“Who guards the guards?” – so goes the old saying. Companies can become very set in their ways, valuing stability over change and innovation. Indeed, they can become gatekeepers of the status quo and often that is where a KTP can really make a difference.
A KTP team (comprising 2 or more academics and a graduate, known as the KTP Associate, who is specifically appointed to lead a project) can bring fresh eyes on a stable situation, often a situation that needs to change. For those eyes to be clear and be able to reflect observation objectively, a process of triangulation can be vital. An Associate has one foot in the world of industrial and business practice, one foot in academia. The KTP academic team can provide an objectivity check for the Associate who becomes immersed in the problems and challenges of the organisation.
Often a company has reached a point where it is restless for change and innovation. It recognises that some aspects of the status quo are not serving the organisation. In a current KTP with Plastica Limited, Associate Sam Ekton is bringing new thinking, creativity and practical ideas to bear on new product innovation. Guided by the academic team, the KTP Associate scrutinises the traditional way of doing things, collects data, interrogates the situation and begins to experiment with “newness” – new practices, new philosophies, new product ideas.
Quickly the Associate becomes immersed in the situation and there’s a danger that this immersion degrades the useful external perspective that the Associate brings as a new outsider. That’s where regular check-ins with the university supervisors come in, who ensure knowledge is transferred by offering some guided reading, proposing strategies/methodologies, questioning assumptions and looking li for evidence to justify any interventions in the business. The academic perspective looks for logical action, for different perspectives, and for reflection on practice. I also personally benefit as I learn from what is unfolding and can take lessons and new ideas back into university practice – in my case, research and education – this being the intended academic outcome for any KTP.
That works less well when the Associate doesn’t experience the academic element as vital to maintaining objectivity and enhancing thinking with research. In our case, there’s a healthy dialogue between myself as KTP Lead Academic, Mark Milne (Senior Lecturer, School of Computing Engineering and Mathematics) as KTP Academic Supervisor and Sam as KTP Associate. Conversations are not always easy. We look for evidence and rationale to back up Sam’s intended challenges and interventions as an agent of change at Plastica. We ask tough questions and also confirm action with established ideas in the literature and our own research base. We help Sam to challenge the status quo and also his own assumptions. Sam, in turn, brings healthy disruption to established modes of thinking and practice in the company. Why do we still do things in that way? What if we changed this process and simplified it?
The disrupter, the shifter of mind sets, the Associate does not always get an easy ride from managers who sometimes guard the status quo for good reasons and do not want change for change’s sake. So, the Associate must prove his case, with a pilot project, establishing an evidence-based case for urgency, as well as some demonstrable quick wins.
So, the Associate brings challenge and ensures the guards aren’t guardians of ‘un-change’ for its own sake. The Associate disrupts in favour of needed innovation – to product and process. The wider academic team guards the Associate, deepening his or her thinking, encouraging objectivity, and ensuring that change is rooted in reason and makes sense for the company. The result? Discomfort. Frowns. But also bottom-line benefits, new capability and learning.
As a lead academic I particularly enjoy the discussion of ideas at the core of the Associate’s project. It is also rewarding to see beneficial change happening before my eyes. Communication is at its best when there is a healthy and regular flow of questions, ideas, concept challenge and practical suggestions, so it’s important to keep this going.
Sam and I have recently presented a paper together based on the early KTP work. A learning experience for both of us – ideal!
Paul Levy is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Research in Innovation Management (CENTRIM) at the University of Brighton.