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Do social networks do away with the need for synchronous beer consumption?
When I was 8, plastics were becoming ubiquitous. So saying ‘this is a nice plastic model refreshment kiosk, but so far it has defied all our attempts to get it to make plastic tea’ was a good enough joke for the Model Railway Constructor, avidly read by schoolboys of the 1960s.
How times have changed.
Now the threat to use of tea and coffee (and beer) for social purposes comes not from plastic but from web 2.0. Does social networking, in which people drink refreshments asynchronously in front of their own screens, do away with the lubricating effects of jointly consuming caffeine and alcohol in getting things done?
This topic came up this week when I was discussing with long-time friend Dr Bill Lucas of MIT a study he and colleagues have published this year on what makes for successful university / industry interactions*. This is the first academic study to look beyond the ‘output’ of the project to the ‘impact’ of the work on the sponsoring company. With more and more companies using university collaboration to bolster their innovation, the results are also important and more generally applicable.
The conclusions of the work are most informative: whilst 50% of projects studied had a major ‘outcome’, only 40% of these were exploited in a way which produced significant impact, so understanding what produces ‘impact’ needs to be understood. According to Bill and his coResearchers, there are seven things to get right:
1. Define the project’s strategic context as part of the selection process
2. Select boundary spanning project managers
3. Share with the university team the vision of how the collaboration can help the company
4. Invest in long term relationships
5. Establish strong communication linkage with the university team
6. Build broad awareness of the project within the company
7. Support the work internally both during the contract and after, until the research can be exploited
How, we wondered, would this be affected by increasingly ubiquitous social networks?
Initially we felt not a lot, and that you’d still need to spend the time on the face to face interaction, formal and informal, which makes the above happen.
However, there were several ways in which social networks would potentially help:
1. Social networks make it easier to find boundary spanners
The people who have the contacts and abilities to interact widely across the business are, surprisingly, often not known to management. Yet these people are critical to managing the interface between a complex organisation and a project. Social networking and social network analysis in particular can make them more visible.
2. Social networks between the company and the university can make it easier to maintain contact ‘before, during and after’
Since the impact of university collaboration often takes place sometime after, maintained contact of those people involved when perhaps the funding has stopped could be a major benefit. Social networks also easily support the development of long term relationships.
3. Social networks within the company can make it easier to raise awareness of the project
The kind of broad awareness needed can surely be supported by social networks, which inevitably involved wide numbers of people
Intriguingly the study also identifies five things that don’t affect a collaboration’s impact
1. The presence of an executive champion
2. Geographic proximity
3. Overall project cost
4. Whether the research is basic, applied, or advanced
5. The location of the project manager
Colocation is an interesting one – what matters is the desire to meet face to face, and a block is as big as barrier as an ocean if you don’t make the effort.
And to make the project a success in the eyes of the sponsors, linkages several months or even years after it ‘finished’ can be important. The organisation needs a memory to make this work, and the memory is usually the project manager.
These support the idea that what matters is the relationship and trust developed, and that communications tools can all play their part in making this easier, but cannot create it of themselves. The conclusion that an executive champion is not significant is a most interesting one – it is related to the idea that major impact depends on significant knowledge dissemination at the levels of people who can actually use the output. This is another area where social networking can helpfully contribute.
So, synchronous and co-located consumption of tea and beer still have a key role in getting collaborations to work. But in the era of social networking, they will be increasingly supported by other tools.
(*) ‘Best Practices for Industry-University collaboration; Julio A. Pertuze, Edward S, Calder, Edward M. Greitzner and William A. Lucas; MIT Sloan Management Review Summer 2010 Vol 51 no 4