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5 Ideas to Support Innovation in Higher Ed
February 6, 2012 - 8:26pm

What would you say if you were asked to list the 5 principles, ideas, actions, steps, or investments you would make to support and catalyze innovation in learning and scholarship at your institution?

Here are my 5 ideas, and I'm hoping that they will be improved, changed, deleted, re-written, and evolved by our discussion.

1. Embrace that the Smartest Person on Campus is the Campus:  

This idea is lifted directly from David Weinberger's new book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.

If we want to design, support and nurture a culture of campus innovation then we need to invest in mechanisms to facilitate collaboration and communication across the campus. An innovative path cannot be imposed, rather innovation will be the organic by-product of open exchange, transparency, and shared projects. Digital technologies can support and undergird exchange and openness, but they must be understood as the means of connection and not the ends. The level of campus innovation will be directly proportional to the level of cross-department, cross-school, cross-faculty, and cross-unit collaboration - as well as the transparency and sharing of these collaborative projects with the community.

2. Develop a Common Language Around Innovation:

My first instinct when getting any group of 2 or more people together is to give everyone a book to read and discuss. So naturally, if my goal is to encourage campus wide innovation then I am going to assign some reading. In this case, I'd have everyone read The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge by Vijay Govindarajan  and Chris Trimble. 

The problem with innovation is that we all think that we are innovative. Turns out, executing on innovation requires a specific set of structures, supports, and practices - few of which are obvious (or easy). This book does not provide a roadmap for innovation in higher ed, but rather a set of practices and principles that can be localized to a diverse set of campus goals and situations.

3. Support the Core While Running Lots of Experiments:

While creating a campus wide culture of innovation is essential (see #1), the actual practice of innovation must take place outside of the normal operating procedures of campus life. It is the success of our daily work of teaching and research, through efficient and productive practices, that allows small innovative experiments to proceed (and perhaps fail). 

An innovative campus requires both efficient day-to-day operations around our core business of teaching, learning and research - and an investment in experimenting with new models at small scale (with dedicated teams). The choice to innovate requires an understanding of how core operations and innovative practices are both linked and distinct, and a willingness to invest in both.

4. Practice Collaboration by Difference:

This idea is stolen directly from Cathy N. Davidson's marvelous book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. (Note:  If you are looking for someone to visit your campus to both spark ideas and bring people together you would have a hard time doing better than Cathy).  

Collaboration by difference is the purposeful mixing of people with different perspectives, experience and expertise to work together on projects and teams. We are all working so hard that it is often difficult to make the effort to bring people on to our teams outside of our usual suspects.  We get comfortable with working with people who share similar expertise or titles. Davidson's work suggests that homogenous teams will have a difficult time completing innovative work.   If innovation is our goal then we must pay careful attention to the diversity of the people around our project tables.

5. Invest in a Continued Conversation:

A colleague recently told me that she used to believe that working effectively requires lots of conversations, but today she thinks that the conversation is the work.  Innovation requires persuasion, leadership, and the aggregation of people and resources around a shared set of goals. We have a long-tail of innovators who too often work independently of each other.  Creating conditions for conversation, interaction, and collaboration requires investments as certain as those required to build classrooms, libraries, labs and dorms.   Recognizing that innovation requires sustained campus interactions will reveal the need to invest resources in supporting these conversations.

These principles seems perhaps too generic, too much in danger of slipping into platitudes rather than actionable items.

Can you attach some specific proposals and projects to these ideas?

 

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