Wanted: boffins with business balls

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Why does the commercial world turn a blind eye to the demands of academics? Small firms are often too stretched, but there is also the problem of a common language. James Starcke reports.

They may be boffin-bright, but can researchers sort out the post-16 training needs of British firms? Many in industry fear that academics, perceived as nestled deep in a leafy campus, fail to understand the everyday challenges facing the commercial world.

"I do not think their brains are in tune with business," says Christopher Harvey, policy director of Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce. "There is no question that the issue of post-16 training is of vital importance to our 33,000 businesses and that they take a great interest in it. But 85 per cent of our local firms employ fewer than 10 people and they are unlikely to take part in surveys or other research unless it happens to be something they get particularly fired up about."

Blue skies thinking is all well and good, the argument goes, but it doesn't take account of those whose primary aim is to meet the payroll bill and make a profit. The problem is particularly acute with small to medium enterprises (SMEs), Mr Harvey says, which simply do not have the time or resources to take part in research, or the belief that they are of practical value.

"Frankly I think these research surveys are a waste of time," says Noel Barker, a director of John Mills Sons on Tyneside, which has a 45-strong workforce churning out highly specialist valves for the off-shore oil industry. "I could do 10 of them a week but I am sceptical of the benefit they bring."

The difficulty in getting SMEs to take part in research is compounded by those who send out specious surveys which in reality are a ploy to increase their customer base. "I tend not to participate in surveys," says Hugo McHugh, operations director at etrinsic, a print management firm in Solihull with 100 employees, "because they are just marketing tools that try to find out when you're next going to update your computer system."

The Learning and Skills Council, which has an annual research budget of around pound;12.5 million and is responsible for post-16 training, is candid about the problems of getting SMEs more involved in shaping the training programmes of the future.

"With SMEs I do not think we've cracked it," admits the council's director of research, Richard Watkins. But he does believe the quango is having more success in understanding the concerns of larger firms, particularly those big enough to devote personnel to being part of the LSC's own research.

He says that through programmes such as the national employers' skills survey, carried out by the Institute of Employment Research at the University of Warwick in which more than 27,000 employers took part last year, the council is building up a world-class research database that is the cornerstone to future training.

The LSC points to employer training pilots, a generally well-received scheme providing free training in the workplace, as an example of how policymakers have listened to firms. "All our research is pragmatic rather than academic," Mr Watkins says. "We want to work with employers."

The Confederation of British Industry agrees that the policymakers are making the right noises about researching post-16 provision. "The Government is certainly talking the talk about supplying demand-led services," says Richard Wainer, the CBI's skills and employment policy adviser, "although we have not seen great changes on the ground yet."

There is a sense that closer links between universities and businesses above a certain size are being fostered, thanks in part to the expansion of universities and their need to explore various funding channels.

"Over the past couple of years we've developed links with Cranfield University," says Alec Budge, operations director of Peter Brotherhood, a turbine manufacturer in Peterborough. "And organisations such as the local development agency, colleges and business link are starting to work more readily with us. But as to whether they are asking us the right questions... that's an interesting one."

Researchers evidently still have some way to go to convince employers of the mutual benefit of collaboration. In part it is an issue of whether the dog wags the tail or the tail the dog. Kathryn Ecclestone, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, says: "There is the issue of whether researchers respond to what employers want, or whether researchers try to get businesses aboard after the research is commissioned."

She points to the teaching and learning research programme, an Economic and Social Research Council project. Its 50 projects aim to ensure research leads to practical outcomes for users. But that may not be enough to bridge the gulf between academia and industry: research needs to sell itself. Loudly.

Hilary Steedman, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, who interviewed 90 firms in Britain and Germany to compare information and communication technology skills, says the ways of publishing research are deficient.

"Getting anything across to employers we tend to use the normal channels like sector skills councils, or the LSC," she says. "I've made a point of holding joint seminars with the Learning and Skills Development Agency. But it would be quite wrong to say that we are getting through to employers. At research conferences employers often seem bewildered. And when I go to their events I realise training is only a small part of their concerns. I don't think it is something we have got very far with yet."

Back in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, Mr Harvey believes there is a greater role for local chambers of commerce in translating research papers into a language businesses understand. "If you want to increase the participation rate of business," he says, "you have to have a rapport with them and that is the great advantage of local chambers. They know the local firms."

Enter the middleman, or at least enter a halfway house between two sets of people who want to get to the same place but rarely seem to use the same map.

Knowledge House is a collaboration between the universities of Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Northumbria, Teesside and the Open University. It acts as a single point of contact for the combined resources of the region's universities and, drawing on a pool of academics with commercial experience, it offers firms free diagnosis of problems and an introduction to researchers.

George Cowcher, chief executive of North East Chamber of Commerce, says: "Over the past few years it has really taken off as an interface between the universities and employers and has been particularly helpful at providing a focus for SMEs which are having problems."

Key to its success is the industrial pedigree of the researchers and managers at Knowledge House. "The majority of our managers have vast experience both of how universities and industry work and an understanding of problem-solving from all sides," says Alan Sanderson, regional director of Knowledge House.

Boffins with business balls may be the key to developing better relationships with employers.

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