Servitization: making it real for business

October saw the thirteenth meeting of our Advanced Services Partnership. The Aston team came together with some thirty executives from ten multinational manufacturers to reflect and debate the progress they, and manufacturing in general, are making towards advanced services. In this meeting they paid particular attention to the contracts and financing for outcome based contracts. The two day meeting of the partnership was exceptional in the quality and focus of the conversations and interactions. So much so, that it was actually a very humbling experience when we, the Aston team, came together for our regular post-event review. The partnership and advanced services have come a long way, and these are some of the reasons why.

The very first meeting of the advanced services partnership was held at KLM Schiphol in 2015. The stimulus behind the initiative came about through our work with Goodyear. Jim Euchner, the then Chief Innovation Officer at the time, had spoken to me about the struggle he had finding and networking with like-minded business executives – he summarised the situation in his now infamous quote ‘servitization is a very lonely place to be!’. At the same time, colleagues at Aston were working on a substantial EPSRC funded programme looking into the servitization transformation processes, and were looking for a set of businesses through which we could develop our ideas and develop new techniques to accelerate the adoption of servitization. The notion of a small but influential network of like-minded executives was very appealing to us all, but what form should such a network take?

Coming up with the model for the partnership took considerable thought, determination and reflection. We looked at a range of different models, where industry and their partners come together to advance knowledge, and we thought long and hard about the features that would work for a collaboration around servitization. Of course collaborations between university and industry bring many benefits, including access to thought leaders and brand association – but to our minds, these are symptoms of success and we wanted to get under the surface of what really enables such success. Three particular features have emerged which are key:

Alignment: We realised early on in the partnership that we had to be clear and open about our mutual objectives and how collaboration would help us achieve these. We want to move forwards with research, but our industrial partners want to move forwards with the commercialisation of servitization. A relationship has to work for all stakeholders and so we need demonstrable evidence of progress across the board. For the academics this means research papers, mini-guides and case studies, while for the businesses this means new business investments, service innovations, customer engagement and commercial impact. Both sets of deliverables need to be satisfied, and these can’t be compromised, and so our partnership is built on a regular demonstration of progress for both sets of stakeholders.

Intimacy: Just after the launch of the partnership, we came to appreciate that regular discussion and communication between the academic team and business was a key success factor, and that it would not be sufficient to simply meet two or three times a year. On reflection, the reasons underpinning this are clear. For the Aston team, the study of servitization isn’t just part of the day job, it’s a full time occupation. Indeed, it is so much more than simply the day job, and it is exactly the same for the practitioners and businesses that are shaping industrial practice. The partnership is therefore based on regular communications. In addition to meeting three times a year at the Roundtables, partners are guaranteed a fortnightly conversation with the Aston team – and in reality these contacts take place far more frequently at critical times. All these meetings reflect on progress and challenges. They are the conduit for the researchers to be updated on the experiences of the practitioners, and for the practitioners to gain insight into the most recent and relevant thought leadership innovations relevant to their current challenges.

Sensitivity: This is perhaps the feature that most distinguishes a relationship that a business might have with a university from those with other organisations. Progress within the partner businesses and research team is enabled by open, objective and constructive sharing of knowledge and experiences. This is a delicate process which is easily compromised by matters such as competitive issues between partner companies, or the host organisation having a sales or commercial agenda. A university offers a neutral platform for discussion and debate, but this neutrality can only be preserved if the right people are in the room and appropriate rules of engagement are in place. For example, although no NDAs are in place for the partnership, neither are consultants or vendors allowed into the group.

The three key characteristics – alignment, intimacy and sensitivity – are the keys to success. Of course there are many other factors that wrap around these, such as excellent organisation of events, etc., but it’s these three characteristics which are fundamental to success. Moving forwards we will continue to build the advanced services partnership, and we expect to evolve our practices, but these fundamentals will remain core to how we operate.

To find out more about the Advanced Services Partnership, visit