Understanding the role of conferences for industry-university collaborations

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Industry-university collaborations have been acknowledged as a crucial mechanism for innovation in knowledge-based economies. However, ties between the industry and university sectors is relatively weak globally and especially in Australia. Governments wish to encourage links between industry and universities, and measures to encourage these links are central to innovation agendas at state and national levels in Australia and worldwide. Conferences are highly valued by many academics and practitioners as an informal knowledge transfer channel between industry and universities. Research indicates that the informal communication established at conferences may provide opportunities for the establishment of more formal collaborations between academics and practitioners. However, limited academic attention has been paid to understanding how conferences influence the establishment and maintenance of collaborative relationships between academics and practitioners. Researchers have begun exploring the value of conferences for thriving knowledge-based economies, such as their potential to generate new knowledge and facilitate collaboration. However, extant academic literature mainly focuses on firm-to-firm interactions in the context of conferences and offers very little detail when it comes to academic-practitioner interactions. It is difficult to facilitate such interactions at conferences without knowing the current state and characteristics of existing interactions. Based on the Interaction Approach and Relationship Learning theory, this study has explored the current state of interactions between academics and practitioners at conferences and factors that influence their interactions at conferences. A qualitative methodology was adopted, and data were collected using semi-structured interviews with academics, practitioners, partnership managers, and government agency staff who have attended conferences that offer industry-academia engagements. The findings of this study show that conferences do play an important role in facilitating industry-university collaborations, especially for the initiation stage of a collaboration. However, the level of engagement between practitioners and academics at conferences was found to be limited. Academics were motivated to learn from practitioners when attending conferences, but practitioners did not show a similar interest in learning from academics. Furthermore, this study identified several factors that influence academic-practitioner interactions at conferences. The study contributes to a theoretical extension of interaction theory and relationship learning theory, and it enriches current understanding of knowledge transfer between industry and university at conferences. Practically, this research has policy implications for improving Australia’s national innovation system, as well as practical implications for industry, universities, and conference organizers who wish to leverage the valuable legacies associated with industry-university collaboration.
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