Whether it’s a burning question that needs to be answered or a gap in your knowledge that has the potential to yield some valuable insights, taking the time to do the research – assuming you have the right resources – is often a tall order. Partnering with academia is one way to get the work done. But how can you make sure that your academic partners will deliver?
There are no standard rules for such engagements, and projects vary widely in terms of their scope, subject matter, and goals.
However, in the 10 years since we introduced the MIT Supply Chain Exchange Thesis Partnership, we’ve learned a lot about what makes research collaborations with industry successful.
First, some background on the projects. The theses are an integral part of the MIT Supply Chain Management Program (SCM) at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL). SCM is a nine-month master’s degree program that prepares graduates for fast-track careers in logistics and supply chain management. Students partner with a company on an independent research project over this period. It is important to note that the research is not contrived; the participants focus on real issues and produce actionable results.
Over the last decade we have completed thesis research projects on a wide array of subjects, with companies from every sector of industry. Here are some pointers gleaned from this experience.
Choose a concise topic. Usually there is no shortage of ideas for research topics, but project teams will do themselves a huge favor by framing one that is tightly focused. Determining the optimum organizational structure for a supply chain function that spans dozens of countries and product lines might be a perfectly reasonable goal, but can it be realistically achieved by a few researchers working to a short-term deadline? Projects that are narrowly defined in terms of their geographic and organizational reach have a much better chance of meeting your research targets.
Designate project champions. An internal project leader at the company end who has the time and resources to help shepherd the research is a must. Keep in mind that the manager’s commitment is more than, say, a weekly conference call. That call will probably generate lots of other tasks.
Similarly, a fully committed academic leader, or thesis advisor, is essential to keeping the project on track. This becomes more important as the research progresses, because by definition the work will uncover new insights, and each revelation might require a change in the project specification.
Secure support. The right attitude is essential. If the team is enthusiastic the project will quickly build momentum. But if the participants are half-hearted and prone to canceling calls, the outcome will be far less positive.
Sort out NDAs. Non-disclosure agreements are a routine part of research collaborations, but they can also be a minefield. Take, for example, a project that was primed to go, but the company could not release the data to the researchers because their lawyers were unable to finalize the NDA. Completing these agreements is not rocket science; you just have to make sure that your attorneys are on board.
Define the deliverables. This may seem obvious, but is worth thinking about because your academic partners will probably want to publish the results in some public form.
Our thesis partnerships have four deliverables. First, there is the thesis, an executive summary, and a 20-minute presentation, all of which are publicly available. The data is masked to ensure that no commercially sensitive information is divulged. Fourthly, there is a private presentation for the company using real data.
Effectively managed projects give enterprise access to the industry’s brightest minds for a relatively modest outlay, and enable academics – including future industry leaders – to learn from working on real-world problems.
But in addition to this win-win, successful outcomes often involve “aha!” moments where the team discovers something totally unexpected.
The first project sponsored by C. H. Robinson provides a great example. Titled The Impact of Truck Lead Time on Truck Load Transportation Rates, the two MIT CTL master’s students who carried out the research, Erik Caldwell and Bryan Fisher, analyzed more than one million truckload transactions in partnership with TMC. They identified how business policy can impact tender acceptance rates. Some of the research findings were eye-opening for the students, the thesis advisor, and C. H. Robinson.
Results like these not only answer important research questions, they deliver new ideas that can be turned into competitive advantage.