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Professor Christopher May
Professor of Political Economy, Lancaster University
Professor Christopher May

Listening is part of innovating

Authors: Professor Christopher May Professor Christopher May,

11 February 2014

We knew that a key part of developing our new joint 'Programme in Innovation' was going to involve listening. So that’s why we recently invited a group of Work Foundation partners from various sectors to join us for a working session. The session introduced the proposed programme , still very much in the development phase, before focussing on what the value proposition would likely be for all three sets of partners involved – namely joint founders Lancaster University and The Work Foundation, the students and the partner organisations whose innovation issues will form the backbone of research for each cohort of students.

The programme’s unothordox approach seeks to avoid the linear development of most PhD research, allowing researchers to develop iterative work with partner organisations, while also establishing a multi- sector, multi-disciplinary approach to innovation through ongoing interactions with the entire student cohort on the programme at any given time. Like all PhD programmes the Programme in Innovation will involve some early skills training. Crucially, universities have less experience with programmes that develop knowledge exchange skills, perspectives and practices. We are therefore exploring how we might structure this skills development element for students by running a pilot version of the training programme after Easter, building on experience Lancaster University has with the Enterprise School approach (which focuses on entrepreneurship more than knowledge exchange).

In our recent session with partners we wanted to find out how they would expect to engage with the Programme in Innovation knowledge exchange element. The partners attending the session were helpfully frank in the questions they raised about the mechanics and practicalities of seeking to involve partners in collaborative research around innovation and knowledge exchange. Some of the key issues raised were: 

  • What sort of outputs can partners expect from the research students when partner needs and academic requirements are not identical?
    To some extent we expect this to be part of the negotiated relationship between partner and student(s) but need to develop clear guidance for how this fits with the PhD programme’s more traditional output requirements.

  • How capable are research students of gaining insights into partners organisations without a considerable investment and guidance?
    The research and knowledge exchange training will need to develop suitable investigative skills to reassure partners that the research students are able to progress their projects without significant partner oversight. Most importantly if students are to (quickly) establish credibility with partners their investigative and diagnostic skills will need to be well developed prior to the full engagement the partner(s).This was a major concern for partners with tight time commitments.
  • What about intellectual property and data sharing?
    Some partners were concerned about the question of intellectual property and sharing of sensitive information. Clearly there is a strong need for the student cohort to have access to data in order to develop cross- sector insights. Therefore it will be essential to have a programme participation agreement that reassures partners on this issue while allowing partners and research students to harvest and capture the benefits of the cohort’s multi-sector insights and exchanges

  • Partners are potentially at different stages of embedding innovation practices in their organisations – how can we ensure the programme specification engages all partners effectively? 
    This indicates that the programme may need to build each student/partner project’s specification, guidelines and engagement practices separately. This prompted a discussion of whether programme partners might also need to work through an induction process themselves prior to the commencement of any PhD project

 This session confirmed that Work Foundation partners have an appetite for engaging in a range of innovative research foci, but that capacities for engagement and concerns varied from organisation to organisation and from sector to sector. This suggests that the Programme in Innovation will need to develop a strong and well resourced team to ensure that engagement with programme partners fulfils their needs and interests. Establishing the value proposition for partners needs to be the next major element of development concern for the prospective programme. Some of this will be explored in the practice of the pilot knowledge exchange programme after Easter, while other elements will be subject to further investigation and interaction with interested Work Foundation partners.

Details of the Knowledge Exchange Pilot programme will be available shortly.

Read Professor Chris May's other blogs here.