrated into the business’s structure and culture. They work alongside our engineers and use our facilities, but, importantly, the academic rigour of the PhD and the value of freedom to explore new areas is preserved.

This has been working well and we are pleased with the results so far. As well as the immediate technology and skills benefits within the business, it has also served to broaden and strengthen our relationship such that we have been able to scale it up further in line with the theme of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) – perhaps the most disruptive area our industry is currently facing.

To this end, we recently established the Centre for Connected & Autonomous Automotive Research (CCAAR) at the heart of MIRA Technology Park.  The centre will be an important part of enabling HORIBA MIRA and Coventry University to embrace the revolution of CAV and become leaders in this field. Having an active PhD programme and strong communication channels in place at all levels, this centre has hit the ground running and we are already finding new opportunities!

I have shared just one of our journeys of university collaboration in the face of industry disruption, but there are others in development.  The main lessons we have learnt about establishing successful industry-university partnerships is that whilst shared vision starts at the top, successful implementation should start at the bottom. Furthermore we have learnt that these two aspects are mutually dependent and so successful partnerships have to be flexible and adaptable.

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