Long-term innovation outcomes of university-industry collaborations: the role of ‘bridging’ vs ‘blurring’ boundary spanning practices

This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi, Dr Muthu de Silva, Dr Ning Baines and Dr Ainurul Rosli

Companies usually collaborate with universities in the context of specific projects where they set out to achieve well-defined, often short term objectives. However, the literature on university-industry collaborations (UICs) has shown that these collaborations frequently end up affecting the companies’ long-term innovation strategies. In our study recently published in the British Journal of Management (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8551.12449), we have analysed how a company’s participation in a UIC affects its engagement in long-term exploitative innovation (where the company builds upon the knowledge developed during the UIC using internal knowledge resources) and in the exploration of new innovation pathways (where the company integrates the knowledge developed during the UIC with further new external knowledge). Particularly, we focus on the process of boundary spanning between university and company staff, distinguishing between two possible approaches: (A) a bridging approach that entails the adoption of formal and structured routines and communication procedures and (B) a blurring approach that involves the adoption of informal practices to de-emphasise boundaries between organisations.

The empirical evidence from our study comes from the “Knowledge Transfer Partnership” university-industry collaboration scheme, implemented in the United Kingdom since 2003, with funding from fifteen government organisations led by the public innovation agency, InnovateUK.

The analysis of our data suggests that the bridging approach is significantly associated with exploitative innovation, and its relationship with exploratory innovation is not significant. By contrast, the blurring approach is significantly associated with exploratory innovation, and its relationship with exploitative innovation is not significant. The qualitative evidence provides reasons for these relationships. It is evident that the use of bridging approach, which involves a structured relationship with clear communication channels, facilitates the acquisition of academic knowledge by the company, which can then build on it to improve its internal processes. It also allows the business and academic partners to closely monitor the progress of the project, so that it can be kept on track to ensure the achievement of its objectives. After the end of the UIC, the company continues to build on these successful outcomes using its own knowledge resources. Instead, the use of a blurring approach is more likely to lead to outcomes that go beyond the project objectives and that are of value to future collaborations. This encourages the company to develop further collaborations to integrate knowledge developed during the UIC with other external knowledge. They also help to build trust, increase co-operation, and improve relationship stability, which in turn facilitate further external collaborations. Hence, companies should carefully consider how they organise boundary spanning practices within their UIC in view of their long-term innovation objectives.

Additionally, we demonstrate that the choice of boundary spanning approach depends on the participants’ previous experience; in particular, that boundary spanning approaches act as mediators between the types of experience and the nature of innovation. The adoption of a bridging approach is more likely if the company has previous experience of internal knowledge creation. In fact, business partners with strong capabilities in internal knowledge creation already possess routines for research that they do not have to modify when using the bridging approach, and they also have structured knowledge sharing practices that can be replicated in their UICs. The adoption of a blurring approach is more likely if the company has previous experience of co-creating knowledge with external partners. In fact, having knowledge co-creation experience leads the collaborators to adopt those similar informal practices that have worked well in previous collaborations. It also facilitates the development of direct, peer-to-peer relationships, which leads to an ongoing, non-hierarchical and open flow of communication.

How to achieve long term innovation through UICs?

Our study offers some implications for practice and policy. If collaborators wishing to adopt a bridging approach lack internal knowledge creation experience, they might need some training in how to appropriately to structure collaborative relationships. If collaborators wishing to adopt a blurring approach lack prior experience of knowledge co-creation, they might need to be offered greater opportunities to build a close working relationship with external partners. Training, coaching and support should be put in place to encourage participants in UIC schemes to adopt the appropriate boundary spanning practices in order to increase their UIC’s long-term innovation outcomes. Even applicants to these schemes could receive training and support in order to better understand how to select the most appropriate partners and implement the most appropriate boundary spanning approaches in their UICs to achieve specific outcomes. Finally, when evaluating proposal application and assessing performance and impacts, it would be important to consider the potential and achievement of long-term exploitative and exploratory innovation. 

To read our full results, please see our study: Rossi, F., De Silva, M., Baines, N. and Rosli, A (2020) Long-term innovation outcomes of university-industry collaborations: the role of ‘bridging’ vs ‘blurring’ boundary spanning practices. British Journal of Management  

The paper can be downloaded from this link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8551.12449