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Balancing Act or Bridging Cultures?
June 6, 2011 - 10:15am

What makes for a successful collaboration with a corporate partner? Although academic institutions are historically risk-averse, more and more universities are searching for ways to officially partner with private corporations both locally and globally. Last week’s sessions at the NAFSA11 conference for international education were filled with references to the growth of these partnerships.

I attended a session co-presented by Shirlayne Quayle, University of Utah; John LaBrie, Northeastern University; and Larry Green, Kaplan Global Solutions. The session was titled -- Balancing Act: Innovative and Successful University-Private Sector Partnerships-- and although each presenter gave a brief overview of their institution/company, the real heart of the talk focused on how to make these partnerships work.

All three agreed that one of the toughest challenges in these partnerships involves bridging the divide between the two distinct cultures. Depending on the context, the differences between academic and corporate cultures can be stark. This becomes painfully obvious when it comes to communication styles and operational processes. The shared governance model at universities often stresses consensus building, which takes time and tends to meander rather than follow any recognizable sort of straight line from point A to B. One slide presented two images representing academic culture: a maze and a snail. The counterpart to this stereotype came in a short video clip portraying the private sector he-man partner as a sword-wielding Conan the Barbarian type. Those of us in the audience laughed in acknowledgement upon recognizing a bit of truth in both sets of images.

I have worked with corporate partners at several institutions and I have also been the person responsible for bridging the two cultures. This is challenging work. At times, academic and corporate cultures can seem like they are coming from completely different worlds. The key to success is in finding folks in the academic institution who are better equipped to deal with the fast pace and direct communication style of the corporate world and folks in the private sector who have more patience for round about explanations, academic monologues, and the “academic snobbery” that Nigel Thrift referenced in an earlier session. The real fireworks happen when you get those individuals closer to the extremes represented by the stereotypes together in one room: the faculty member who has no interest in ever working with a corporate partner, regardless of the qualifications and the private sector manager who sees working with academic institutions as a waste of time and money.

Those of us trying to make these partnerships work have to make sure that the right players are in the room and that those of us who want to make it work are the strong voices in the meetings. This is political work and it has to be strategic rather than haphazard. I think this is especially important for readers at University of Venus. Those of us who are more flexible in our attitudes and who are able to translate from one culture to another are often brought into these conversations and it’s important to remember that we are being brought in because someone thinks we can make it work.

Like anything else in academia or business, these partnerships require finesse, commitment to success, and a shared vision. They are both a balancing act and a bridging of cultures, two practices at which those of us at University of Venus excel.


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