Prof. Dr. Thomas Baaken holds a position of a Senior Professor in Marketing at FH Münster – University of Applied Sciences. In 1998-2003 Thomas Baaken served as Vice President Research and TechTransfer. In 2002 he founded the “Science-to-Business Marketing Research Centre”, which creates marketing strategies and tools on how to market research and how to undertake university-business co-operation (UBC) and brought the Centre great success. In this personal note, Thomas discusses the qualities of a Spanning Boundaries agents and his own journey is boundary spanning.

I am a great admirer of Walter Gropius, who, despite the adversity of the times, founded Bauhaus in Weimar in the 1920s. The establishment still stands for a unique connection between art and architecture. Gropius didn’t let himself be disheartened: after heavy political attacks, he the Bauhaus to Dessau. The Bauhaus’ leader inspired and captivated a large number of people, greatly impacting the architecture during short but fruitful existence of the company. Gropius had to assert himself against many opponents with a great deal of courage and will; and even during the times when his project was on the brink of collapse, he still managed to succeed. Gropius did not give up and kept going. Many students were inspired by him and joined his movement, thus showing their trust in him.

When I recently visited the Bauhaus in Dessau and immersed myself into Walter Gropius works once again, I realised what five qualities contributed to his success as a Spanning Boundaries agent: civil courage, resilience, visionary, enthusiasm and light-heartedness.

I, by no means, want to put myself into the same line with Gropius! But let’s see if I am a bit of a Spanning Boundaries agent myself when measured against these criteria.

An organisation such as a university always requires civil courage when one wants to make a difference. At our institute, one of my favourite sayings is quite literally hanging right in front of the entrance: “Everyone said it’s not possible. But then someone came along who didn’t know that and simply did it”. With the creation of the institute, I have made myself quite independent from the university’s budget allocation system. We raise our own money as third-party funds from industry and thus have “free funds”. Therefore, I was always able to make decisions myself and did not have to obtain approvals. In cases of doubt I always acted according to the motto “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”. This, however, didn’t help my ‘popularity’ amongst those decisionmakers within the university, who look after the processes and regulations. This sometimes requires a little “courage of the desperate” to go forward with the flag; but the success always proves you right.

With my resilience, on the other hand, it is not so far off. I, of course, get really upset when I fail, when applications get rejected, when my proposals aren’t granted… so much work and so little reward. And often I ask myself:  “Why are you doing all this? Can’t you just be like others and simply follow the rules without experiencing any ups and downs?”. But I always had these role models right in front of me, in my team, some were once successful competitive athletes: these people taught me that you can only be successful if you refuse to allow temporary setbacks defeat you and put you down. “Fall down. Stand up. Straighten your crown. Carry on!”. It’s hard to keep going at times, but when success comes along, it will by far outweigh those minor setbacks. Any athlete can confirm that, just like anyone who works in the field of university-business co-operation (UBC).

Yes, you have to be visionary! Otherwise nobody knows where to go. And you have to create and share this vision with everyone else – make it as ambitious as possible, yet achievable. In our field, there are so many great ‘visions’ out there, such as consolidating the university in its region with hundreds of projects and developing relationships full of trust between SMEs and academics. My vision was that with our approach at the institute we can demonstrate the paybacks and mutual benefits for both sides by bringing people together on equal terms. We developed and provided (visionary) tools for this purpose … and it worked.

There is always a commitment to do the best we can – always giving 110% by always running the extra mile. And we owe it to ourselves. These visions must find their way into reality through enthusiasm. If we are passionate about something and develop real drive, only then will we be able to overcome our limits and move forward.

Last but not least, it is quintessential to have fun, feel joy, and face complex situations with humour. This keeps us all together and makes us stronger as a team. More importantly, you also have to celebrate successes properly. Your own celebration is contagious and those around you would want to share your accomplishments.

Finally, as a Spanning Boundaries agent, you must be your genuine self. If you are not authentic and true to yourself, it’s not going to work out, because we are in the people’s game when we talk about UBC.

I am also very happy and grateful that I have such a great team to work with. So far, about 40 people from all over the world, from South America to Africa, from Asia to Europe. I am aware of and acknowledge that these diverse cultures, personalities and worldviews have made a considerable contribution to my ability to break down the boundaries too.

So, am I really a Spanning Boundaries agent? Maybe I am somewhat, and I am proud of this; proud that we have achieved so much, that we have really been able to improve the world, that so many colleagues in both academia and industry in so many countries have been able to benefit from our knowledge and our projects. Those ‘at home’ often don’t know anything about it; but what the heck – we do know it and we look at ourselves in the mirror every day. Thank you to everyone whom I’ve met and worked and thank you, Walter Gropius!

Author: Thomas Baaken