Most private companies have a hard time finding money and resources to invest in research and development of new or emerging technologies. If it’s hard for companies, it’s virtually impossible for colleges and universities. Such institutions must fund not only the technology but also training for professors and updates to classroom curriculum. While corporations have learned (sometimes the hard way) that updating technology can require a diverse array of expenditures, the highly departmentalized structure of the academy can make it hard to plan this type of project.

One of the best investments you can make for your company and your community is to partner with a local educational institution. The school gets an insider’s view into what’s really going on in the rapidly changing technology market, and you get a pipeline into young talent and low-cost research.

It’s sometimes difficult to find the right contacts in a large, public university. But plenty of two- and four-year colleges will jump at the chance to partner with a company that can help them provide a better education for their students. In this article, we’ll look at ways in which you can work with local schools to everyone’s benefit.

Why is higher education always behind?
One of the complaints I hear constantly from IT managers is that students coming straight from college have only the most-basic technical skills. Moreover, their grasp of current technology comes mostly from co-ops or projects done on their own time, not from formal classroom teaching.

The typical response from the educational community is that its mission is to “teach people the concepts” and not to become a trade school. Many educators believe that if what they teach has short-term market value then, by its nature, it has no long-term “educational” value.

Why do they feel this way? Most professors are way behind the curve on current technology. They would have to make significant investments of time to upgrade their own skills and update their curriculum. And then, there’s no guarantee that they could convince the college administration to offer a more technically up-to-date class. Lastly, colleges and universities are generally underequipped to teach anything but technology that’s one generation behind.

How does higher education solve the problem?
I think colleges and universities need to take a more-active role in developing technologies instead of waiting to adopt widespread “industry standards.”

For example, most colleges and universities are still teaching standard languages like C, VB, and Java without regard for the systems these languages will be used to create. But the industry clearly is moving away from monolithic applications and toward network applications that are composed of generally available network services tied together. Sun, IBM, and Microsoft all have major initiatives to define this “network services” space. Although each of them has their own set of tools to define and develop a network service, they all agree on certain standards—HTTP, SOAP, and XML/XSLT—that students hoping to work in technology need to understand.

Higher education must engage businesses to play a more active role in providing real-world instruction to better educate college professors in emerging technologies. It’s unrealistic to expect business and computer science instructors to embrace new concepts and technologies without significant training and support. In the meantime, businesses like yours reap staff development benefits by exposing the professor’s students to current technology.

Opportunities for these shared learning experiments will be huge over the next three to 18 months, as new technology is introduced at a dizzying pace. If sophomores and juniors this fall can get plugged into hot technology and the theory behind it, they will be highly prized commodities when they graduate. And if your business is involved in their learning experience, you stand the best chance of hiring them when they hit the market.

Everybody wins
The main benefit of this mentoring approach is that educational institutions can retrain professors in technology areas without losing their presence in the classroom. By working more closely with technologists in the business community, professors can observe how technologies are being applied in the real world.

Both parties also stand to see a financial upside. Your business can support special projects by sharing classroom or lab facilities that the university can’t replicate without a significant additional investment in hardware. And you may be able to turn over technical or developmental research projects to the university, so that it can get the benefit of performing and documenting research while your business can commit internal resources to more-pressing needs.

Your business can also benefit significantly from an educational partnership in other ways:

  • You have access to the graduating seniors, as well as bright students looking for co-op positions over the summer. Since you were involved in their training, you should already have a good feel for where these students may fit in your organization.
  • Your senior managers get real-world feedback on the technology that they espouse. If they can’t explain the technology and its benefits to business and computer science students, they probably can’t sell it to their own business units or to the company at large.

How to get started
Start by making yourself and your company better known at the institution with which you hope to partner. You can do this by:

  • Serving on technology committees for a local college or university.
  • Offering to speak at college technology association meetings.
  • Sponsoring a technology day at your company and inviting professors and their students to come see how your business uses technology.
  • Opening your e-learning environment to the college and suggesting a reciprocal agreement.

What do you think of Tim’s argument that partnering with an educational institution is a win-win situation? Have you tried such a partnership? What were the results? Tell us about your thoughts and experiences by posting a comment below.