Get With It: Why a Corporate Funder Is Backing Research on Innovation and Organizations

As the world's biggest technology and management consulting firm, Accenture is the kind of group you hire to design business applications and solutions on the very largest scale. But in this era of evolving technologies, big data and the infinitely complex connectedness of the Internet, businesses and governments face gnarly problems of data security, espionage, inefficiency and stuff just plain not working.

Leveraging these technologies creativelyand practicallyis tough, even for an international powerhouse like Accenture, with its 336,000 employees around the world.

Accenture's relatively new Open Innovation program, announced late last year, is designed to be a bridge in what it calls the "innovation ecosystem," linking the people who invent important tech solutions with the organizations that need them. Innovators include all the places you expect progress to come from: universities, tech accelerators, startups, venture capitalists and corporate R&D labs.

Open innovation as a concept in R&D is pretty much self-explanatory: It's intended to improve and accelerate an organization's ability to use solutions developed externally, saving time and money.

Accenture's Open Innovation program just announced a round of grants to 11 researchers at institutions in the US, India, China and Spain, including Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford, Purdue, Indian Institute of Technology, Zhejiang University and Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya.

Among the areas funded were now-familiar topics like cyber security, virtual workforces, 3D printing and natural language processing, but also slightly more arcane stuff like cognitive computing.

In addition to the monetary grant, says Accenture, the researchers will benefit from Accenture's real-world business experience, and vice versa. The program is obviously good for the academics who get the funding, but it's also good business for Accenture, effectively expanding its own R&D capabilities with people on the leading edge. And although the developments that come out of an open innovation program may ultimately be public, Accenture obviously gets the jump on applying these novel solutions.

Accenture isn't disclosing the grant amounts, so it's hard to gauge their immediate impact on the researchers or the potential return on investment for Accenture. But for a company with net revenues of $30 billion, in a business where individual contracts can run into the millions of dollars, the grants are likely cheap at the price.

But when corporations give money to university researchers, we do have to consider this question of transparency. Should corporations give funding to academics and universities? Of course they should. Are there dangers in this? Of course there are. When pharmaceutical companies give medical researchers lots of money to investigate a new drug, there are very real dangers that researchers will misreport findings to assure funding. That's a serious threat to public health, and the integrity of the scientists and the science involved, though we need new drugs and industry support for their research and development.  

Accenture's grants to technology innovators working on business problems probably may not fit in the same context as medical research, but they're still important. Among the most important ideals of academic work are impartiality and independence, and the same money that funds those ideals can also be their biggest threat.