On the 9th October, the Technology Strategy Board is hosting Innovate ’09 at the Business Design Centre in London. I’m going to be there with some people I met through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and BBC Knowledge Exchange Programme which ran between the Summers of ’07 and ’08. We will be presenting some knowledge exchange stories – attempting to share our experiences from the programme. What worked? What didn’t? How should collaborations between academia and public service institutions be organised? How could we advise others considering going down this path?
My task is to visually map the connections I have made, both between the research team and the BBC journalists we were working with, but also the connections we managed to facilitate within the BBC. That’s not because we had special ‘connecting’ skills, but speaks to the silo mentality which develops in all large institutions, and how the simple addition of an outside pair of eyes, sees obvious connections and odd non-sensical divides.
Having no agenda (eg. no budget, no objectives to meet, no previous awkward exchanges at meetings) when walking into a room of people is strangely empowering. You can say things – make observations and even make suggestions, which might be unthinkable from someone inside the institution.
‘Consultancy’ has almost become a dirty word – too much money to state the obvious. But the truth is that the perspective of the outsider will always have real merit. I would just like to see more academics playing the role of ‘consultant’, although we need a new label. Whereas highly paid consultants from plush Soho offices can make a difference, the relationship feels one sided. For academics, having real world experience of the industries about which they write and undertake research is hugely powerful. For every presentation I’ve given at the BBC where I’ve heard ideas and suggestions, the experiences from within the room were continuously revealing, always forcing me to re-evaluate the theoretical learning I was drawing upon.
My knowledge exchange story, which will be told through a visual mapping of connections, is a story of personal relationships. Knowledge Exchange will always be limited if it is based on written reports and PowerPoint presentations. Real knowledge exchange involves people sitting alongside one another, talking, sharing and asking the most obvious questions. Throughout my 6 months on a knowledge exchange secondment, I had countless conversations with people across all departments, learning how many people were interested in similar issues and trying to find solutions to similar problems. More often than not, whenever I asked ‘ have you spoken to Bob from x department’, the follow up was ‘who’s Bob’?
All organisations are searching for the perfect internal communications strategy/best technological tools for collaboration. An outsider’s eye, without any knowledge of boundaries, divisions, internal politics or budget can work wonders. Higher Education has to find a way to make this way of undertaking research common place, rather than filing it away under ‘innovation’.