Industry-Sponsored Research Week
University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Metrics can play a significant role when evaluating success of partnerships

By David Schwartz
Published: May 11th, 2021

A detailed article on the utility and limitations of metrics for evaluating active industry partnerships appears in the April issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

Can you “measure” the success of your U-I partnerships? To a degree, you certainly can, say the experts. Universities and their industry partners employ a variety of metrics to help determine the strength of existing relationships and the projects in which they’ve collaborated. Quantitative measures can indicate the relative success of sponsored research projects, student hires by partners, capstone project results, satisfaction among industry partners, faculty and students, and much, much more.

“Metrics provide great and useful data point parameters,” said Robert Garces, head of strategic innovation (U.S.) with EMD Serono, a panelist in the “Metrics for Evaluating U-I Partnerships” session held during UIDP Virtual 2021.

“We use a CRM and a dashboard; we measure what’s black and white,” adds Jack Ellenberg, associate vice president in the Office of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at Clemson University.

However, they caution, metrics will never tell the entire story of a partnership. Other factors, such as the strength of personal relationships between partners, are also critical in making those determinations — and far more difficult to measure.

“There are additional factors, like how responsive is the other side to questions, [what is their] feedback, how good is our project fit to what they perceive their needs are. If they do not really fit, it will probably not be a good partnership,” noted Garces.

“To me, people are the critical part,” adds Ellenberg. “We have tangible guidelines that people can understand, but it all comes down to communicating freely as a partnership.”

The type of projects involved can also impact how much you rely on quantitative metrics, added Spike Narayan, director of science and technology for IBM. “Metrics are colored by the goal of exploratory research,” said Narayan, who emphasized that he looks more at strategic initiatives than tactical programs. “In tactical projects there are a lot of milestones and deliverables, good measures of success that are easy to define.” But in exploratory projects, it’s much harder to quantify and consequently measure. “It’s nice to tie investment dollars to ROI, but not necessarily easy. The size of exploratory investment helps define the role of metrics.”

At the University of North Carolina, “evaluation has been very informal — a lot of personal interviews and data reviews,” says Joonhyung Cho, director of business development, Industry Relations.

And for Anne O’Donnell, senior executive director of development in UC San Diego’s Corporate Relations Office, the key consideration is not necessarily the metrics you use, but how they are determined. “Let’s agree ahead of time how we’re going to evaluate ourselves — what will be the metrics for success,” she shares. “And it can’t just be dollars; we’ve brainstormed some intangible metrics.”

Naturally, metrics vary from university to university and company to company, depending on the type of projects they’re involved in, their mission, and their partners. For example, Clemson takes its cues from the strategic engagement portfolio it developed in 2017. Key areas include student involvement, academic programs to engage industry, research competencies, aligning with industry partners in research, and economic development.

“We created a strategic steering committee,” says Ellenberg. “For every partnership we put together, a university team is mirrored by a company team — two to three on each side — who talk on a regular basis about what holes exist, and how we can plug the holes. We look at our partners’ investments in Clemson; we have to show their ROI and what the ROI is for Clemson.”

If the company engages students, using data from a customized version of Salesforce the university will know the number of co-ops and internships created, and how many students were hired by the partners. “We know [how many] students enroll in certificate programs driven by industry,” he adds. “For sponsored research, we have the value. If they do have a physical presence, we know the capital investment they make.” Those data, he adds, are made available to the university board of trustees and to the corporate partners.

Ellenberg sees great value in having hard numbers. “It helps us from a predictive standpoint,” he notes. “Look at resources. It goes without saying that if a majority of our partners focus on one or two departments it allows us to look at that and determine the resources that need to be made available to support them. And from a research standpoint, where are our industry partners leaning — do they focus on one college, one department, one faculty member?”

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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