We’re missing a trick in training and retaining tech transfer practitioners, argues Mark Mann who’s been trialling a new approach in the UK and the Czech Republic.

Mark Mann

It has been a busy 2022 so far and a significant proportion of my time has been spent training fellow knowledge exchange professionals in all the peculiar new stuff I have been doing over the last few years: arts, humanities and social sciences commercialisation, with a bit of social venture stuff thrown in.

I’ve now been training in this space for five years. I love it, particularly when I’m doing it in person because of the energy you can get in a room and being able to read the body language whilst you are doing it is useful feedback which you can act on during delivery. Online training is necessary too – with the pandemic, caring responsibilities and budgets, people just don’t have the ability to travel – so I am glad that courses continue to be offered online in a way that they weren’t before the pandemic began. I do think, overall, you get a better, more useful experience in person.

I do, however, think we are missing a trick. There are two aspects to doing the job of knowledge transfer.

The first is what is currently provided in training: the theory, intellectual property, investment, engaging with academics, businesses, markets and so on. I generally find the more practical and case study-driven this is, the more people get out of it.

The second side I would describe as working from within your own institution. Each institution has a different organisation structure, set of policies and culture. I haven’t found an effective way to teach this unless all trainees work for the same institution. Yes, there are standard approaches which can be applied across institutions, but only when you are trying to transfer a project from your own institution amidst the benefits and frustrations of your own situation do you develop the tools to do it over and over again. Case studies from other institutions are often irrelevant to your own context.

The training organisations we have operating in the sector provide (and are asked for) plenty of the first, but there is very little of the second, and I don’t think you can be an effective knowledge transfer manager without both. You might say “but isn’t that what your manager is for? Surely, they can teach you how to navigate something through your own institution?” My answer to that is, it can often be the case that your senior leadership provide some of the barriers to you successfully doing the job they have asked you to do, and it is that leadership that commissions training in the first category, but not the second.

And this is the core of yet another whingy article: virtually all the people I trained before the pandemic have left and are doing something completely different. The training was, essentially, pointless.

There are many reasons for this. The primary reason is that far too many people are placed on short-term contracts, particularly when experimenting with new lines of business like social sciences commercialisation. Contracts end, clearly not much is achieved as the contract was too short, funding is wound up and people look for other opportunities. A secondary reason, I expect, is that too many people, though trained in the first aspect of knowledge transfer, are not trained in the second. As a consequence, they become frustrated and unfulfilled and they leave.

It takes a long time to train up a knowledge transfer professional, but we have to be conscious of the fact that short-termism isn’t going to change. “We’re a poor university and we’re a charity and we have to be careful with budgets and recruitment” is here to stay, so we are going to have to speed things up.

The solution, for me, is mentorship. There are also two parts to this.

The first is that individuals need advice from the old warhorses from other institutions who have learned the tricks of the trade and who you can go to for advice on projects. This could be formal, informal and not very time-consuming. When you get stuck, having someone you can call upon with whom you can speak freely and plot would be a useful resource for everyone to have.

The second is mentorship of teams. You bring your whole knowledge transfer teams together with some key academics and experienced externals and solve problems in their own institutions but spread thinly over a few months or perhaps even a year or two. This way you can deal with culture, structure and policy together, focusing on live issues and achieving results.

And I think that training and mentorship should be results-driven. Staff are often not there for long, so time is short. It is only the successes which will drive continued investment in staff and resources, so the more success you have, the more institutional memory you are creating for successful, sustainable knowledge transfer.

Do I have evidence of this? For me it is still early days. I have been working with two universities, one in the Czech Republic, one in the UK, alongside Christoph Koeller and his team at Goergen & Koeller, delivering a programme which we call “The Case” where we bring knowledge transfer teams and academics together to work on a promising live project to push it along at optimum speed. The whole team is trained so you can get institutional memory, and the academics are trained alongside them so they know what to expect and can answer precise questions about what the knowledge being transferred is. The ARC accelerator uses the lean canvas, again with knowledge transfer managers working alongside academics, as a tool to push a project on quickly. The energy you get in these mentorship sessions far surpasses the energy I have had working with examples from other institutions. Context is everything.

So, let’s still do formalised training – there are things everyone needs to learn – and find more mechanisms for effective mentorship to build institutional memory with a focus on results.

Mark Mann is the managing director of his own knowledge transfer and strategic innovation consultancy which provides a variety of services and advice across the UK and Europe. You can reach him at mail@markmann.org.uk.