In the know

Since the 1970s KTP projects have provided knowledge-sharing partnerships that are just as valid now as in the days of flared trousers and platform heels, says Jo Stevens.

The BBC series Life on Mars — which has just finished its first series — was an entertaining reminder of how different things were in the 1970s. Plenty of things that seemed like a good idea three decades ago haven’t really stood the test of time.

Some, however, were very much ahead of their time, and I’d like to offer the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) programme as an example of 1970s foresight at its best. Amid the jokes about bad fashions and tasteless home furnishings, it’s easy to forget what a tough period the 1970s were for the UK economy — not least its engineering and manufacturing sectors.

KTP was set up in 1976 in a bid to help them survive and thrive. Thirty years on, when the challenges are different but no less acute, KTP is actually more relevant than ever. Its mission is to ‘strengthen the competitiveness, wealth creation and economic performance of the UK by the enhancement of knowledge and skills, and the stimulation of innovation through collaborative projects between business and the knowledge base’.

What that means in practice is using the knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK‘s academic or research communities (the knowledge base) to help companies. A partnership is created between a company and the knowledge base in response to a specific and strategic project.

This is hugely important, because as the economies of China and India forge ahead, the need has never been greater for UK companies to explore the best technologies available, leading to a market position based on technical excellence and competitive solutions that can succeed in a global market.

But don’t just take my word for it. The Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2003 report, The Future of Engineering Research, noted that industry, responding to competitive cost pressures, ‘has dismantled many of the large corporate research laboratories in favour of outsourcing and leaner modes of research’.

This has resulted in a ‘more efficient industrial research process… but has also tended to reduce industry spend on both speculative long-term research and translational research to convert promising technologies into demonstrators’. This is matched with an increased pressure on academia to commercialise research output, both within the university and through industrial partnerships.

Led by the DTI, KTP is a key element of the government’s response to these challenges, helping engineering companies develop their capabilities, compete in a global market and deliver process optimisation.

Each partnership employs one or more high-calibre people, known as associates, to work in the company on the project, which can last from one to three years. The associates are supported by the knowledge base that brings relevant experience to the project. Each partnership is part-funded by the government, with the balance of the costs coming from the company partner.

KTP creates a virtuous circle, allowing newly qualified people to get hands-on experience on a project that has strategic importance while helping to close the skills gaps in industry; the knowledge base enhances its understanding of commercial needs; and the company receives a dedicated resource from the knowledge base — gaining invaluable technological guidance from experts in the field, promoting industry confidence and maintaining a sufficient volume of R&D in the UK.

On its 30th birthday KTP is still delivering the goods. According to the latest research, one KTP project can increase profits before tax by over £220,000. The project also creates jobs, raises the overall skills of those involved; and encourages a culture of innovation and collaboration among partners. For every £1m of government investment in KTP the benefits to UK businesses amount to a £3.3m increase in annual profits before tax, the creation of 77 new jobs and 263 staff trained.

Jo Stevens is marketing manager, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programme.