For obvious reasons, businesses are rarely inclined to work closely with their competitors. The fear that rivals will discover R&D secrets, poach customers or infringe on their intellectual property (IP) makes most companies highly suspicious of working with "the enemy." 

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies ...

The idea of collaborating with rival firms would be anathema to many business leaders — and these rivalries often extend beyond pure economic protectionism into personal dislike.  

Take the long standing antagonism between Apple and Microsoft. Although Bill Gates said there was no need for forgiveness between himself and Steve Jobs back in 2011, the competition between the pair bordered at times on viciousness. Or how about the long running court cases between Apple and another competitor — Samsung — over patents and IP around their respective smartphones.  

Nevertheless, despite competition and the drive for profit, businesses have, on occasion, opened up to their competitors. 

Take Microsoft. In recent years it has opened up much of its once jealously held IP and products to third parties. The Office range is now freely available on Android and iOS, and under Satya Nadella, much source code for key products has been released for anyone, anywhere to edit as they please. Most recently, Microsoft released its source code for deep learning on GitHub.

From Ivory Towers to Wall Street 

Although businesses and research universities have fundamentally different goals and ways of working, they do share certain features in common. Just as businesses aim to attract the best employees in their respective fields, universities boost their prestige by hiring big name professors. 

University research departments are in a constant state of competition for funding for research projects, pitting them against universities in other cities and countries. Businesses compete against one another for market share. And of course universities want to boast the biggest and most significant discoveries in their field, just as businesses aim to produce the best products and services.  

The structure and history of many of the world’s leading campuses is long, bureaucratic and far removed from the world of enterprise in many ways. Nonetheless, there are many things they can learn from one another. In the case of collaboration, universities have a long history of inter-institutional cooperation (not to mention competition), and private companies could learn a lot from their experience.  

Why Collaborate with Competitors at All?  

In Europe, the ERASMUS program, named after Dutch philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam, who studied at a variety of the continent’s universities, has seen tens of thousands of students and professors spending semesters abroad throughout Europe since 1987 (your trusty correspondent did just this in Spain). Meanwhile, students and professors in the US have regularly travelled across the world on Fulbright scholarships since 1946, and UMAP has facilitated international study in the Asia-Pacific region since the early 1990s.  

Higher education institutions have a long history of "sharing" professors, sending them abroad to learn about new techniques, ideas and methods. A 2015 tome on the relationship between Italy’s Sapienza University of Rome and various institutions in the US and Canada reveals how one university’s staff were enormously enriched by working collaboratively for shorter or longer periods with their North American colleagues over a period of decades. 

The ability to share ideas in a whole range of disciplines meant all parties could expand their expertise and increase the number of discoveries they made.  

Similarly, three British universities — Cambridge, UCL and Royal Holloway — recently announced plans to work together on nanoelectronics. Each university had its own areas of specialism, unique hardware, and researchers who realized that working together would accelerate their ability to make new discoveries.  

The benefits to universities that share the knowledge of their own researchers is clear – by sending their people to work with colleagues abroad they hope that when they come back they will bring new insights. And unlike money-making business, science is (in theory, anyway) about advancing the common body of human knowledge for all.  

Yet collaboration between firms can bring successes. Just as Microsoft’s choice to open-source some of its source code reveals, firms are aware that in certain circumstances, collaboration can improve their own products. 

Let's get this straight — Microsoft didn't dump data on GitHub out of charity. As Wired reports, it knew open sourcing its products would hopefully encourage the development community to improve them.   

This kind of collaboration could be taken further, with businesses learning from one another to improve their respective output. If this sounds fanciful, consider the growing trend for companies to, on occasion, collaborate towards common goals. For instance, Refrigerants, Naturally! has seen Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Unilever come together to design refrigeration techniques that are better for the environment.  

Best Practice From Academia  

So what can businesses learn from universities? A good place to start is a paper by Dr. Joyce Czajkowski of Upper Iowa University. Czajkowski found that a growing number of institutions were enthusiastic about collaborating with other universities, yet lacked a model of best practices for doing so. Having carried out a literature review, she ranked the six most important factors for building a successful collaboration as follows: 

  1. Trust and partner compatibility  
  2. Common and unique purpose  
  3. Shared governance and joint decision making  
  4. Clear understanding of roles and responsibilities  
  5. Open and frequent communication  
  6. Adequate financial and human resources 

By incorporating these factors into their collaboration, universities could expect to have much better experiences when working with competing institutions. These categories should be embedded within the classic collaboration process model described by Barbara Gray (1989): 

1) the precondition stage where collaborators come together to form the relationship, 2) the process stage where collaborators interact and make decisions, and 3) the outcomes stage where collaborators assess the effectiveness of their efforts and adapt to change. 

Collaboration Can Make Business Sense

Of course, it’s not always going to be appropriate for businesses to collaborate, and a healthy dose of competition can spur an industry forward. Nonetheless, in certain circumstances, businesses can mutually benefit from working together. In these cases, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, when universities can offer a tried and tested model already.  

Title image by Found Animal Foundation via a CC BY SA 2.0 license