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Are Knowledge Transfer Partnerships the answer to the UK’s productivity crisis?

As UK labour productivity levels continue to lag behind the rest of the G7, the CBI has published a new report outlining approaches for the British economy to raise its game. Among the recommendations of From Ostrich to Magpie is an increase in the number of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, or KTPs, collaborative programmes where academic thinking is applied to a specific business challenge.

KTPs have a long heritage in the UK and have enjoyed much success since their introduction. Traditionally, projects have largely been science and engineering orientated and there are many examples of graduates from these disciplines making significant and innovative contributions to their sponsoring companies.

Yet, innovation in terms of products or process has not historically posed a challenge for the UK, and it continues to perform well in this regard on the international stage. Many of the challenges that do face UK businesses in terms of productivity can be linked back to how they go about their day-to-day commercial activity. We have a technological edge; it is just not being applied in the right way.

This is where business schools can come in. There can be a perception that business academics and their research is not as relevant or vital as other disciplines, but this would be unfair. Institutions like Alliance Manchester Business School are pioneering the real-world application of new technology, helping it reach its full potential through academic research and projects such as KTPs.

The School is currently overseeing KTPs that involve machine learning, data analysis, big data, AI, and decision science capabilities. Through these projects, we are enabling our partner organisations to become more agile, data-empowered, and ultimately more intelligent businesses.

A perfect example of this is IPEC Ltd, a British company that develops world-leading technology for asset monitoring and testing in a number of sectors including, rail, energy and steel. Alliance Manchester Business School worked with IPEC on a two-stage KTP. The first involved the development of a new distributor management model, which is helping to drive efficiencies of its operations on a global scale and reach new markets.

The second saw the development of complementary services that could be sold alongside physical products, helping to create a definable new business area and open up new revenue streams. Within two years of the collaboration, IPEC’s turnover had doubled and the company was recognised with a Queen’s Enterprise Award for export growth.

Another recently launched KTP is with international law firm Kennedy’s, to develop and embed an intelligent fraud prevention and detection system for insurance claim handling. It will use a mix of both data-driven and knowledge-based approaches to support advanced decision making processes. The project has the potential to completely transform the fraud detection process, and significantly improve efficiency across the firm.

Business schools also have a role to play in bringing the mutually beneficial opportunities of KTPs to a wider audience. Firms of all sizes can benefit from strategic transformative projects underpinned by cutting-edge academic thinking and technology. At a time when the UK economy needs its businesses to be more productive and competitive, there has rarely been a better opportunity, for SMEs in particular, to adopt new models and processes and gain an edge.

Graduates get workplace experience and the chance to enact meaningful and impactful change at an early stage in their career. Leading transformation within any organisation is a rewarding challenge, and provides excellent career development opportunities. On completion of KTPs, many KTP associates have been offered permanent positions, continuing their good work for years to come.

Business schools can also benefit from KTPs, in particular learning from the application of academic theory in real-world scenarios. This can then support further research which in turn helps to improve future KTPs. It can also enhance interdisciplinary cooperation between departments across a university, something that is becoming more important all the time.

The recent announcement from Innovate UK that it will invest a further £30m into KTPs has proven to be very timely indeed. With more available funding for KTPs, it increases the opportunities for businesses, graduates and academics alike. However, more business schools need to take an active role in promoting the programmes to their students and local businesses, or STEM disciplines will likely to continue to attract the lion’s share of the funding.

KTPs can help solve the UK’s productivity conundrum, but only if business schools can prove the application of theory in the real world can make a real difference. That is no mean feat, but accomplishing this can also help to secure the long term legacy of business education in this country.