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In my experience, consortiums under-deliver. We can get the best of both worlds by making the industry–academia interface more permeable.

At one of my clients, I have the pleasure of working with two smart, energetic young geologists. One recently finished, and the other recently started, a 14-month super-internship. Neither one had more than a BSc in geology when they started, and both are going on to do a postgraduate degree after they finish with this multinational petroleum company.

This is 100% brilliant — for them and for the company. After this gap-year-on-steroids, what they accomplish in their postgraduate studies will be that much more relevant, to them, to industry, and to the science. And corporate life, the good bits anyway, can teach smart and energetic people about time management, communication, and collaboration. So by holding back for a year, I think they've actually got a head-start.

The academia–industry interface

Chatting to these young professionals, it struck me that there's a bigger picture. Industry could get much better at interfacing with academia. Today, it tends to happen at a few key relationships, in recruitment, and in a few long-lasting joint industry projects (often referred to as JIPs or consortiums). Most of these interactions happen on an annual timescale, and strictly via presentations and research reports. In a distributed company, most of the relationships are through R&D or corporate headquarters, so the benefits to the other 75% or more of the company are quite limited.

Less secrecy, free the data! This worksheet is from the Unsolved Problems Unsession in 2013.Instead, I think the interface should be more permeable and dynamic. I've sat through several JIP meetings as researchers have shown work of dubious relevance, using poor or incomplete data, with little understanding of the implications or practical possibilities of their insights. This isn't their fault — the petroleum industry sucks at sharing its goals, methods, uncertainties, and data (a great unsolved problem!).

Increasing permeability

Here's my solution: ordinary human collaboration. Send researchers to intern alongside industry scientists for a month or two. Let them experience the incredible data and the difficult problems first hand. But don't stop there. Send the industry scientists to outern (yes, that is probably a word) alongside the academics, even if only for a week or two. Let them experience the freedom of sitting in a laboratory playground all day, working on problems with brilliant researchers. Let's help  people help each other with real side-by-side collaboration, building trust and understanding in the process. A boring JIP meeting once a year is not knowledge sharing.

Have you seen good examples of industry, government, or academia striving for more permeability? How do the high-functioning JIPs do it? Let us know in the comments.

If you liked this, check out some of my other posts on collaboration and knowledge sharing...