We commissioned RMIT University researchers to undertake one of Australia’s largest-ever small to medium enterprises (SME) surveys. Over 800 SME leaders gave insights into their approach to research and development (R&D) collaboration. SME Collaboration Nation Lead, Dr George Feast, says such an in-depth look at the experience of Australian SMEs in working with researchers has never been done before.
Interviewing for innovation
SMEs are an incredibly important part of our economy. They employ the majority of Australia’s population and account for 99.8 per cent of all our businesses. The ability of an SME to progress innovation and growth is immense and doing so has great outcomes for our economy.
Australia has excellent R&D capabilities, but SME-research collaboration rates are relatively low – only five per cent – so if we can understand what works, we have a better chance of seeing these rates rise.
Our Chief Executive Larry Marshall explained the importance of this research, “By understanding the research and development needs of SMEs, our goal as Australia’s innovation catalyst is to help facilitate connections with research to help SMEs grow, gain a competitive advantage, and thrive.”
Communication is key
Survey participants were asked to indicate from a list what the top collaboration enablers were from their experience. The highest-ranking enablers included: communication, having good relationships, having a facilitator, familiarity with collaborating and matching business needs with research capability.
These responses reflect the importance of the practical aspects of collaborating for SMEs. Having access to clearly defined people with whom to establish contact also scored high as a collaboration enabler. This further illustrates the importance of the practical aspects of collaboration for SMEs to engage with the process.
The importance of a facilitator
The key thread that appeared across much of the survey data was the reflection on the role of the facilitator in collaboration ease.
When interviewed, both the research institution staff and SME staff highlighted facilitators as key to collaboration success. They identified benefits of a good facilitator as;
- Helping SMEs to identify their research needs
- Providing information, namely funding opportunities
- Connecting SME and researchers
- Guiding SMEs through administrative processes
- Supporting communication and relationships
- Clarifying IP concerns
- Assisting with project management.
SME interviewees were especially appreciative of facilitators’ efforts, explaining that the collaboration either would not have happened without them or that it would have taken much longer.
Additionally, a good facilitator helps SMEs and researchers reach outcomes that satisfy the objectives of both parties. A known key barrier to successful collaboration is failing to align expectations, which is why a good facilitator is so important.
Furthermore, facilitators also help in simplifying parts of the collaboration process. This includes navigating research institutions internal structures.
We have a national SME Connect team that has helped facilitate and foster many great SME collaborations and relationships. Through this team, we have helped more than 1,000 SMEs grow by providing access to cutting edge research, facilitation and expertise.
What’s stopping collaboration?
Barriers for collaboration tended to be relationship-focused, with trust and mutual commitment to projects a key concern.
Other barriers identified specifically by SMEs included: being unfamiliar with university research and uncertain about the value of research; SME staff being cautious about outsider involvement and less open to other possible solutions; previous bad collaboration experiences; and general mistrust and scepticism of URIs.
SMEs were generally very positive about their collaboration experiences which is worth noting. This suggests that participants believed that the benefits they gained outweighed any difficulties experienced.
Many SMEs who were interviewed, were in fact moving towards their next engagement with researchers, creating what we hope to see as a movement of ‘serial collaborators’. That is, SMEs continuing to build their R&D capacity and boosting their growth through investment in collaboration.
Understanding the barriers and boosting the enablers are very important. Doing so helps our nation improve innovation and technology adoption, for real industry growth.
RMIT, QUT and our researchers are now looking to develop a ‘collaboration readiness scale’. This could help clarify where potential industry partners are at and the likely support required to collaborate with researchers.
We are developing an SME mission that aims to lower the barriers for SMEs to access Australian research and development expertise to support their growth.
2nd July 2021 at 5:27 pm
Australian SMEs are generally reluctant to collaborate, as seen in the failure of several government business network development programs in the past. Also, many universities do research that is far too sophisticated for many SMEs to use. An AIFST Student Postgrad night in Brisbane some 7-8 years ago attracted very few business people, mainly I suspect as the research presented had no interest to them. Far too sophisticated.