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Spanning boundaries agents – who are they and how to become one?

Imagine you are an academic working on hate speech. You realize that your research could change the way people interact online. But how do you get your work out there?

Or imagine your company hosts a popular online platform that has gone rampant with attacks on migrant communities. You are painfully aware that you should take action. But what action and on what grounds?

Spanning boundaries agents are intermediaries whose job it is to help solve these problems.

One of the gaps that exist between academic research and its potential uses is the lack of networks connecting academia and business. Companies lack awareness of what’s going on in academic research, and researchers are unaware of opportunities that business collaboration could offer for their research. And even with a will to co-operate, it is difficult to find suitable partners.

And more: once you find an organization that would be a good fit, who do you call?

There are other barriers too, such as lack of time, requirements for academic career advancement that prioritize publications, companies’ need to protect their IP, and different motivations and time horizons between academia and business. Sometimes funding – or the lack thereof – is the problem, and for businesses it may even be the biggest barrier to research collaboration.

Nevertheless, lack of people with knowledge of how things work on the “other side”, and the different languages and modes of communication across the academia/business divide make it difficult for knowledge to travel from academia to business – and vice versa.

As I have already argued, the solution is not that all academics become business savvy. So what is the solution?

Enter intermediaries – also known as spanning boundaries agents.

The name comes from the Spanning Boundaries Project, lead by the University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN) in Amsterdam. The project has put together a training program in knowledge exchange and partnerships to narrow the gap between academic knowledge and its practical uses. I had the privilege to take part in the second edition of the training program where we just had our final pitching event two weeks ago.

Our cohort of Spanning Boundaries trainees was a diverse lot from six countries across Europe.

Some of us were academics wanting to increase the impact of their own work. Many were professionals like myself, working in universities in all kinds of intermediary roles from external relations managers to experts in education and research development. Some came from companies seeking to increase their collaboration with universities.

But there were also those who had forged a path for themselves in the middle. This group included people working for intermediary organizations such as business incubators, ecosystem services, and collaboration platforms – some of which they had founded themselves – as well as those working as independent consultants.

So what do these spanning boundaries agents do? In a nutshell, they work at the intersection academia and the private, public, and third sectors and leverage their familiarity with different sectors to advance collaboration between them.

In practice, spanning boundaries agents raise awareness of the benefits of collaboration and keep tabs on their environment to identify specific opportunities and partners.

They bring people together to find and work on common concerns and support the development of joint research projects and educational initiatives. They act as translators, facilitating communication across organizational, cultural and linguistic differences. They maintain networks, act as liaisons, and motivate partners in the face of difficulties. They identify suitable funding instruments and help develop competitive funding applications. And they lend their expertise to negotiate and draft partnership agreements and help solve IP issues.

So how do you become an agent that knows how to span the boundaries between academic humanities and potential partner organizations? Short answer? By taking what you already know and building on it as you go.

Spanning boundaries agents from different backgrounds start with different skill sets.

Take me as an example. I have been involved in academia for what feels like forever – first as a student, then as an administrator, then as a doctoral researcher, and for the past 12 years as an academic professional and manager in various roles from research development to international partnerships. Somebody else may have similar experience from the business side of things, or from public or third sector organizations.

What is common to all spanning boundaries agents, though, is that wherever you start from, you need to be eager to learn from the “other side” – what kind of actors and organizations are out there, what is of interest to them, how do they think and feel, what motivates them, and what kinds of problems they are struggling with.

This is an on-going process, so it’s not like you can ever say there’s nothing more to learn. But to have a genuine interest in both sides is essential for being able to facilitate mutually beneficial collaborations.

After that, the skills you need are a fairly standard set of transferable or “soft” skills; capacity for strategic thinking and creative problem solving, skills in networking, project management, and communication, and ability to evaluate knowledge and its potential uses.

In addition – and depending on your specific interests – you might want to learn about specific knowledge transfer tools and activities, IP regulations and agreement negotiations, funding instruments and non-financial resources, or about the HR processes that are needed to put together a team in different sectors.

The Spanning Boundaries training course was a pilot that comprehensively covered the whole range of skills, but it’s all the time becoming easier to find other courses and conferences with similar – even if maybe narrower – focus. (Just as an example, the 2022 UIIN Conference is coming up in June in Amsterdam.)

Still, what I would like to see is that the boundary spanning skills were more and more integrated into doctoral and postdoctoral training across disciplines. Academia has room for a decreasing proportion of doctoral graduates, and for those looking for careers in other sectors, this skill set would be an invaluable asset. And for those yearning to stay in academia? I have a hunch that the skills listed above won’t be hurting their aspirations, either.

Original photo by Sami Anas from Pexels