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Academics working with industry: Opportunities and challenges

By Carmen E Lefevre, on 12 September 2016

By John Blythe, Research Associate at UCL Centre for Behaviour Change

If you work in academia or industry, you will have at some point heard about the benefits of collaborating with one another. This may have been through public engagement discussions or from your research and business department. Industry and academia are often seen as quite separate entities, where one is fast paced, organisationally driven, and the other is slow paced and research driven. Either way, knowledge transfer between the two is important for continued development of the sectors. Industry can play many important roles in academia such as acting in an advisory capacity, to participating in research projects or providing sponsorship for internships, research projects and knowledge transfer partnerships. In this blog post, I will be talking about my positive and negative experiences of working with industry for study participation.

My previous work has involved research into organisational psychology so understandably working with industry is part of what I do. Studying employee behaviour requires access to actual employees, and as such, the many difficulties and challenges that are associated with participant recruitment. The positive sides of using organisational samples is that you can have measurable impact by providing organisations with feedback reports of study findings which can be used to improve organisational practice. You are also given access to a real world samples and the opportunity to explore occupational behaviour in its natural setting. In an ideal scenario, you would be given access to many employees and those employees would be allowed to complete your study during working hours. Realistically, organisational recruitment is a difficult task and not one that we are necessarily trained to do (as psychologists anyway).  Limited time resources, restricted sample access or withdrawal from studies are just some of the many issues you may face.

My experience of working with industry has largely depended on the nature of the topic I am researching. When I have researched employee wellbeing, access to occupational samples has been relatively straightforward as it is often of interest to the organisation’s HR department. These departments often welcome this kind of research as it is in line with the strategic aims. However, for the last four years I have been exploring cyber security behaviour in organisations. This hasn’t been the easiest topic to recruit for. HR departments weren’t as interested in the topic as it is not something that was of the greatest concern to them, and often considered to be the problem of IT departments. I encountered greater interest and engagement from stakeholders when I worked with individuals from IT departments, but that often brought about new issues as they did not often have access or the authority to give me access to the employment samples. Furthermore, organisations do not want to be associated with poor cyber security practices which can often be identified in this kind of research, and this was an issue that hampered recruitment. You may remember the TalkTalk[1] or LinkedIn[2] breaches that have plagued the media in the last few years and the ultimate impact of this on their business reputations. Understandably these stories create concerns for companies. However, these reputational concerns can be alleviated through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Ultimately, the process of organisational recruitment requires perseverance and contingency planning to ensure timely completion of your project.

Here are some tips for aiding your organisational recruitment:

  1. Accessibility of your research – draft a research proposal, highlight benefits for taking part and make it easy to understand for your target audience
  2. Identify the right stakeholder – find the department most interested in your study findings or input
  3. Manage relationships – things happen a lot quicker in industry and by the time you have gone through the many research procedures, they may no longer be interested. Ensure timely updates and be transparent during initial contracting.
  4. Alleviating concerns – consider NDAs or any other contractual or legal issues such as intellectual property during initial stages if the topic is particularly sensitive to the organisation

Researchers, what tips do you have for working with industry? And those in industry, what are we researchers missing?


BIO: John is a Research Associate at the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change and conducts research on the interaction between work, technology and psychology. His previous research has focussed on changing employee cyber security behaviours, understanding users’ trust in e-health websites and exploring the links between employee engagement and occupational performance. Currently, he is investigating protective behaviours in the context of the Internet of Things as part of the PETRAS Hub (http://www.petrashub.org/). 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/feb/02/talktalk-cyberattack-costs-customers-leave

[2] http://fortune.com/2016/05/18/linkedin-data-breach-email-password/

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