EAPRIL, In English

Supporting Communication between Stakeholders Involved in Industrial Doctoral Projects by a Process Steering Instrument


Industrial doctoral projects are defined as projects that promote knowledge transfer between universities and commercial organisations and nurture innovation. These projects are founded on needs identified within business organisations and researchers from related research areas. The projects last approximately five years in Sweden[1]. A typical project involves a doctoral student and stakeholders from academia and industry who have different priorities and areas of expertise. The project is usually co-financed by research funding agencies, often within the framework of larger research projects, research environments or schools. Unfortunately, many projects of this nature are interrupted, take an unnecessarily long time to reach their objectives or do not meet all the stakeholders’ requirements.

The characteristics of an industrial doctoral projects are seldom taken into account in the assessments, rules and regulations for doctoral projects. The traditional goal of the doctoral programme and thesis is to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to conduct independent research on a novel concept and to communicate the results in an accessible way (Gould, 2016: p 27). In terms of knowledge, skills and competences, this overall aim can be formulated somewhat differently depending on the university and the programme, and does not include applicability to a specific context. While research applicability is requested for all doctoral theses (see e.g. Norell Bergendahl et al., 2004; Nature Editorial, 2016), the value of a doctoral project to non-academic stakeholders is seldom known and assessed in formal evaluations, i.e. goals and regulations do not necessarily take into consideration whether a project is an industrial doctoral project or not.

The hypothesis behind this study is that systematic communication increases the possibility of succeeding with industrial doctoral projects. The success of a project means continuously demonstrating relevant values throughout the whole project and concluding it by successfully defending a PhD thesis that is beneficial to all the parties involved. Systematic communication should include business values and use terminology that is understandable to all the stakeholders.

The overall aim of this paper is to contribute to a better understanding of industrial doctoral projects in modern educational environments where the stakeholders come from both academia and industry. It discusses the role of the doctoral students and the evolving process around their projects in environments at the interface between academic culture and industrial traditions. This is done by presenting the construction and use of a supporting instrument at an industrial research school specialising in applied informatics and the evaluation of the instrument. The following questions are examined:

  1. How can industrial doctoral projects take into account process steering instruments?
  2. How can a process steering instrument be used at a research school?

Based on the rules and regulations and stakeholder requirements, with a focus on the value creation, and coupled with a short presentation of the development of the process steering model presented in part earlier (Heldal et al., 2014), this paper includes new data from meetings and interviews with stakeholders after three years of use. The data is discussed in view of documents and literature ensuring successful completion of industrial doctoral projects.

The structure of the paper is as follows: Section 2 presents previous research results dealing with issues that support or impede knowledge transfer between academia and industry and the requirements for running academic projects that are relevant in practice. Section 3 describes the Methodology, Section 4 the basic components in the design of a process steering instrument that is called Thesis Steering Model (TSM). Section 5 presents experiences from the introduction of TSM and during the three first years of use. Section 6 discusses the findings, with the literature as a background and Section 7 concludes the paper.

While the overall aims of a doctoral project – producing new academic values and demonstrating the capacity to perform independent research – are not questioned, the paper focuses in the first instance on the interests of industrial stakeholders and the support they can provide for industrial doctoral projects. Moreover, the role of management in involving all stakeholders interested in industrial doctoral projects is also discussed. The current limitation can be the relatively short time, acquiring a better understanding of the influence of process steering methods may require further investigation in a longer time perspective. Three years may be quite a short period of time to carry out a more rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of such instruments.

2. Background

Good industrial doctoral projects need to deal with cultural differences between the environments in question and the roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders, including uneasy decision-making situations. In order to identify possible areas of support, this section focuses on the identified problems and benefits outlined in the literature and in current steering documents in Sweden.

2.1. Two different cultures: University and Business

The different countries in Europe and in the European Union invest huge resources in industrial doctoral projects (Schiermeier, 2012; Borrell-Damian, 2009). While the importance of university-industry collaboration via different projects is recognised, the innovations achieved are often considered to be ‘smaller’ in contrast to real breakthroughs. As regards doctoral projects, stakeholders from academia respect that in the first instance it should be the goals set by universities and at national level that regulate projects. Stakeholders in industrial contexts recognize this; however, they would like to understand and follow their ‘own’ doctoral projects. While, they are familiar with the use of process steering instruments as a means of aligning important partial goals to the overall goals in long-term projects, they are not necessarily as familiar with long-term academic projects where the partial goals are, e.g. research proposal seminar, paper x, licentiate thesis etc. The academic doctoral projects do not have business values, deliverables aligning to overall progress, potential commercialization plans, clear process owners etc. Not understanding the major goals and the plan, could jeopardise the progress of the doctoral project since knowledge does not per se flow between the academic and industrial sphere (Hermans and Castiaux, 2007), coordination takes time, and requires careful planning.

An extensive investigation of problems experienced by four different industrial research schools within engineering fields was carried out by Wallgren (2007). She clearly identified a vast gap in understanding between industry and academia; a gap that can cause serious problems for industrial doctoral projects. This can be experienced by the students in the form of inadequate information transfer between the two environments, poor understanding of the business values, a lack of understanding of the economic conditions behind the projects, inadequate control by the companies, problems with supervisors, and the feeling that they are alone when building a bridge between academia and industry.

According to an extensive background examination in the doctoral thesis by Julie Hermans (2011), successful collaborative research and development projects run by academia and industry need to recognise (1) the two-way relationship between the different environments, (2) focus on knowledge co-creation as a process, and (3) have active and supportive social milieus around the projects. She argues in favour of considering a longitudinal and situated approach to nurture good applied projects. Following established approaches for applied and interdisciplinary research could be questionable. This is particularly the case for highly interdisciplinary fields within informatics, as understanding knowledge creation in applied research is often insufficient. Cross-disciplinary boundaries need to be considered for several activities – in order to follow interdisciplinary courses for example (Bergeå et al., 2006). It is highly debatable how one and the same study can follow existing institutional research traditions (Evans and Marvin, 2006) or cross certain disciplinary boundaries (Lowe and Phillipson, 2009) in order to produce new scientific knowledge.

If the most important aspects of successful industrial doctoral projects require awareness of each other’s environment and culture (e.g. Wallgren and Dahlgren, 2005) and project completion in time (Manathunga, 2005) the varying role of the supervisor is probably the most important (e.g. Grant, 2005; Lee, 2008) that directly influences awareness and completion. The relation between the supervisor and doctoral student is highly debated (McCallin and Nayar, 2012; Deuchar, 2008), especially considering the involvement of industrial supervisors with currently unspecified roles (Salminen-Karlsson and Wallgren, 2008). However, industrial supervisors are undoubtedly influence the flow and results. If the academic and industrial stakeholders are not coordinated a doctoral project can meet conflicting requirements (Morris et al., 2012). In order to solve problems such as these, both the different supervisors and the student should assume the role of negotiator and translator (Strengers, 2014). Success is more likely can be achieved if there is good communication and a joint decision-making involving both university and industrial partners (Salimi et al., 2016). This position is only possible with a high degree of involvement which, apart from having the right professional expertise, also needs personal skills (Malfroy, 2011) and longitudinal planning (Thune, 2009).

To plan industrial doctoral projects are subject to debate at different levels. The definitions of values certainly can and need to be discussed when studies argue in favour of using entrepreneurial methods for value creation (Lackéus and Williams Middleton, 2015). While the aim of this paper is not to promote industrial development directly but to do so via new scientific knowledge, consideration must be given to the environment in long-term projects if values are to be of interest. Methods and terminology from industry must be taken into account when projects include business stakeholders and when the aim is to achieve employability at business companies (Harman, 2004).

2.2 Influences of industrial stakeholders

For complex industrial projects where no individual stakeholder has the competence to understand and control the entire activity, it is common to work with processes. Processes help to handle and bring order to activity flows that include tasks, players, resources and peripheral players. This is the case for large companies in Sweden, including ABB (Gustavsen et al., 1996), Volvo (Eneroth et al., 2009) and Ericsson (Ericsson, 2012), companies highly involved in industrial doctoral projects.

As an example, the IS-GDP (Information Systems Global Development Process) is one such process, developed at Volvo IT and intended for use in complex IT projects and a refinement of the more general Global Development Process (GDP) at the Volvo Group (Eneroth et al., 2009). The process is defined as a procedure for a repeated activity, such as a production line, a computer algorithm or a code. Given standardised input of the right quality, the process delivers standardised output of the desired quality. Central to the process concept is what should be agreed on in the different process steps, not how or by whom. While the structure for doctoral processes can be the same, the progress and the content toward achieving the main goals are usually different (Newbury, 2003).

Since doctoral students need to be aware of the different ways in which academia and industry gather and handle knowledge (Ivček and Galinac, 2008) and possible differences in terminology during a long-term industrial doctoral project, it is important to clarify whether main values are understood in the same way during the key steps that have been identified. To overcome any misunderstanding of complex industrial contexts, where no individual stakeholder has the competence to understand and control the entire activity, processes can be used to manage projects. Ankrah and Tabbaa use a process approach to summarise a systematic review of university-industry collaboration (2015). Their process approach begins with establishing collaboration, moves on to defining organisational forms and operationalising activities, and ends with investigating outcomes. This study is focusing on developing a model to define forms of collaboration and support communication around activities and partial goals.

2.3 The Swedish doctoral process

Previously, a full-time doctoral programme took an average of four years’ full-time study. That has now risen to a longer time due to other duties and interruptions, such as teaching, project work, parental leave, sickness etc. Certain requirements need to be fulfilled during each doctoral period (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The PhD process in Sweden (picture by courtesy of Wallgren and Dahlgren, 2007, p. 434). Illustrated is a four-year, full-time PhD project from commencement (A) through individual study plans (IS[2], one per year), Intr (Introductory seminar), thesis proposal (TP) and a mid-term, i.e. licentiate (Lic) seminar and the thesis (Ph.D.) seminar. Figure 1. The PhD process in Sweden (picture by courtesy of Wallgren and
Dahlgren, 2007, p. 434). Illustrated is a four-year, full-time PhD project from
commencement (A) through individual study plans (IS[2], one per year), Intr
(Introductory seminar), thesis proposal (TP) and a mid-term, i.e. licentiate
(Lic) seminar and the thesis (Ph.D.) seminar. 

When a doctoral project commences, many doctoral students and their supervisor(s) from industry are not aware of the academic doctoral process and the requirements that emerge during this process. The students and their supervisors do not necessarily have full knowledge of the business value of their concrete research ideas. Careful guidance through the process is essential, particularly at the beginning when research problems are formulated. This problem formulation is a key area that can set the tone, expectations and conditions for the doctoral student and her/his progress for years to come. It is important for all stakeholders (doctoral students, supervisors and mentors) to realise that problems cannot be identified in isolation by one or two parties. Instead, they must be identified through collaboration in order to ensure value and benefit for all concerned and that the doctoral project is supported by everyone (Wallgren and Hägglund, 2004). ‘

3. Methodology

Handling multiple targets and acquiring a mutual understanding that creation of added values are key issues to ensure the best possible synergy effects. The results describe the development and use of a process steering instrument, which was used for doctoral projects at an industrial research school specialising in informatics – ApplyIT. The instrument is named Thesis Steering Model (TSM). Section 4 presents TSM, developed to plan structured up meetings for all stakeholders based on academic and industrial requirements. Section 5 presents the evaluation. This is done via participatory observations from the responsible management group for TSM. The management groups incorporated three persons belonging to the management group of the school. This study contains data from 19 gate meetings (about the gate meetings, see Section 4.2), examining documents from TSM, and informal conversations with the stakeholders during the first three years of usage. To answer the research questions results from 12 semi-structured interviews were used, with 6 doctoral students, 3 industrial stakeholders and 3 academic stakeholders performed 2015 and 2016.

4. Development of a process steering instrument for industrial doctoral projects

Previous sections have shown that a number of challenges can arise in a doctoral project and collaboration, handling multiple values and acquiring a mutual understanding of those values are key issues to ensure the best possible synergy effects. This section argues in favour of and describes the development and use of a process steering instrument, which was used for projects at an industrial research school specialising in informatics ApplyIT[3].

4.1 Incorporating knowledge from different cultures

Having identified underlying problems in industrial doctoral projects, as well as the potential usefulness of the process concept from industry and the requirements for successful completion of doctoral projects, the management group from the industrial research school decided to couple this with their own experiences and develop a formal instrument to support doctoral projects. The instrument, called Thesis Steering Model (TSM), was developed alongside the task of defining the basics, starting up the research school and identifying the needs of the first PhD students.

TSM is an abstract structure for predefined meetings where each step aligns the main educational requirements to the main activities deriving from existing industrial process steering instruments. The content depends on finding the right doctoral project and focuses on values, aims, progress, activities, risks, resources and basic terminology. TSM is a methodology driven by scientific requirements and business needs. The activities are enhanced and intense, especially during the start-up phase, and are intended to support systematic encounters between stakeholders throughout the entire doctoral project.

The main steps during a doctoral process that are known to the university stakeholders are not necessarily known to the industrial stakeholders. Likewise, the main steps in industrial processes are not necessarily known in an academic environment. Following examination of a wide range of industrial process steering instruments, the study focused on a simplified and more generalised instrument. This generalised instrument was based in the first instance on instruments from the industrial stakeholders from the research school. The steps in TSM are meetings that are important to the academic process but which also take into account the industrial process (see Figure 2). While TSM focuses on the mandatory aspects, in the first instance the academic process, characteristics from the industrial process are also in focus.

Figure 2. The TSM considers the academic process for a doctoral project and important steps taken from project steering instruments used in industry.
Figure 2. The TSM considers the academic process for a doctoral project and important steps taken from project steering instruments used in industry.

Beginning and successfully ending a doctoral project via requirements from academia is important. Conveying the terminology related to duties and progress via the generalised process steering instrument known to the industrial stakeholders clarifies eventual misunderstanding and promotes discussion about current values and goals.

In order to identify important steps for TSM, local university and national requirements for doctoral projects in Sweden are considered together with experience gained from industrial process steering instruments. Most doctoral projects at Swedish universities comprise five important steps: admission, suggesting a research proposal, obtaining a licentiate (mid-term seminar), a concluding[4] seminar, and a public defence. In addition, annual continuous progress plans, known as Individual Study Plans (ISP), must be set out at the doctoral student’s research location. This plan shows the current status of the doctoral project but seldom the progress made in relation to previous plans (Thune, 2009; Vesterlund, 2015). To show progress processes steering instrument can be used to emphasise negotiations for key steps for the different stakeholders. These negotiations are particularly important during the early stages of a project (Strengers, 2014). Examples of values that need common agreement include partial goals, associated resources, managing changes, participation levels and issues related to the roles and responsibilities of the parties involved.

TSM was developed by the management group of ApplyIT to provide evidence of progress, ensuring that

  • a project group that aims to start and support a doctoral project is formed
  • innovation techniques are used to generate and identify research ideas more quickly
  • time and other resources are allocated already from the idea generation phase
  • important milestones and stages in a doctoral project are identified and facilitated through scheduled communication and collaboration meetings
  • academic values in terms of scientific significance and business value are discussed at each meeting
  • the terminology is widely understood and the process is transparent
  • progress reports are produced based on common agreements between all key stakeholders after each meeting
  • a focus is maintained on overall goals as well as awareness of any deviations that may arise at a meeting and within each identified step
  • the progress goals are revised and aligned to the overall goals

Therefore, a project group consisting of the PhD student, the supervisor, the assistant supervisor(s) and the industrial mentor(s)[5] was formed for each PhD project. They were obliged to participate in a number of meetings, as described in Section (3.2) below. In order to allocate responsibility as close as possible to the work that was being conducted, the PhD student was appointed to act as project leader and the person responsible for the content of the meetings. This naturally meant that she or he would initially need a great deal of support from all the parties involved.

The progress of every doctoral project needs to be monitored by a project steering group consisting of the project group members and at least one person from the industrial research school management group. The involvement of external individuals from the school in longitudinal plans for doctoral projects alongside the members of the project group, coupled with the use of TSM, is new and unique in Sweden for the industrial doctoral project administration.

4.2 TSM: an instrument that supports systematic collaboration in doctoral projects

The TSM is an instrument for longitudinal support based on seven or so gates (see Figure 3). Each gate involves an associated gate meeting with systematic and thematic questions that are set out in templates (15 active slides for each meeting), and which need to be answered prior to each gate meeting. The answers to these questions require a great deal of teamwork on the part of the project group. The TSM is thus not a quick fix guide to pass the gates but more a process tool to get communication flowing in the project group and to harmonise the members’ expectations by identifying and discussing scientific requirements and possible associated business values.

Depending on the project and the familiarity of the project group with process steering tools, the preparation before each gate meeting takes a few days. As the templates for the different meetings are related to each other, the work involved in understanding the structure of a meeting decreases after each gate meeting. The presentation of the templates at the gate meetings usually leads to further discussion.

The TSM aims to achieve the following:

  • Describe what needs to be done (generate ideas and plan activities) and when they should be done (by identifying important phases and elements as ‘gates’), but leave the how question to the project group.
  • Provide guidance, support and quality assurance for the research projects by going through a series of gates, where each gate represents a key phase with associated templates.
  • Support communication between the academic and industrial partners and follow this up at systematically planned meetings. The partners need to come up with a mutual agreement and understanding of the goals behind the doctoral project at each gate a) by formalising concrete goals and decisions regarding time, resources, quality and content and b) by ensuring that key issues have been covered and the right resources of the expected quality and content are available.
  • Provide a skeleton to ensure appropriate areas are documented sufficiently with regard to important decisions and individual project requirements.
  • Be easily understood by all the parties, regardless of their background.
  • Bring transparency and control into project monitoring by focusing on the importance of commitment, common sense, cooperation and active involvement and by highlighting potential risks before they become a problem.
  • If possible, generate synergy effects between the doctoral projects.

 TSM have the following gates:

At the Start Gate the project group is formed and the project vision and expectations are formulated in general terms and are agreed on in order to commence the pre-study. Initial scanning of related work is carried out with a focus on novelty assessment. The pre-study ends with the Vision Gate, which is where multiple project visions are generated. Several possible ideas have been investigated and possible goals and research problems have been formulated. Related research from other parties and potential external cooperation environments have been considered. The vision of the project has become clearer.

At the Concept Gate, the main feasible research goals are discussed and ways of reaching these are examined. The research background needed is discussed together with possible external cooperation environments and experts and the potential for collaboration. At the Development Gate clear targets, plans and methods to achieve the research aims are formulated. The resources needed to do so are planned and secured from all stakeholders. These four early gates are the most important gates and correspond to the convergence in the funnel model used in innovation theory.

The Follow-up Gate aims to discuss the mid-term seminar and future plans. Several Follow-up gate meetings can be requested, depending on the doctoral project. The formal concluding gates are the Thesis Gate, which involves preparing for a formal pre-defence and defence, and the End Gate, which involves concluding current collaboration and preparing for future collaboration, and ends the series of TSM meetings. The correspondence between scientific magnitude and business value is considered at all gates.


Figure 3. A general overview of the doctoral project from the point of view of the TSM.
Figure 3. A general overview of the doctoral project from the point of view of the TSM.

The four most important values – research quality, progress towards examination, associated business values and overall project control – as streamlines are shown in Figure 3. These are discussed at each gate. As an example, the increased number of ideas and visions and the width of the Vision Gate will converge towards the concrete aims at the Development Gate.

3.3 Gate meetings

Seven gate meetings are intended to take place at well-defined stages in the project, depending on the progress and the degree of activity of the doctoral student. A student usually spends 80% of her/his time working on the project and the remaining time is taken up with working in industry or teaching. As a result, her/his PhD project may take five years.

The first three gates occur relatively early on in the doctoral project. A formal progress sign-off meeting (i.e. a workshop) is planned at each gate. At each gate-opening meeting a discussion takes place within the project steering group, based on the preliminary work carried out within the project group. The aim is to ensure the discussions remain constructive and to keep the plans transparent and approved by everyone. If the discussion goes well, the gate is formally opened.

Opening a gate at the gate meeting is a symbolic action that means that the progress made is acknowledged and that the PhD student can continue her/his work. If the gate is not opened, clear indications are given about how to continue with the thesis. Formal minutes from each gate meeting are written with a focus on the four main questions (research values, examination management, business values and project control), including important decisions or unanswered questions or risks.  Figure 4 is taken from a Concept gate presentation dealing with identification of the research problem and the benefits of a project. As this is a template, the headings are the same throughout the whole process although the content the doctoral students add at each meeting changes over time.

Figure 4. An example of a template presented at a Vision gate meeting by a PhD student. The template shows the identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats within a project dealing with automated improvement analysis of a production system.
Figure 4. An example of a template presented at a Vision gate meeting by a PhD student. The template shows the identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats within a project dealing with automated improvement analysis of a production system.

 4.4 Influences on development

The management group at the industrial research school included members from the university and from industry who have previous experience of managing pure academic and industrial doctoral projects and from using process steering instruments, especially ISGDP (presented in Section 2), which is a familiar feature at Volvo. As the majority of the doctoral projects in question were initiated by Volvo and people from the management group already had industrial experience of ISGDP from several Volvo companies, the management group decided to develop a process steering instrument based on several other process steering instruments. ISGDP was the one that had affected TSM most.

Picture 1. Stakeholders at the research school kick-off listening to a presentation of TSM.
Picture 1. Stakeholders at the research school kick-off listening to a presentation of TSM.

In order to use TSM, the university management and supervisors were informed and they had to give their approval. During development, two former industrial doctoral students from the university were interviewed and their experiences were taken into consideration. It was ready to use when the Applied Informatics research school[6], complete with eight doctoral projects, commenced in January 2013. An initial overview of the development from a two-year perspective has been presented earlier (Heldal et al., 2014). In 2013 and 2014, the TSM was improved based on early comments. The changes included the introduction of the Follow-up Gate (requested by the project group) and improving the accuracy of the templates. The TSM was used initially in eight doctoral projects and it is currently (2016) being used in twelve projects[7].

For the introduction, one-hour seminars were arranged on a number of occasions for the stakeholders to explain the project methodology. It was explained again at a separate seminar held during the two-day ‘kick-off’ meeting for the research school, which took place in January 2013 (see Picture 1) and which was discussed at a workshop by different combinations of participating stakeholders in June 2013.

5. Using a process steering instrument for industrial doctoral projects

Breaking down the process into smaller parts makes it easier for the doctoral students to report their progress while still maintaining coherence between scientific and industrial needs and requirements. TSM enables them to keep values – both academic and industrial – in focus, and to ensure that both supervisors and industrial mentors have a common understanding of their problems. One of the main lessons to be learned from this study could be to acknowledge that focusing on the introduction of a doctoral project needs better communication. This is also confirmed in other studies (Wallgren and Hägglund, 2004; Wallin et al., 2014). It is not very easy to understand each other’s needs at the beginning.

1.) How can industrial doctoral projects take into account process steering instruments?

 Based on the literature for managing good university-industry projects, both industrial processes and documents regarding compliance with the academic requirements for a doctoral thesis influenced the development of TSM, as described in Section 3. Even at the construction phase a large number of associated questions needed to be addressed; questions about the content and how to use it and about roles and responsibilities associated with use. In order to accept the instrument, several meetings needed to be initiated and coordinated, and the instrument needed to be adjusted according to observations and requirements laid down by the university management and the parties involved in funding the research school.

One of the main observations is the substantial difference between the users’ background and their familiarity with process steering instruments. In three of the seven projects there was no previous experience of project management and process steering instruments, which made TSM difficult, especially at the beginning.

Positive comments were also received from the other eight research schools that were partly financed by the same national research funding institution as ApplyIT. While several schools requested the documentation necessary to run TSM, no one has to our knowledge applied the tool in their environments. In the light of the required coordination time, it could be considered beneficial to develop the instrument in parallel with development of the research school, which demands additional time on the part of developers and managers. To begin using it, the school may require resources to change the content and a number of strategic decisions may need to be made regarding how to use it in current doctoral projects.

2.) How can a process steering instrument be used at a research school?

This part is based on an initial overview of 19 meetings (SG, VG and CG) for seven doctoral projects. The following parts discuss separately the perspectives from a) the doctoral students, b) academic stakeholders and c) industrial stakeholders.

a) The doctoral students’ perspective

At almost all the SG meetings (for 6 out of 7 students) there were misunderstandings in relation to the research questions. For one student, who had supervisors from two universities and mentors from two companies, this was very obvious. Even if the aim of providing better decision-making support was stated before commencement, it became clear at the meeting that stakeholders were interested in at least three major research areas when approaching this aim and they had different opinions regarding the underlying research. Only two out of the seven project groups held at least one additional meeting with the whole project group between the beginning of the doctoral project and the SG meeting. A positive consequence of having slightly difficult templates was the increased discussion between the doctoral students regarding the meaning, for example, of research aims, business values and internal and external cooperation potential. One student, who was doing an industrial doctorate at Volvo, stated: “It was great to contact X and see her templates. Even if our projects differ a lot and even if she is working at GKN, I see we have a number of common issues regarding our research.”

While the SG meeting was considered to be more frustrating due to a lack of familiarity within the groups and with the templates, the VG meeting that was held approximately six months after commencement was considered by many projects to be positive. Idea generation with some constraints had already been discussed before the start-up and proved useful. Again, there was only one project where all the associated supervisors in the project group met between the SG and the VG meetings. According to one student: “Having all my supervisors in one place and being able to discuss with all of them the possible external environments and where important research or development projects are and what needs to be considered, proved to be extremely useful.” A student who held his SG and VG meetings together (after failing at the first SG meeting) commented: “I still think your templates are difficult, but this was really a great day for me. I feel that I have a better understanding of what I need to do in my research.”

It was hoped that all CG meetings would be held approximately one year after the start, but the meetings were only held during the second study year. Unfortunately, in most of the doctoral projects the project groups did not hold any additional meeting between VG and SG.

One of the aims of TSM, i.e. to follow the doctoral process and empower doctoral students to gain a better grasp of their projects, was considered to have been reached, but further investigation is needed to discuss how this can be made more seamless. For two of the doctoral students, assuming responsibility was a major problem and planning the first gate meeting took an unnecessarily long time. In general, some experience of project management and process steering would be beneficial to all students before starting their industrial doctoral studies, i.e. from the second information meeting dealing with TSM one year after the start. Here we can see that it is not the well-run projects that are in most need of steering. The main benefit for the student is that she/he is presented with a valid problem early on and which is of interest to both the university and industry. Another important aspect is that training in project culture would be a considerable advantage when entering the professional world. Direct contact with industry during the study period would also be enhanced.

b) The academic supervisors’ perspective

 Those academic supervisors who had previous experience of industrial collaboration, and those who had collaborative projects involving different universities, were more positive about TSM. For the last two studies the industrial perspective and business value were only dealt with on a hypothetical level. In these two cases, the management group and the academic supervisors discussed the relevance of process steering to the projects. Although before the first TSM meeting (SG) the use of TSM was called into question, the supervisors agreed to continue using it due to the fact that TSM made it easier to follow the same project from different research areas and different places.

Initially, the academic supervisors were somewhat sceptical but they became significantly more positive after a number of meetings during which TSM was explained and discussed and after realising that TSM would help them in their collaboration with the mentors from industry. There were also differences of opinion between the supervisors depending on their level of activity in the doctoral projects. The younger supervisors in particular adopted a more protective view of their students’ time and involvement in activities that were not vitally important to an accurate study.

c) The industrial mentors’ perspective

Most of the mentors found it interesting to work with TSM except those from smaller consulting companies and in the case of a doctoral project where the supporting company changes during the project. A mentor from GKN stated: “In order to follow X’s [the doctoral student’s] work we participated in the regular status meetings where the TSM model was presented as support in the process and X presented her work. Accordingly, X […] is on the right path and we now understand her thesis proposal and a recently published paper at a scientific conference. From the company’s perspective, X’s efforts have resulted in improved maintenance expertise, which is valuable to us.”

There are differences between mentors who are already used to doctoral programmes and those who are not. Discussing terminology, e.g. what is a research proposal, when and how can a paper be published and what participation at conferences means for doctoral students, is important not only for managing and funding resources but also for attracting interest from the company.

In the short term the company will have a competence influx via those persons from the company who are participating in the project and via discussions with university participants on different occasions. Regulations and legal systems mean that concept content differs from one organisation to another. An example was that different regulations stipulated that organisations were required to maintain control of information security and privacy. These issues arose on several occasions at the gate meetings.

In the long run, however, it emerged that the TSM ideas are more difficult to understand in practice than the school management group first anticipated. We have met with different reactions and been somewhat surprised by them. One industrial mentor stated: “We are not experienced in identifying the research problem that needs to be addressed, and a problem almost never gets an industrial research project up and running”. This opinion needs to be discussed further. According to the aim of TSM and the discussions during the gate meetings, the industrial mentors should be empowered to express their thoughts and to attempt to deal with problems, needs and ideas within the project group. Industrial supervisors who are not used with supervising doctoral projects are not aware on their own role. At the end of the second year, a course for teaching mentors was requires. Maybe this course is not necessarily needed for everyone. For another project, another mentor, used with supervising doctoral projects r commented at a VG meeting: “I am not interested in this […] since it is only producing a small improvement for us, an improvement that I can order and test much cheaper from […]”. While the scientific relevance of the research depends more on the supervisor from academia, securing industry approval for the study is extremely important.

The mentors realised there was a willingness to focus on industrial challenges founded in business needs and they were positive, even if they were not sure about the results and even if they found it difficult to find the time to provide input for the doctoral students or find a time slot for collaborative gate meetings.

6. Discussion

Doctoral projects that aim to create new knowledge are difficult to evaluate, especially by introducing new routines or management instruments. What can be attributed to individual abilities and what can be attributed to artificial support is always a subject for debate. The general positive attitude, despite difficult templates, allocating time for meetings and solving coordination problems, is, as one student put it, a result of getting more attention. As one of the students stated: “On the whole, ApplyIT works very well, especially with regard to the additional aids it gives us when we compare an ApplyIT doctoral student to a ‘regular’ doctoral student.” According to the same student, being the first also means embarking on a new path: “I belong to the first group of doctoral students at the research school and I came across certain things that could be improved. These have also been raised with the management and steps have been taken. TSM works well and clearer instructions (with examples from past students) for the gate material are now in place. I believe this will provide a good example for future doctoral students.”

The role of support on the road to becoming an independent researcher could also be discussed. A member of the management group, who was an experienced mentor for several industrial doctoral projects, said: “In the case of my own doctoral studies, approximately fifty years ago, my supervisor told me to go to the library and find my research problem and research questions”. While this strategy may promote a willingness to learn and make new inroads through one’s own efforts, it is difficult to follow this principle today with the limited timeframes available. Finding a smaller research area by yourself and defining research questions may contribute to learning experiences but it can scarcely be followed by many stakeholders. According to one manager and mentor from another research school: “I don’t have time for Start Gate and Vision Gate. I have to define twelve important research questions prioritised at my company, choose twelve good students, and start with the Concept Gate”. Consequently, one can discuss the role and the number of gates and how these can be defined to support and not delimit research at the very beginning of doctoral projects. Here there is a related question regarding the quality of the project and how steering and supporting that can help truly revolutionary innovations (e.g. National Academies of Sciences, 2016) and not marginalise the research contributions (Blumenthal  et al., 1996) can be possible with predefined research questions. Establishing research questions in interesting research areas and defining research contributions are clearly different from development or consulting needs. Behind these questions there may only be a subtle border, and it should therefore be discussed further. Having pre-defined gates, templates and research questions may encourage investigation of roles and aims behind industrial doctoral projects in order to sort out possible concerns about exploitation of students and ’over-industrialisation’ of higher education. (Schiermeier, 2012: p. 559)

According to this study, exploring the diversity between academia and industry can produce values if the differences are acknowledged, identified and handled from the very outset. The gain for the company is understanding state-of-the-art technologies and associated research efforts at national and international level. The meetings for discussing and steering research projects are expected to provide a good example for future projects. There can be resulting spin-off effects in terms, for example, of good master’s dissertations and other research work initiation. The dominating positive effect for industry is if they employ the successful doctoral student and bring her/him into their organisation. There she/he will make a substantial contribution in terms of time, especially by analysing problems systematically. The ‘absorptive’ effect of the research school in general can be seen in the study by Bienkowska and Wallgren, in which 19 PhD graduates were interviewed 5-10 years after being awarded their PhD (Bienkowska and Wallgren, 2012). While many companies, especially the larger ones, have an interest in supporting genuine research, they are also interested in the higher levels of competence that can be accessed via new PhD graduates (Schiermeier, 2012)

7. Conclusions

This study presented a process steering instrument, TSM constructed and used at a research school in applied informatics and provided examples for its use. The main challenge was to getting the industrial research school to prioritize time and resources to start to use TSM. Our evaluation show that meetings would not be scheduled and, as Section 3 exemplified, issues would not be discussed without TSM. One of the main lessons from this study is illustrating the needs for carefully planned introductory activities. Industry mentors are not usually trained in research procedures. Their role should be better clarified. Since the backgrounds of the stakeholders are different, it would be beneficial to know more about their view of values, handling intellectual property, patents, publications and dependence on co-funding companies already during the development supporting instruments.

This study acknowledges the result from Hermans (2011), on the importance of having active and supportive social environment around the projects and the benefits of developing the instrument alongside with developing the research school. To adjust routines and procedures for TSM according to comments and suggestions from the different stakeholders during the development phase was useful.

TSM was served as a way for the doctoral student to take the leadership for their own projects and report partial advancements to all stakeholders, as the templates were well suited to such presentations. However, only some students could master project leading and instruments for process steering at the very beginning of their graduate careers.

During this study there were a number of changes at different levels at the research school and in the surrounding research environment, including changes in the institutional structure at the local university. More than half of the doctoral projects replaced some of the academic supervisors, and a number of them replaced mentors. Even the form in which the school was co-funded by the different stakeholders changed. Handling change needs to be investigated more thoroughly for such long-term projects. Our evaluation also show that small companies need more help and therefore it would be beneficial to further investigate the need for additional support to them.


I would like to thank Lars Bråthe for much help with this paper, Robert Murby and Eva Söderström for their collaboration for building TSM, the members of ApplyIT for their fruitful comments, and Patrick O’Malley for reviewing the paper.

[1] According to the Swedish Council for Higher Education, the average time taken for doctoral projects completed in 2014 was 5.5 years (11 terms). (See: http://studera.nu/forskarstudier/utbildningen/om-utbildningen/ )

[2] IS (or ISP) stands for Individual Study Plan, a yearly plan for the doctoral student that must be signed by the doctoral student and the academic supervisors.

[3] The industrial research school in Aplyied Informatics (ApplyIT) later changed its name to IPSI.

[4] The concluding seminar is often called a pre-defence seminar.

[5] In certain contexts, the industrial mentor is called an industrial supervisor.

[6] The name of the research school changed from ApplyIT to IPSI in 2015.

[6] The name of the research school changed from ApplyIT to IPSI in 2015.

[7] After changing the management group at the industrial research school, the Follow-up Gates and the End Gate were removed. See http://www.his.se/Forskning/Forskarutbildning/IPSI/Projektstyrning/ (July 22, 2016)


Ilona Heldal, Faculty of Engineering and Business Administration, University College Bergen, Norway, ilona.heldal(at)hib.no

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