What happens when you put teams of businesses and academics in a room together for five hours? A lot! With the right workshop design.

Over the past year FutureEverything have designed and facilitated a series of workshops for the University of Manchester, aimed at building academic and industry collaboration.

In 2015 the Faculty of Humanities agreed a new Business Engagement Strategy, with the aim of achieving a step change in its relationship with the business community and the enhancement of research-led engagement.

As part of this strategy, the Faculty’s Business Engagement team organized industry engagement days. These days were effective in increasing the profile of its expertise and research amongst the business community and generating academic-business conversations on the day. However, the conversion into tangible follow-ups in the form of collaborative projects was often lacking.

Although business cards were exchanged on the day and follow-up emails sent, further conversations often failed to materialise, partly due to the busy schedules of the people involved.

The Faculty wanted a way to not only introduce academics and businesses to each other, but also facilitate the conversations that were vital to producing concrete ideas for projects.

This is where FutureEverything got involved. Our expertise in participatory design, meant that we were skilled in getting groups of people to work together on problems in order to design solutions.

FutureEverything’s knowledge sharing workshop

We set about designing a workshop that would last a few hours and enable one or two representatives from a business and three of four academics to:

  1. define a business problem
  2. rapidly generate numerous possible solutions
  3. identify the most viable solution to take forward as a collaborative project

We ask each business to arrive at the workshop with one or two problems they would like to solve with help from the academics. The goal of the first activity is to define the problems in a simple sentence that everyone understands and then pick a problem to work on.

Next we do an activity to generate many different ideas for possible solutions. The idea here is to think broadly and note any flashes of inspiration, without stopping to consider how feasible they are.

We then do some activities to identify which of these ideas is the one that should be taken forward. We assign ideas to a matrix to work out how feasible they are and how effective they are. We then ask team members to vote, in an activity what we call ‘dotmocracy’.

Iterative improvements to the workshop format

We have now run three of these workshops for the University of Manchester and after each one have taken learnings and applied them to the next.

For example, the first workshop was designed to last a full day but for many of the participants, giving up a full day was unfeasible. They therefore arrived at lunch time or left early. This disrupted the sequential nature of the workshop activities, meaning that the half they experienced was of little value. For the second workshop we decide to reduce the schedule to fit into an afternoon (5 hours) and require all participants to attend the full workshop.

The value of university-industry collaboration

As shown in this video, there is value for both academics and businesses.

Academics gain an insight into the commercial sector and hear about problems and processes that they would otherwise not have been exposed to.

For example in our most recent workshop, which focused on the theme of data analytics, the company Peak brought a problem relating to Google Adwords – a tool used by businesses to run their Google advertising campaigns. It’s a tool most-used in the commercial world but during the workshop, academics were exposed to it for the first time and were able to apply their expertise to it.

Likewise, businesses benefit from high-level expertise which may not be available among their own employees or consultants. Also in our most recent workshop, BUPA were working on how to improve customer experience on their website. Although BUPA already have an in-house team dedicated to this, the workshop allowed them to gain a fresh perspective on the issue.

Businesses also benefited from an opportunity to gain funding at the end of the day, by pitching a project idea to a judging panel which included the Associate Dean of Business Engagement for the Faculty of Humanities.

Work with us

If you are a university or higher education provider and you would like FutureEverything to facilitate a knowledge sharing workshop at your institution, please contact info@futureeverything.org or view this page to find out more.