Research Findings

How to not sell out

and
February 3, 2019

How do you leverage new growth opportunities?

All kinds of organisations – universities, NGOs, private companies – look to access new audiences and enter new markets by reaching out to resource holders and diverse constituencies outside their standard remit. And there’s a certain amount of good business sense at play here: addressing new audiences helps increase risk diversification and safeguard longer term prosperity.

But this growth strategy comes with potential pitfalls. New audiences often have demands that can be very different to those of existing markets. Organisations entering new spaces run the risk of neglecting mainstream business. The capabilities needed to address a new market are often not those needed to maintain the flow and quality of products and services to existing customers and stakeholders.

How can organisations manage this kind of audience diversification so that everyone comes out of it better off? How can they balance who they already are – or are perceived to be – and what they already do, with the goals, objectives and modus operandi of their new audience

Three things you must do

One way to achieve this is to build specialised units within the organisation: units that, on the one hand operate independently, but on the other hand form an integral part of the mainstream organisation as it continues to service its traditional audience’s needs. We call these specialised units “hybrid spaces”.

In our recent research, we looked at the dynamics at play across eight European universities with hybrid spaces – each of them operating research units funded by private industry backers while continuing to function as public universities.

Analysing the data and the feedback from key players in each university, we found there are three essential actions organisations need to take to make hybridity work for them.

First, they need to prioritise the dominant rationale of the organisation while making it work for the new audience. In other words, they have to stick to what they do best. For a university with an industry-funded research unit, this means bringing the academic way of working – the dynamics of research – into the unit and leading with that, as opposed to being led by the commercial needs of the funding company to win patents or make money.

Then they have to ensure the needs of both the mainstream and the incoming entities are met by mixing the way they work. This needs to be based on dialogue and a kind of iterative process that elucidates objectives and expectations as they hybridise activities and goals.

And finally, organisations working in hybrid spaces need to safeguard the interests of their own talent and resources. Researchers going into an industry-funded centre need to be permitted to pursue their own work ethics and methodologies – they need to be allowed to be academics.

Failing to take these three actions can lead to things unravelling fast.

No no no to Novartis

Take the case of the University of California at Berkeley. Back in 1999, the university signed a deal with pharmaceutical behemoth Novartis to fund research within the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology to the tune of $25 million. In exchange for the cash, Novartis was to have first dibs on licence negotiations for around a third of the department’s total scientific output. The company was also given two of five seats on the department’s research committee, the body that determines how money is spent.

The resultant outcry by Berkeley faculty about the deal’s potential to undermine the independence of academic science met echoing volleys from students and alumni. They circulated a petition decrying the Novartis deal for standing “in direct conflict with our mission as a public university”.

It seems likely that where Berkeley was going wrong was in overdoing the hybridisation: leaning too far towards the needs of their industry partner, while not doing enough to leverage their organisational rationale as a university.

Done right, hybrid spaces can yield all the benefits to be found in diversification: the dynamic combination of different strengths, foci and modus operandi. And there are plenty of examples of hybridity at work across public and private sectors: from universities with an industry-funded unit, to energy companies looking to build a community of researchers and push the boundaries on renewables, or even a for-profit consultancy operating within the UK’s National Health Service.

The rewards are there, so long as organisations are mindful of the pitfalls. And how to avoid them.

Read more

Markus Perkmann, Maureen McKelvey, and Nelson Phillips, “Protecting scientists from Gordon Gekko: How organizations use hybrid spaces,” Organization Science 2018.

Cross-posted at the Imperial College Business School blog.

Image: pxhere

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