But it's possible for businesses to take more of a lead. As head of strategic university research at BT, it is Jeff Patmore's job to work with educational institutions to forge better links.
Patmore is in discussions with many seats of learning, but perhaps the closest relationship he manages is the one BT has built up with Cambridge University in the UK and MIT in the US.
Here are some of the benefits for businesses of working with academia:
- Get projects done. BT delivers real problems for postgraduate and MBA student groups to solve. Past projects have included tariff schemes for new products, opening up new business overseas and internal process changes. Patmore observes these projects are part of a wider course and so have a development cycle of only a few months before the results have to be delivered. This provides a very short turnaround for BT.
- Recruit staff. Head-hunting gifted students is not the objective of these relationships, but people have been hired as a result of working with the company on a course project. The advantage is both parties have a chance to get to know each other and will be sure that the hire is what they want, even before the recruitment process has started.
- Refresh your company's ideas. BT is a corporate monolith where it's common for people to work there for decades, if not for the whole of their working lives. That means there is a danger of entrenched, blinkered thinking that could leave the company vulnerable to smaller, more nimble competitors. Working with people who are outside the corporate culture allows BT access to leftfield thinking that promotes innovation.
- Mentoring. Part of BT's ongoing relationship with universities and business schools is an arrangement whereby senior academics look after junior BT execs and senior BT staff advise students. BT's executives develop in a more rounded way and it complements the company's internal mentoring programme. The result is more capable and satisfied employees. It's also another weapon against entrenched ways of thinking.