Breaking Down Silos: What universities can learn from corporate “liaison” roles

July 15, 2019

University technology transfer has been around for decades and is a mature function in most institutions. In contrast, corporate relations – defined as those offices that manage all company engagement and not only fundraising – is a relatively new field. In the vast majority of cases, these two offices are missing significant opportunities to perform better together.

Tech transfer and corporate relations have many needs in common, and yet in many institutions they are strangers to one another. Often the two offices have been developed separately, such that they operate on a mutually exclusive basis. They often sit in entirely different departments or offices, both physically and conceptually.

In addition, the role of corporate relations can be highly decentralized, in which each school within a university has its own corporate relations function. This environment leads to fewer lines of communication between offices, resulting in a raft of endemic problems: duplicative relationships with the same company, fuzzy or inconsistent messaging about the university and its mission, and miscommunication about resources or protocols. These problems leave companies uncertain about who to approach when they want to collaborate or establish partnerships, leading to missed opportunities. Due to the complexity involved, it would seem near-impossible to resolve such issues.

Yet we know the problem is tractable. Many large companies have already solved it.

Fortune 500 companies regularly engage in silo-building, on a scale that dwarfs most universities. Imagine a large corporation where two teams have partnered with an outside firm – let’s call it Company A – to develop a new product for advanced analytics. Another two teams are doing research together on cutting-edge cell imaging technologies, also in partnership with Company A. Meanwhile, a separate cohort is negotiating an agreement with Company A to open an innovation hub together. Two more teams are discussing a joint approach with Company A to work with startups and form external partnerships. Finally, somewhere else in the organization, sales is busy selling product to Company A. However, none of the teams are aware of the others’ activities. Such scenarios are common across the corporate world. Without oversight, the relationship with Company A would likely fail – a victim of channel conflict, exploding inefficiency, or outright confusion.

Recognizing this issue, company executives know to employ one of several strategies for proper communication and governance. The most essential strategy is to designate a single point of contact for all communication with each of their corporate partners. Company executives mandate that everyone must operate within these channels, working directly with the designated "liaisons." Although the “single point of contact” can be an individual or a team of people, all communications with the partner run through them.

This model is then replicated for every partner the company has a significant relationship with. These “gatekeepers” are often located within the sales team or are assigned as “liaisons” within the business development team. They own these relationships as their “accounts” – which often come with performance metrics and incentives attached. They are required to stay abreast of everything that is happening with their accounts. It is their responsibility to help the company succeed across its business objectives with each partner account.

These liaisons are not meant to be hindrances. Indeed, if they do their job well, liaisons are invaluable to success on every front. They get to know their accounts inside and out. They read their SEC reports, they set up RSS feeds, and they stay on top of all joint activities and priorities. The point here is that whenever a team wants to engage with Company A, they know exactly who to contact to help initiate the conversation. This setup is designed to simplify the process of doing business between companies.

Now let’s compare that with what happens in many large universities. Imagine that a university’s office of tech transfer is working on a licensing and sponsored research agreement with an engineering team at Company A. Philanthropic giving is working on a joint sponsorship project with Company A’s R&D team. Company A is also actively recruiting students for jobs and internships within the business school, as well as rolling out a teaching program in the computer science department of the school. The same company is now actively working with at least four different schools and offices in the university. Unlike the corporate example, in most scenarios, nobody within the university is aware that all of these activities are occurring with the company.

Universities and corporations operate with core missions that are fundamentally different. But their operating structures and process needs can be surprisingly analogous. Universities can learn from companies by creating a similar “liaison” or “gatekeeper” role. In fact, some offices have begun to use this setup with a “one-stop shop” strategy or concierge service with their corporate relations offices. If your institution wants to get the maximum benefit from your corporate relations and tech transfer offices, you would do well to consider such an approach as well.

Interested in continuing the discussion? Schedule a meeting to learn how we can help your office and university see all the doors that are being opened across the university and track the many company relationships within your organization.



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