“A meeting of minds between academia and industry” – the benefits of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships

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Research and innovation

John Parkin is an Industry Strategy Manager within the University of Leeds’ Research and Innovation Service.

Exterior of Leeds University Business School Innovation Centre

Michael Park takes a sip of coffee and a broad smile spreads over his face. I have just asked him how he thinks he is regarded within the company he works for, Southerns Office Interiors (Yorkshire) Limited – usually referred to as just ‘Southerns’. “In a way,” he says, “I am the company’s R&D department. At least once a week people ask me, ‘Is it possible to do this?’ and most of the time, the answer is, ‘yes!’”

Michael is a KTP Associate – which means he works on a government-supported Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Southerns and Leeds University Business School. Having graduated with a Masters in Strategic Management from the Business School in 2015, Michael was recruited by the partnership on a 30-month project to develop Supply Chain Management expertise at a crucial period of rapid growth in the company; using systems and tools to enhance the efficiency of the existing business and create additional new business opportunities through the provision of managed services. As an SME at the start of the partnership, Southerns benefits from 67% of project costs being paid by the government through its innovation agency, Innovate UK.

Southerns is a highly successful furniture, fittings and equipment (FF&E) supplier. The Bramley-based business has seen a lot of change since the early days of pitching for business from cold calls; now Southerns submits multi-million pound tenders across health, education, corporate, retail and other sectors in the UK and internationally. With the recent introduction of its innovative “Total” managed service, it is leading the market in new FF&E supply options for large corporate buyers.

“The KTP has had a significant impact on our business,” says Tim Worne, Managing Director of Managed Services at Southerns. “Michael is a high calibre individual, a self-starter who works well within our team and someone who continues to make a very positive contribution across all areas of our business. A KTP comes as a package. Not only do we have Michael working within our business, we also benefit from the additional value that comes through the support we receive through our regular interaction with Professor Chee Yew Wong at Leeds University Business School and the wider KTP team.”

Such growth and change presents new challenges internally. As Michael points out, business processes designed for winning small one-off contracts from cold may not suit large tenders and managed services. In seeking to bring practical yet evidence-based change to the business, Michael seems to be naturally inclined to go the extra mile; as he demonstrated when presented with the challenge of integrating Southerns’ purchasing systems across the multi-tiered supply chain.

“At my interview for the job I was asked if I could use Excel. Of course that was no problem! But once I had been at Southerns for a while it became clear that the best way to actually implement the changes I was suggesting involved coding. So I learned how to code in my spare time – in the evenings – and then implemented that at work.”

Michael’s story is not unique; successful KTP Associates often display the ability to adapt to context and adopt a proactive approach. KTPs are a meeting of minds between academia and industry – created to solve a strategic challenge faced by the business – and this often results in highly creative thinking.

The learning from KTPs can also give rise to new research ideas for the university; but the motivation to be involved goes beyond self-interest for Michael’s academic supervisor, Professor Chee Yew Wong. “Having been involved in several KTP projects as a Knowledge Base Supervisor”, he says, “it is rewarding to see we are able to help local organisations to become more competitive by collaborating with academics”, hinting at the wider benefits of the Higher Education sector fostering an open innovation culture.

Nationally, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships have been a phenomenal success for industry. Studies have shown that, on average, a KTP results in a £600,000 per year increase in pre-tax profits for the three years following completion of the project, and a £650,000 per year increase in exports over the same period, as well as the creation of two new jobs and the training of 20 staff.

Michael is clear in his own mind as to where those kind of results come from: “The real benefit of the KTP is that I'm embedded in the business - if you're an academic or a consultant you visit for maybe a month, but when you're sitting in the organisation on a day-to-day basis you see the tiny details that could prevent processes or systems from changing and this enables you to better pitch the changes you need to make. You're changing things from the inside.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.