Alf Rehn: “Researchers and the business world should co-create more”

We asked Professor Alf Rehn about how researchers and the business world can co-create more effectively and find common interests. We also learned about the new research topics that interest him right now.

“I have always worked with the business world, and I love startups. I have always had a pretty good understanding of both the university and the business world. Once I was even called a CEO whisperer.”

Alf Rehn

Alf Rehn is a well-known Finnish researcher and currently a Professor of Innovation, Design and Management in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Southern Denmark. He is also a highly sought-after keynote speaker for companies and various types of events. Despite being very busy, he still finds time to help startups and has been a member of many corporate boards. And he has been nominated to the Thinkers 50 list twice.

Board positions and working as an advisor has come naturally to Rehn. Recently, he has made some tweaks in how he uses his time to help others.

“I have decreased the number of board positions. I still sit on the board of Nordic Business Forum, and I have some other positions of trust. I want to focus on helping startups as an advisor.”

Businesses need a better understanding of what drives researchers

Rehn thinks that Professors of Business in particular are very familiar with working as an advisor or being board members. But that’s not the case for every discipline, because researchers are usually most interested in their specific research topics. For example, Professors of Mathematics tend to be mostly interested in mathematics, and generally, each is focused on a very specific area of mathematics.

“Universities are sometimes unfortunately regarded as cheap consulting agencies. There is a difference, however, between whether a task requested by a businessperson is research or consulting. Once I was asked to do a consulting job, and I said that, ‘Yes, I can do that, but this will be the price.’ Their reaction was, ‘How on earth is that possible, that price is the same as with a top management consulting firm!’ I told them, ‘Sure, because this is consulting, not research.’ So, this must be understood by both sides when defining a project.”

The business world needs a better understanding of how universities work and the key drivers for researchers. Funding a project is naturally important, but researchers are truly after academic publications and reputation. This is not always understood by the business world.

We should focus more on senior citizens and Africa

Rehn notes that there are a number of areas that simply do not get the attention they deserve. In particular, he thinks that our aging demographic structure represents an economical megatrend. This also highlights a massive number of consumers whose consumption has been researched far too little, but it’s not too late to make up for the valuable time already missed. 

“For over a decade, I have explained in all sorts of forums and arenas that we should research older people. But it seems like the topic never became a top priority. This is a bit annoying, honestly.”

Another topic Rehn is focused on right now is African studies. He thinks that we are not currently researching Africa enough, despite the enormous things happening there.

“But I’m afraid that in the end, I’ll just have to say, ‘Didn’t I tell you?’ Because it looks like we are going to miss this opportunity too.”

But if someone in the business world wanted to do something about this, what would be the first step?

“It all starts with an honest conversation between researchers and the business world. It shouldn’t be a competition for funding. I think that we should better utilize some arena or forum we already have, where these people could present their ideas and problems they have. That way, we probably could find the right matches and go forwards.”

“Usually, we get wiser when we lose opportunities. For example, no one could have predicted that a group of Reddit users on r/Wallstreetbets could start a short squeeze and shake the whole stock market. The idea of researchers lurking on Reddit to find such information is quite hilarious. With the knowledge we now have, many companies would have funded research like that.”

Seeing the potential of co-creation

Companies and universities should rethink their cooperation. In Finland, VTT Research Technical Research Centre and Tampere University conducted a study that revealed collaboration between universities and businesses is actually decreasing. For many years, Finland was among the top European countries in this type of collaboration. One key problem they identified is the lack of research problems that are interesting to both businesses and academics. Simply put, funding is not enough to keep researchers interested.

What does Rehn think about this trend?

“This is a very complicated question. In my current position, in the Faculty of Engineering, there are all kinds of collaborations. But the situation is not the same for all academics. In the Faculty of Arts, they might not see the world through the same lenses as we do, because for them it’s far more difficult to imagine a way they could collaborate with businesses. Their interests are far away from those of businesses.”

Researchers are interested in topics that will be trending in maybe ten or fifteen years. Science can do amazing things, but science is not fast – and it’s not always crystal clear. In consulting, it’s common to ask for a couple of opinions and based on them, state that this is the truth. In academia, the process is a lot slower. There is a need to interview dozens of people, and data analysis is far more in-depth. A researcher won’t state anything as a fact unless they are completely sure that it is correct and verifiable.

“I wrote my dissertation about the gift economy and nobody understood why I wanted to research it. But fifteen years later, everybody is talking about that topic! That’s how it works. That’s how I finally understood why focusing on smaller details is important. It brings value in the future.”

“When businesses and universities work together, understanding each other’s perspectives should be the foundation. I think it’s a bit odd if a researcher asks for funding just because some topic is interesting for them. And vice versa, businesses should not think that the world exists only for them and that universities should only do research that is applicable to them today.”

“We should help companies understand that universities are future laboratories. They should be allowed to study issues that will be significant in the future.”

We can all agree that co-creation and diversity always lead to better results. Mika Pantzar noted in his interview that different backgrounds and ways of working bring diversity – and this should be better utilized in co-operation. And as Kim Oguilve, CMO at Maria 01 said, diverse professional groups perform better. 


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