Cooperation Works, Study Shows

Cooperation between industry and science is increasing, according to a recent study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe. National borders are no longer a factor in this, as major IT corporations are setting up international research and development cooperation arrangements. What counts is that the university has internationally recognized expertise in the particular field. “We go wherever the best knowledge is concentrated,” says Professor Lutz Heuser, head of SAP Research. SAP Research works together with well-known universities and colleges worldwide and runs research centers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa, China, Germany, France and Switzerland.

IBM’s eight research laboratories are also spread across four continents and employ around 3,500 researchers. Paul Horn, Senior Vice President for worldwide research at IBM, values the cooperation highly: “Innovations are increasingly being produced in “open eco-systems”, that is, in partnerships between customers, universities, technology providers and public administration.”

Boundaries less rigid

Just like the geographical boundaries, the boundaries between traditional organizational units are no longer as rigid, believes Professor Knut Koschatzky, who took charge of the study at ISI: “Overcoming transfer barriers between companies, universities or non-university research institutes introduces a completely new set of dynamics.”
Cooperation takes extremely different forms – ranging from know-how transfer and recruiting to company-owned institutes that are affiliated to the universities. “The barriers between science and industry are no longer as impenetrable,” observes Koschatzky, and that applies to Europe, North America and Japan. “However, research and science systems differ greatly from one country to the next,” he points out. “In the U.S., University Industry Research Centers are commonplace, while in the United Kingdom, for example, there are many different forms of temporary cooperation.”

Benefits for both parties

Companies and institutes of higher education are increasingly recognizing the benefits that cooperation brings for both parties. The companies secure themselves innovation advantages and highly qualified employees, while universities gain proximity to the market and extra income. The interfaces to industrial development and practice are particularly attractive to universities when they contribute added expertise to their scientific research and teaching.
For 70 percent of the universities and companies surveyed by the ISI, gaining new scientific insights was the principal aim of cooperation. Close links between research, development and production also enable the findings to be leveraged quickly on the market. For example, Siemens runs a development center in the Polish town of Wroclaw, which employs 700 mostly young employees and is working on solutions for mobile communication networks in non-member countries.

Business-minded universities

The closer links between research and business are boosted by the greater autonomy and self-control of universities, which are evolving into “business-minded universities”, says Koschatzky. Increasing financial pressure and higher levels of third-party funding mean that universities are amenable to new models of cooperation with industry.
In Germany, 41 percent of companies with more than 250 employees already cooperate with the scientific world via “An-Institutes” – private research institutes that are affiliated to universities. These institutes, which are legally independent from universities, offer practical research, consulting and training for external clients.

An example of an An-Institute is the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam. Formed by SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, it works closely with partners such as SAP, IBM and Siemens to offer practice-oriented teaching. Students are given the opportunity to complete practical training at various SAP branches worldwide, and SAP-related topics are regularly addressed in final papers. According to HPI, there is extensive cooperation with SAP, but the institute is also busy on projects with other companies. For example, the Information Systems department has recently begun cooperating with Schufa to identify duplication of data.

Worthwhile model for SMEs

Unlike major corporations such as SAP or Siemens, SMEs cooperate much less frequently with universities. According to the ISI, the figure is only 13 percent for companies in this bracket. One such company is BTC Business Technology Consulting AG from Oldenburg, which works together closely with OFFIS, the An-Institute of the University of Oldenburg. Each month, Dr. Clemens Fischer, head of the Software Solutions business unit at BTC, discusses new fields of cooperation with researchers from the An-Institute. “We value the well-founded view from outside and the opportunity to compare our development with the latest findings,” emphasizes Fischer. When research topics crop up in daily project work, the SAP service provider from Oldenburg brings the researchers on board.

Conversely, OFFIS also turns to BTC when it wants to gear its research towards practical issues. “This lets IT specialists address the key issues that concern our customers,” says Fischer. For example, the project team tasked by plant dealer Bruns with adapting its merchandise management system to the particular requirements of “products that grow” had one such burning issue. OFFIS formulated detailed rules that avoid unwanted surprises during transportation by estimating how the size of each type of plant will change between the time the order is placed and the time of delivery – the more accurate the estimation of the plant size at a particular time, the more precisely the forklift trucks and ultimately the trucks can be loaded.

University graduates in demand

For many companies, the opportunity to recruit skilled young workers is a key motivation for maintaining close contact with universities at present. Universities provide a highly promising pool of talent to help compensate for the current lack of skilled staff. With this in mind, the IT consulting firm cundus from Duisburg is working together with the University of Duisburg-Essen. “We want to give students practical training at an early stage and make young academics enthusiastic about their future careers. Ultimately, it’s all about winning high-quality graduates for our company,” explains Professor Peter Chamoni, chairman of the supervisory board of cundus AG. Since the company was formed in 2000, it has recruited some 20 employees from the local university, while another ten IT consulting vacancies have yet to be filled.

Chamoni, who manages Research and Development at cundus, also heads the Management Information Systems and Operations Research faculty at the University of Dusiburg-Essen. In this dual role, he is keen to build a bridge between teaching and practice: “The problems and challenges faced by companies in their operations provide our researchers with a feedstock for developing solutions that are relevant to practical needs and the needs of the time.” The cooperation between companies and universities therefore often leads to innovative solutions.