Specialising research through organisation

No matter what name they may go by (Research Centre, Technological Park, Research Co-operative, Technological Corporation, etc.), research institutions outside university circles are playing, and continue to play, a vital role in innovation systems throughout many European regions and countries.

By their very nature, they currently face the challenge of forging links with industry whilst creating cutting-edge knowledge by applying scientific methods, but by employing management logics which differ from those of traditional academia. In this way, both their potential business users and their political backers are becoming acutely aware of the relevance, and of the future needs of such centres.

In their day-to-day affairs these research institutions seek balance in a world of dichotomies: public vs. private ownership; basic science vs. applied technology; confidentiality vs. shared knowledge; local focus vs. global ambition; large business partners vs. a cloud of small clients; gradual vs. radical innovation. Managing this “existential conflict” requires sound strategy, conviction and solid organisational models which protect research work while creating a lasting perception of value.

These institutions generally tend to resolve their organisational challenges by choosing one of two alternative structures: 1) specialisation in technologies, and; 2) specialisation in markets. In the first case, specialising in technologies promotes the creation and evolution of scientific capabilities (or innovative technologies) for whatever use which may be required; whereas specialising in markets focuses on resolving critical short and long-term problems in specific sectors.

On the one hand, in the first case, specialising in technology allows the creation of a variety of critical masses in specific disciplines while offering possibilities in advancing technical knowledge, attracting talent and multiplying profit. Furthermore, the perception of value is enhanced by the availability of multiple sectors and target companies.

Nonetheless, this model must pay particular attention to two key aspects: the management of cross-over and multidisciplines (either within or outside the centre itself); and the search for market applications allowing transfer and turning research findings into potential value. This model is employed by such centres as the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology, or the Max Planck Institute, among others.

In the second case, on the other hand, specialising in markets facilitates the convergence of technologies, indispensable in our world today. As a result, specific problems are resolved from a multifaceted point of view, increasing the probability of generating radical innovations with immediate application; critical to this equation is contact with the market, creativity and anticipation.

Those centres opting for this type of organisation are putting all their proverbial chips on being the benchmark in a given sector, and must therefore prove themselves to be valuable partners for most industry players. The real challenge, though, lies in gaining real access to a target market large enough to support its activity. This is how large research institutions focus their own development. Two good examples are the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the National Research Council Canada (NRC).

Just as with business management, various organisational alternatives could lead to success. The two options mentioned above have already been applied with success in a number of international research centres. Whatever choice is made, it remains essential that the organisational structure accompany a strategic response which is solid and coherent with available technical capabilities, while focusing and adapting it to the target market.

*Published in the Estrategia 2013 RD&i Supplement

Manu Vizán

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