Creating actionable knowledge through close ties with industry

Sofia Börjesson is Director of the Center for Business Innovation (CBI) at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. She is Associate Professor in Technology Management and has extensive experience in leading university-company research projects. Professor Börjesson’s university office is frequently unoccupied – she spends a great deal of time visiting companies and organizations in order to see at first hand and to understand how they are working with innovation. She brings with her the latest academic trends based on the work of her group at CBI and their research in the field, in order to help firms to become more innovative and more efficient. InnovationManagement.se asked her a few questions.

How are you working at CBI in order to create actionable knowledge?

Our research is action oriented. I work with a group of interactive researchers who are not afraid to go out of the university and participate in hands on business development. This is common in several areas of research, for example pharmaceuticals.

Our research is action oriented

But some researchers are wary of getting too close to the objects they study. However, in our group, we are very open to this type of research for the simple reason that we want our research to be useful to companies: it is good to be able to perform joint research with practitioners, in their own contexts.

Our focus and starting point is real problems. By doing so, you have interest and commitment already from the beginning from the practitioners and can leverage from their knowledge simultaneously as you provide your perspective to the organization. To put it simply, we perform research together with our industry partners, not on them. We work with problems that are relevant to both firms and our research programme.

How do you help companies in other ways than through research?

We have created some offers and activities, products and services that are easy to apply. One of these is the innovation audit which is aimed at investigating the business innovation process and revealing opportunities for improvements in the firm being audited.

The innovation audit is aimed at investigating the business innovation process and revealing opportunities for improvements in the firm being audited

The result from an audit is a couple of problems and indications put at the table that industry practitioners can elaborate upon and continue to work with. Other important outcomes are the potential research areas that emerge through the process of the audit.

We also provide a service called BIP – Business Innovation Project, which is a concept that aims to identify new opportunities from a new technology or concept in order to create more value for the company. It involves three phases: analysing the company and the industry; conceptualizing new business; and creating a roadmap for its implementation.

Furthermore, we also provide seminars and workshops, some of which are aimed exclusively at audiences from industry. In the course of these activities we search for and share existing knowledge and set up arenas for networking. All these activities are valuable mechanisms for bridging between industry and academia.

Perhaps most important, as a researcher, in the course of your work you take on a consultative type role. For me, this makes my research more meaningful since it allows a parallel contribution to organizational change and development. It is very rewarding to forge good relations and get access to useful resources which can be exploited in future research.

What kinds of companies benefit from your activities?

The innovation audits, where we measure the innovation capacities of firms, are primarily aimed at big companies. A big audit requires pretty much resource in terms of interviews, surveys, seminars and analysis. At the same time, they are very rewarding for the participating companies.

The challenges are different for small companies than for bigger ones

But also smaller companies may benefit by our “mini audits” as a starter. These involve simple measurements based on questionnaires and are not so time consuming. Smaller companies can also benefit from collaboration such as the Vinnova sponsored programme, Innovation Boost (Innovationslyftet), which help to improve their capacity to invent and introduce new products. The challenges are different for small companies than for bigger ones. The latter to an extent are stuck within their existing structures, they are locked into old patterns of behaviour.

Is it expensive to use your services?

Participation in our collaborative research projects involves commitment of time and sometimes some finance for the research. I use the analogy of undertaking psychotherapy – you must be prepared to commit to it and to pay for it. And we do charge for services such as the BIP and the audit projects which are more like traditional management consulting.

I use the analogy of undertaking psychotherapy – you must be prepared to commit to it and to pay for it

We currently have a project in the forestry sector involving nine companies. The goal is to measure how the creative climate and innovative capacity initiate change in the innovation process, a sort of ‘mini audit’ project. Vinnova is funding this project, along with a small contribution from the companies. We find that contributing to the financing of our projects is motivation for the participating companies to prioritize participation.

Another very useful way of cooperating with firms is through industry or executive PhD studentships. In that way we create a channel between us and the firm and they can make use of their knowledge from within.

When conducting research in collaboration with companies, how do you ensure the outcome is used in the most efficient way?

Our objective is to create a base of extended knowledge and provide better insights into phenomena and current status

We create actionable knowledge, but it is neither our responsibility nor our direct mission to implement it. Our objective is to create a base of extended knowledge and provide better insights into phenomena and current status as they are presented and formulated, in a way that makes sense to the people concerned in the company. That is what we label “actionable knowledge”, that is, knowledge that is rather easy to take action upon. This allows firms to continue to develop alternatives and to work on their implementation. But they must have the desire and the courage to change.

One year ago, you presented a research report on managing ‘green innovation’ which was coauthored with two colleagues. How does management of green innovation differ from traditional innovation management and why is it useful for companies to work with green innovation?

Some of us like to add this filter when searching for a broader understanding about how to develop a firm’s capability to be innovative. The green dimension puts emphasis on the need and simultaneously may provide a business opportunity. In CBI, we have two PhD candidates working in that area. From a social perspective, we need to explore new, more environmentally friendly business models and offers.

For example, instead of just selling electricity to its customers, an energy company can guarantee delivery of a certain temperature. The trick here is to identify possibilities in areas where you have not focused before. In the long run, greening is both a necessity and opportunity.

Do you have some general advices for companies that want to be more innovative?
There is a lot of advice that can be drawn on, but no quick fixes. However, I would highlight:

  • Challenge your current way of thinking in terms of offers and business models
  • Cooperate with actors external to your organization to bring in new perspectives
  • Go to the market as a learning activity, not only as commercial activity
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