December 11, 2013, by Mark Gallagher
The Mutual Benefits of Engaging with Industry
By Catherine Johnson, Associate Professor, Dept. of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham
To what extent should academics be engaging with industry, and how? What relevance does academic research in television studies have for industry anyway? These are questions with which we have been collectively grappling in the Institute for Screen Industries Research at the University of Nottingham, and that my colleague Paul Grainge and I have been directly addressing through an AHRC-funded project with Red Bee Media. In this blog, I want to draw on our experience of working with Red Bee (and other non-HEI organisations) to explore some of the issues that arise when academics engage with industry partners.
[This short film describes Red Bee’s work.]
Red Bee sells technological and creative expertise in digital delivery and broadcast design in a period where, in its own words, ‘organisations are being forced to find new ways of reaching and engaging increasingly fragmented audiences’. Red Bee positions itself as a navigator in a fast-changing media environment. It provides the playout for the majority of the UK’s television channels, as well as subtitling, content discovery (such as EPG design), and multiplatform promotion and identity work. Formerly part of the BBC, it’s now a private company employing more than 1,500 staff. Our research focuses on the creative side of its business, responsible for the current channel idents of BBC One, the UK digital channels BBC Three and Dave, and a host of other promotional work for TV networks in Europe, North America and East Asia, from Discovery International and BBC America to CCTV’s Olympic branding for the Beijing Games.
[Here’s an example of some recent Red Bee Work – an ‘Original British Drama’ trail.]
I first encountered Charlie Mawer, the Executive Creative Director of Red Bee, at the AHRC-funded ephemeral media workshop organised by Paul Grainge at the University of Nottingham. I subsequently interviewed Charlie for Branding Television, and Paul and I began to discuss ways of extending our relationship with Red Bee as part of a broader academic interest in understanding promotion as a creative discipline. When we approached Red Bee to see if they might be interested in generating ‘shared research’ around their work in promotional media design, Charlie Mawer was uncharacteristically silent. The reason for this silence became clear when we finally secured a meeting with three senior staff at Red Bee to discuss a possible research collaboration, where it emerged that we were operating with very different understandings of the term ‘research’. For Red Bee, research referred specifically to audience research – questionnaires and focus groups used to develop and test new and ongoing projects. As an established part of their business, they had little need of external academics to undertake such work, and Paul and I had little experience in this area anyway. When we explained that we were interested in their company and their work as an object of research, they were surprised that they themselves might be a valuable subject of academic enquiry.
Paul and I were keen not just to generate research about Red Bee and the broader sector within which it worked, but also to produce research that would be of value to Red Bee and the promotional screen industries more broadly. This desire was partly informed by the current research funding environment in the UK. A key factor in contemporary UK higher education policy is the emphasis placed on the impact of research conducted within universities and funded through public money. Linked to the impact agenda, government policy on HE research has also placed increased emphasis on knowledge exchange and knowledge transfer. The aim here is to enhance the relationships between universities and businesses, which supports a broader shift in the focus of UK policy on the development of a thriving knowledge economy.
However, our interest in generating research of value to both academia and industry was not just informed by the UK government’s agenda for academics to engage more directly with commercial businesses and deliver benefits to sectors outside of higher education. My own feeling for a number of years has been that I have wanted my research to have relevance and interest beyond the relatively small community of television scholars. This was born out of a gut feeling that television studies had much to say that should be of interest and relevance to those actually working in the television, and related, industries, and not just in the area of policy where this kind of interaction was probably most apparent. Yet, despite establishing some useful informal collaborative relationships with industry practitioners, I had yet to work out for myself exactly how the kind of academic research I undertook might be of value to those working in the industry itself. Having an opportunity to explore this question was part of my interest in engaging in a research collaboration with Red Bee.
The funding Paul and I have received from the AHRC requires us to generate impact beyond academia through ‘fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom’ and ‘enhancing quality of […] creative output’. Our research is also focused upon knowledge exchange, defined by the AHRC as ‘the processes by which new knowledge is co-produced through interactions between academic and non-academic individuals and communities.’ This emphasis on impact and knowledge exchange raises questions about the potential divergences between the needs and values of commercial businesses and those of academic research. To what extent could we develop a research project with Red Bee that delivered economic impact and still correspond to the values and demands of academic research in the arts and humanities?
Academically, our own interest in understanding the specific issues that were facing the promotional media design sector stemmed from our previous work in this area (Paul around ephemeral media and me around television and branding – both projects funded by the AHRC). Working with Red Bee gives us an opportunity to apply and evaluate our existing research from inside the largest UK company working in this sector and to analyse the strategies they use to manage the fast-changing media environment that is a focal interest of our own research. From our perspective, then, the project could have significant academic benefit in enhancing understanding of this creative-industries sector and the ways broadcast and digital design is positioned as a central tool to respond to the new non-linear multiplatform world. Yet the question remained – what value might our academic research have for this fast-moving company? What possible interest might Red Bee have in exchanging knowledge with us?
Our approach was to ask Red Bee what their current strategic priorities were in order to generate a shared research agenda based on a mutually agreed set of questions. As such, our project’s very design challenges the presupposition that industry’s and academia’s interests are profoundly at odds. In attempting to generate a shared research agenda with Red Bee (one that enables us to generate knowledge and insights of benefit both to Red Bee and to the academic field of creative-industry studies) we are fortunate to be working within a sector and with a company that is asking the same questions that we, as academics, are asking, and for which ‘thinking and theorising’ are key strategic priorities.
Since working on the project from January 2012, however, a key difference that has emerged is the way the knowledge generated from answering such questions is presented and used. Paul and I are having to learn the art of report writing, emphasising results and recommendations over methodology, context and theorisation, in clear and succinct prose. At a recent event we hosted where we brought together industry and academic partners, one of the industry participants said that the biggest difference that he noticed between our event and the typical industry event is our interest in method and not just results. For me, one of the biggest challenges in this form of writing is the emphasis placed on results and recommendations. Having to directly articulate a set of recommendations involves a sea change in academic thinking in which you have to directly apply your knowledge in quite practical terms, something that is not taught as part of masters or doctoral training!
When we asked Red Bee what the primary value of a collaboration with us might be, however, their answer was not the intellectual insights that we might offer or the alternative perspective we might bring to their work (though this is not to underestimate the value of these aspects of the collaboration) but rather the prestige of collaborating with a major UK university. And although we have written them a report based on our observations and interviews, they have been as interested in the process of collaboration and the informal opportunities for industrial self-reflexivity the collaboration has enabled. As such, the divergence between the needs of academic research and business in this case emerges less in the shared research questions than in the nature of the answers generated to these questions, how those answers are communicated and the applicability of those answers within a commercial business setting.
Such insights reveal the difficulties of the government’s impact agenda when applied to arts and humanities research. The AHRC requires projects such as ours to demonstrate impact in terms of fostering economic competitiveness and creative output. Yet the ways our project might enhance Red Bee’s economic competitiveness and creative output are unlikely to be direct. The promotion of our collaboration might help enhance Red Bee’s corporate image as ‘thought leaders’ in a period of rapid change and thus increase their economic competitiveness, but this would be difficult to measure. Meanwhile, the more informal and intangible benefits that might have accrued through our meetings and interviews with Red Bee personnel are even harder to quantify. Indeed, Red Bee’s own recognition that the primary value of our collaboration to them as a company is promotional and informal probably stems from an implicit recognition of the difficulties in directly applying the critical, historical and qualitative approach of media-industry studies to the demands of a results-driven commercial business.
Yet at the same time, Red Bee’s recognition of the value of the informal exchanges that have taken place through the process of our collaboration suggests that the real benefits of knowledge exchange lie less in the giving of academic knowledge to businesses or vice versa, but in the collision of different perspectives that might arise from the interactions between academic researchers and industry professionals. Through our engagement with Red Bee, Paul and I have a far better understanding of the economic, organisational and creative challenges facing the promotional screen industries and of how our research might (and might not) be of value to those industries. And the staff we have worked closely with at Red Bee have a clearer sense of the distinctiveness of academic research from commercial research and the potential benefits academic research may offer.
Immersing ourselves within Red Bee and attempting to understand their work from their own perspective, therefore, offers the possibility not only of a greater insight into this industry, its strategies, working practices and products, but also into the potential value and impact that academic research might have beyond academia. If we do want our research to benefit the creative industries themselves, then we first need to understand what the needs of these industries might be. It is only through immersion within Red Bee’s business that Paul and I have begun to understand and explore the possible applications of our research to that business. To do so is not to reject the traditions of critical and analytical work developed within the arts and humanities. Rather it is to think about the utility of the insights generated through such academic research when applied to different contexts.
It has been interesting to note that the more industry practitioners we speak to, the more it becomes apparent that we are asking the same questions and that the insights from academia might offer unique and impartial perspectives not driven by commercial imperatives. From initially offering to write one report for Red Bee as part of our project, we ended up writing three. These additional reports stemmed from conversations with practitioners at Red Bee and other companies where it became apparent that they were asking questions that I have also asked in my research – from the role of the junctions in the digital era to the relationship between the BBC’s commercial and public-service operations.
Yet this raises a further question for academic researchers engaging with industry practitioners, which is the extent to which we should give our research away to industry. In terms of the collaboration with Red Bee, providing them with reports based on our research seems a paltry price to pay for the generosity with which their staff have given their time to us. Similarly, when I have interviewed other industry practitioners as part of my research, I have happily shared the results of that research with them.
Over and above that, I do my research as part of my day job, and for me, the value of that research is enhanced if I can communicate it to the broadest audience possible. As such, I’m less concerned about potentially devaluing, in commercial terms, my own research, and believe that the more that we can demonstrate the value of our research to the industry, the more the industry will be interested in sharing and engaging with us – and this can only be to our mutual benefit.