Creating and growing a personal industry group


Recently, I read a draft grant application that included an allowance for dinner for the industry advisory group. I nixed it.

I explained to the applicant that, while it may technically be an allowable budget item, most reviewers of that funding scheme would see it as an extravagance.

This led to a discussion of how she was going to run her industry advisory group. They were going to meet three or four times a year, probably over dinner, to get an update on the project and provide advice and feedback. Essentially, it was a dinner party with a focus on her research.

That made sense to me. If you want to create your own industry advisory group, create a good dinner party. Invite people that you would be interested in having dinner with, and that you think would be interested in meeting one another. Make it diverse enough to keep the conversation flowing, but not so diverse that it is divisive. Talk about the things that you passionate about. Disagree, and agree to disagree. Build trust relationships.

If it turns out that the best way to do this is to have a dinner party, so be it.

One of the cleverest researchers I know built her own industry advisory group, and I’ve always thought that it was something that more researchers should do. She worked in a very applied field, and she always kept her eye out for people who were interested in new ideas and in building the industry into the future.

Three or four times a year, she would invite these people to a meeting at the university. She would talk about new trends in research that she thought might be interesting or useful to them. She would listen very hard to how they reacted, and what they had to say. Every once in a while, she would invite some of them to partner with her on funding applications for projects that they were particularly interested in.

Some of these people were competitors with each other, but they weren’t being competitors when they were meeting with her. The university provided a neutral space where they could put aside their industrial rivalry for an hour or two. They found that it was a valuable thing to do because it provided them with new ideas. It gave them a chance to lift their eyes from the day-to-day and think about bigger things. It provided a little networking space of their own. After all, she had picked them because they were interested in the future of their industry. That meant that they not only had a similar backgrounds, but also similar mindsets.

In general, industry advisory members contribute their time because they value the relationship. They don’t need to be paid in cash – they see value in the activity in and of itself.

How this might work for you

The nice thing about building your own industry advisory group is that you don’t need to be a senior researcher to do it. You don’t need much in the way of resources or funding. You don’t need much of anything really, except a group of like-minded individuals and the back room at a pub. If it is a pleasurable activity, and everybody sees value in doing it, then it doesn’t need special funding or a special venue. It just needs to happen wherever everybody is most comfortable, with everybody paying their own way.

The people that you invite onto your industry advisory group should be people that you like and trust, and want to spend more time with. They might be people that you went through university with, or people that you have met through your own social network. They might be past students, or people that you think would make great PhD students in the future. They could, in fact, be anybody, as long as they share a passion for your particular research topic, and you would be willing to have dinner with them, or a beer, or a coffee, or a breakfast – whatever works for you and the group.

One key idea is to eliminate the cliche that most people think about when they think of an industry event: high-powered people gathering at the university to discuss The Future. I don’t know about you, but the meeting rooms at my university are the least appealing places imaginable to hold an intriguing soirée. Make it relaxed. Make it fun.

If it is a pleasurable activity, it has much more chance of becoming self-sustaining. You will know that it is working if you find yourself lost in the flow of conversation, talking about ideas simply for the pleasure of it. If people have a good time, they will want to come again, simply because they have had a good time. You will be willing to put the time in because you had fun doing it last time.

What’s your industry?

There are different ways to define what your ‘industry’ might be. It could be where your students get jobs. It could be people that you are trying to influence. It might be members of the public who are interested in your topic. It could be the readers of your blog, or members of your Facebook group. In essence, it is people who you want to connect with, who are not themselves academics in your discipline. There is nothing wrong with meeting up with a bunch of academics in your area – it’s just that it would be a research colloquium, not an industry group.

I’m an administrator at a university. My job is to help people get funding for their research. As such, my industry is academia (which means that the next bit gets a little bit meta). My personal industry group consists of four or five colleagues that I met while working at RMIT. We liked to hang out together, and we all thought that the others were doing interesting things. Some of us were administrators, some of us were academics, some of us have moved between the two. We were all interested in the idea of making universities better (or at least making them less worse), and we continue to believe in that ideal. We come from different disciplines and we are at different life stages. Over time, we have ended up working at different universities in different States, but we still get together at least once a year (more if we happen to be at the same event). We don’t really think of ourselves as an industry group – more a group of colleagues who are also friends. There is little formality between us, and we trust one another. It works for us.