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ASC Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Conference

Colorado State University Fort Collins, Colorado

April 20 - 22, 2006                 


Stimulating Demand for Knowledge Exchange between Industry and Universities in the United Kingdom


Professor Mel Lees BSc (Hons) Dip Arb FRICS ILTM,

Dr Han Ching Ong BEng (Hons) MSc PhD,

and Aled Williams BSc(Hons) MSc PGCHE FCIOB MIMBM ILTM

University of Salford

United Kingdom


The UK Construction Industry plays a vital role in the UK economy and wealth creation. The industry currently employs around 1.5 million people which represents a total of approximately 10% Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There have been various Government initiatives that have attempted to improve the performance of the sector, some of which have been specifically aimed at encouraging engagement between the industry and academia. The Government has established a network of 22 Centres for Knowledge Exchange Activity to support Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) working with business and the wider community. The Construction Knowledge Exchange was established in August 2004 with the aim of promoting links and collaboration between higher education and the construction industry.  This paper first defines the term “Knowledge Transfer” by providing a brief history of such collaboration between industry and higher education.  It provides an overview of the Exchange and a brief update on the progress so far since its inception.  This paper will be of interest to both academic and industrial participants.


Key Words: Knowledge transfer, Higher education, Construction, Innovation



Definition of Knowledge and Knowledge Transfer


Developing the definition of knowledge has been a challenge to many researchers (Bhatt, 2000).  However, data leads to information, and information leads to knowledge. Data can be defined as facts and figures which come in different formats such as numbers or words, for example 28 or flowers. Information is data that has a meaningful context so that people can understand it. For example: ‘Heathrow weather station; visibility 15 km, sky cloudy, etc’. This information can be mixed together with the experiences of a person in order to become knowledge and lead to a conclusion such as: ‘I think the plane will have a delay, therefore I can do something else with my time now’ (Skyrme 1999).  Therefore knowledge is the combination of data and information to which is added expert opinion, skills and experience, to result in a valuable asset which can be used to aid decision making (Mekhilef, et al, 2003).


What do we mean by knowledge transfer? Recently, there has been a spate of interest in how investment in research provides much of the foundation for innovation and the new products and services that result. In Investing in Innovation (2002) the UK Government recognized that such exploitation depends on ideas, knowledge and skills transferring between universities, other research organisations and business, which often referred to a process as knowledge transfer. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) defines knowledge transfer as 'The dissemination and exploitation of the outputs of higher education - research, knowledge, skills, expertise or ideas to achieve economic, educational, social, healthcare and cultural benefits for society'.


For the purpose of this paper, the authors define “knowledge transfer” as the process of transferring knowledge and skills between universities and business and the wider community which increases the economic and social returns from this investment.


The UK Context


Employer engagement has been seen by successive Governments as an important element in addressing the UK skills agenda to increase the performance of the construction sector.  The need for fundamental change through more integrated working, embodying a partnership approach with the construction industry is evident in Constructing the Team (Latham, 1994), Rethinking Construction (Egan, 1998) and Accelerating Change in Construction (Egan, 2002).  A common theme is the requirement for fundamental change to increase effectiveness and efficiency in the performance of the sector.  These are key factors in attracting investment and talented people into the industry so as to keep the UK at the cutting edge.


Knowledge transfer between academia and industry has increased over the last decade but barriers remain. There are a wide range of activities which support the needs of business and that encourage such collaboration including consultancy, student placements, licensing, and applied research that are making valuable contribution to the country’s economy. Indeed, the White Paper on The Future of Higher Education (DfES, 2003), Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration (Lambert, 2003) and Science and Innovation framework (DfES, 2004) highlight the need for more effective knowledge transfer between these sectors. It is also noted in the Lambert Review that the UK is strong in basic research but less good at bringing ideas to the market. According to the report, the UK has a citation rate in academic papers 53% higher per capita than Germany, though Germany makes 230% more patent applications per capita than the UK.


Industry and higher education (HE) can all gain by working together and stand to gain through the contribution of the other.  Universities gain from better alignment of the built environment curriculum with the world of work so that they are able to orient themselves to industry.  Industry can benefit from universities getting their knowledge out into industry (and vice versa) and they should be looking to each other to solve problems.  However, in order for this to happen on a more structured basis there is a need for a conduit to improve dialogue between the construction industry and HE to learn from current developments.  Thus, the Centres for Knowledge Exchange Activity (CKEs) and in particular the study of the Construction Knowledge Exchange has become an important aspect of knowledge transfer within the construction sector.



Centres for Knowledge Exchange Activity


The Centres for Knowledge Exchange Activity were created in response to the Lambert report (HMS0, 2003).  A major issue is related to regional targets for HE-Business collaboration and the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) belief is that HEIs have the capability for Knowledge Transfer.  Thus, £16.7 million has been made available over the next 2 years (2004-06) under the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF 2) to support a network of 22 Centres for Knowledge Exchange (CKEs).  These have been established to promote knowledge transfer between universities and industry.  The 22 centres are diverse in nature ranging from sector specific to generic (see Table 1).


Common characteristics embedded within many of the successful bids for Knowledge Exchanges are links to ‘stimulating demand’, ‘brokerage’ and ‘capacity building’.  The key and biggest challenge is “stimulating demand” from both HEIs and businesses which is at the centre of what the CKEs are all about.  On the whole, many CKEs act as a conduit and enabler to facilitate knowledge transfer.  However, at some point this process needs to blend with the delivery.  It is envisaged that the CKEs will build capacity within the organisations they have interfaced with thereby attempting to develop a sustained model of knowledge transfer activity.  HEFCE will continue to support the CKEs as this is embedded within their strategic plan (2005).  Ultimately, HEFCE’s aim is to develop self-sustaining models where they would be able to continue without funding.


Table 1: Centres for Knowledge Exchange Activity (CKEs)



Lead HEI

Knowledge Exchange Name


University of Central England

Contact the Knowledge Exchange


Liverpool John Moores University

Business Bridge


Harper Adams University College

National Rural Knowledge Exchange NRKE


University of East London



Nottingham Trent University

The BioScience Knowledge Exchange for the East Midlands


University of Hull

Business & Community Knowledge Exchange


University of Hertfordshire

Film and Digital Media Knowledge Exchange


Oxford Brookes University

Motorsports Knowledge Exchange, MKE


University of Salford

The Construction Knowledge Exchange


University of Huddersfield

West Yorkshire Knowledge Exchange


University of Central Lancashire

Crime Solutions


Sheffield Hallam University

software Factory


University of the West of England

Knowledge West



University of the Arts

Knowledge Exchange for The Creative Industries in London, KECIL


University of Portsmouth

South East Knowledge Exchange for Product Development


University of Cambridge



University of Teesside

The Digital Knowledge Exchange


University of Brighton

Brighton and Sussex Community Knowledge Exchange


De Montfort University

East Midlands NTI Knowledge Exchange, NTI KE


University of Luton

M1 Knowledge Exchange


Kingston University



University of Sunderland

The Global Automotive Technology Exchange (GATE)



The Construction Knowledge Exchange


The University of Salford commenced the Construction Knowledge Exchange in August 2004. The project has the vision to promote knowledge exchange between industry and universities in the UK construction industry. It attempts to promote and enhance engagement in activities that establish industry needs, capture and share knowledge and build capacity and resource through enabled networks and links that reach out to all levels of business and higher education. The project is worth £1 million in the first two years, with the expectation that funding will be extended for a further three years.


The project is a partnership between four national agencies, which is supported by a regional framework of universities (figure 1). These national agencies are Constructing Excellence in the built environment (CEbe); the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and CITB-ConstructionSkills and the Centre for Education in the Built Environment (CEBE). Also, the collaboration is supported by ConstructionSkills which is the new Sector Skills Council for Construction which is a partnership between CITB-ConstructionSkills, Construction Industry Council and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) Northern Ireland.  The partner HEIs are Leeds Metropolitan University, University of Wolverhampton, University of Central Lancashire, London South Bank University and the University of the West of England.


Each Construction Knowledge Exchange partner University has a project coordinator with a specific portfolio for industrial liaison. These coordinators have the responsibility for delivering the project outputs at a regional level and for developing their own institution’s business and enterprise capability as an exemplar for others to follow.   They will also form part of the national network of HEIs and other agencies.

Figure 1: Structure of the Construction Knowledge Exchange Project.


Regional networks

comprising HEIs and FE colleges; regional centres for CEbe, CIC and CITBConstructionSkills; local business communities and trade associations.



Virtuous Knowledge Sharing Cycle


The glue within the Construction Knowledge Exchange has been the ‘Virtuous Knowledge Sharing Cycle’ (Powell, 2004) developed at the University of Salford.  Powell believes that Virtuous Knowledge Sharing is more than just knowledge transfer and is a continuous, cyclical and developing approach illustrated in figure 2 (Powell, 2004).


Figure 2: Salford’s Virtuous Knowledge Sharing Cycle



The Construction Knowledge Exchange is demand led, which is an important issue clearly stated in the Lambert Review (2003).  The strategy is to try various activities and see how well these work.  The nature and extent of Construction Knowledge Exchange outputs to be achieved annually are illustrated in Table 2.  How the deliverables fit into the cycle of knowledge sharing is illustrated in figure 3.


Table 2: Construction Knowledge Exchange Outputs








Year 1


Year 2

Promoting enterprise in HEIs and to promote networking between HEIs, business and other communities who use the outputs of knowledge generation

Number of staff and students working in collaborative business development research projects





Number of business awareness events for HEI staff



Income from enterprise consultancy agreements and training



Number of SME’s assisted in their innovation



Academic secondments into industry



Industrial secondments into HEIs



Number of industry/HEI forums created to provide knowledge sharing and link into course design and development





Number of project coordinators appointments for with industrial/HEI liaison in  HEIs





Enterprise consultancy agreements with SMEs



The infrastructure and capability to transfer knowledge from HEIs into business and the community

Case studies of excellence in industry/HEI engagement



Web-based knowledge portal with information portal incorporating e-learning opportunities (number of hits ‘000s)





Number of academic staff trained in commercialization and entrepreneurialism





International staff exchange schemes for knowledge transfer professionals





Acquiring new knowledge or technology and the generation of solutions to real-world problems, the provision of training, and the transfer of knowledge

Number of Innovation Circles established, using blended learning (incorporating action learning) as the basis for mutual development






































Figure 3: The Construction Knowledge Exchange Virtuous Knowledge Sharing Cycle (including deliverables)



Establishing the Need


The strategy for the Construction Knowledge Exchange is high risk in that it attempts to identify a ‘real world’ need and subsequently ‘pull’ the required assistance information from HEIs.  The aim of the project is to move away from the traditional ‘push’ of knowledge to a pull situation whereby information is drawn out of both industry and academe to ascertain common goals.  Initially the project anticipates working more closely with those who want to engage and that others will follow.


A series of local and national innovation circles have been identified as the means through which small groups of people (i.e. industry) can share knowledge and solve problems together, supported by the regional Construction Knowledge Exchange partner university.  In these innovation circles, businesses work together using an action learning methodology to address common issues and solve mutual problems.  These can be used by a company seeking to successfully implement change or by a group of companies sharing a common problem.


Capturing and Sharing Knowledge


The knowledge is captured and shared through activities ranging from HEI/industry forums, collaborative business development research projects and case studies of good practice.  Construction Knowledge Exchange project co-ordinators promote the creation of and linking together of industry/HEI forums, specifically designed to support the design and development of courses.  They are establishing collaborative business development research projects, where business identifies the need and provides matched funding for a specific project.  These projects aim to create new knowledge and develop existing knowledge in a way that makes it more valuable to the industry partner.


A web-based knowledge portal for higher education institutions is being set up with a high powered search facility that will allow business and education to be connected to knowledge that will support their development.  The portal will connect together the existing knowledge capital held by the national agencies and the HEIs and provide a single point of contact for the HE sector.


Reaching Out and Building Capacity


A key part of the exchange’s activity is to develop capacity in both education and business for knowledge transfer.  This is done by establishing secondments (or internships) between industry and education where staff spend time in different environments but retain the focus of knowledge transfer, identifying the issues, problems and solutions. The secondments will be supported by training in commercialization and entrepreneurialism. Opportunities are sought for benchmarking performance in the regional, national and global market through staff exchange schemes.  Here staff spend short periods in UK HEIs and other countries with a clear aim of widening the possibility of knowledge transfer.


Construction Knowledge Exchange project co-ordinators organize and run business awareness events designed to help academic staff to understand business needs and the opportunity for knowledge transfer.  Also, they seek out and establish enterprise consultancy agreements with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).  These agreements focus on building the capacity of small firms to innovate and improve performance.  Within these agreements, there is an opportunity to provide training to industry and demonstrate the value of their interaction while also generating additional income for the project.  A log of all SME’s assisted in knowledge transfer activity is being maintained.


Evaluating and Feeding Back


The approach used in this project is to attempt to involve all participants, at whatever level, in their own continuing evaluation activities, so that the evaluation becomes an integral part of the project and supports the attainment of the project outputs.  The key questions of the evaluation are:



Are we on course? (Formative evaluation)


What did we do, exactly? (‘Exactly’ is important)


Was it worth doing? (Summative Evaluation)


Participants will be encouraged to do whatever is necessary to keep these questions in mind and to track progress throughout.



Progress So Far


The first year of the Construction Knowledge Exchange has been a challenging and productive one. The primary aim of the exchange is to reach out, create links and knowledge sharing with all levels of businesses and higher education. The exchange has been providing a range of services, events and activities over the past 16 months and will continue to do so until August 2006. In the first year, the capacity for knowledge exchange has been significantly improved by the establishment of the partnership of six universities.  This partnership has been actively reaching out to industry to identify needs and to understand their requirements.  The project co-ordinators have developed a real understanding of what industry expects from universities and the next stage will be to look at meeting these expectations.


When looking at current project delivery against output the overall position looks good with most of the outputs being met or bettered.  However, there were some outputs coming out of the project which were not being explicitly captured or evidenced. These are explained in the following section.


Successes, Issues & Opportunities


In order to raise awareness and profile of the Construction Knowledge Exchange programme, a prospectus for HEIs and Industry was produced and has proved invaluable in establishing the CKE brand (available at  The project co-coordinators formed their own ‘action-learning’ set facilitated by an expert to discuss and share issues related to the Construction Knowledge Exchange and for their own personal development.  In the second year, the focus is on using innovation circles to link industry need to university provision and on developing the knowledge portal to enable a wider group of businesses and universities to engage with the project.  The output measures only those circles that are established and gives no recognition to the coordinators’ continued engagement with the circles.  In addition to the number of circles established, we intend to identify the number of meetings that have been facilitated.  Their continued survival and efficacy in practice is a more significant measure than simply setting them up.  Thus, a more meaningful view on the sustained efforts of the coordinators will be provided.


It is proving very difficult to establish industrial secondments into HEIs in the current industry climate.  Industry organizations are too busy to engage in this kind of activity at present.  We have considered revising the definition of a secondment, but even this does not seem to solve the problem.  The purpose of this output was to demonstrate some feedback from industry into academia arising out of the activities of the CKE. It is proposed that activities such as guest lectures, input to curriculum design and delivery, new sponsored courses and students will be considered as evidence for this deliverable.


The purpose of identifying the number of SME’s assisted in their innovation was to identify direct impact on industry.  However, over 200 larger organizations have been assisted in their innovation which includes public sector organizations.  Targeting large organizations in the short-term will be useful in getting to SMEs in their supply chain in the medium-term.  Furthermore, UK Government policy has shifted more recently as larger organizations are now eligible for Knowledge Transfer Partnership funding.  As a result, project coordinators are now required to demonstrate how engaging with large organizations does, in practice, give access to smaller firms in their supply chains.  The Consultancy agreement should also be widened to include larger organizations and public sector agencies.


Inter-HEI collaborative events will be considered as one of the project outputs as this allows education providers to share and acquire knowledge and expertise. Other additionalities such as visits to companies or HEIs will also be incorporated in order to capture the richness of the activities taking place within the Construction Knowledge Exchange.


On balance, good progress has been made with setting up the Construction Knowledge Exchange programme.  The partnership is working well and it is interesting to note that the partners have different strengths that complement each other.  University of Wolverhampton has very strong industry links and has used these to establish enterprise consultancy agreements.  The University of Central Lancashire and University of the West of England have had more success with engaging with SMEs.  Leeds Metropolitan University developed a number of case studies and research projects.  Finally, London South Bank University has been very active in engaging with SMEs and training academics.





All the Construction Knowledge Exchange partners have found the establishment of innovation circles the most challenging and exciting aspect of the project.  To help meet this, the project coordinators have been engaged in training in action-learning.  In the second year, the focus will be on using these clubs to link industry need to university provision and on developing the knowledge portal to enable a wider group of businesses and universities to engage with the project.  There is every reason to believe that the outputs for the project will have been exceeded by the end of year two.


HEFCE (as funders) are obliged to identify and disseminate practices and have indicated that they want models to inform evidence.  Thus, they are not only interested in successes but also reasons why certain activities did not work and are therefore allowing a certain element of ‘risk taking’.  Hence, subject to appropriate evidenced activity and acceptable business plan, ring-fenced continuation funding is available from 2006-2008 (under HEIF 3).





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