Guest Post: Looking Outside Academia for Insights on Sustaining Strategic Innovation

The apparent contrast between a “look inside” versus “look outside” is really a complementarity.

June 8, 2021

Our colleague Steven Mintz has been posting regularly in this column about how to improve teaching quality and effectiveness by systematically bringing to scale many of the innovations in teaching and learning that already exist within pockets of institutions. Georgetown University's Randy Bass made a similar point a decade ago in a widely circulated article on "Disrupting Ourselves":

“One key source of disruption in higher education is coming not from the outside but from our own practices, from the growing body of experiential modes of learning, moving from margin to center, and proving to be critical and powerful in the overall quality and meaning of the undergraduate experience.”

On the other hand, in a previous post in Inside Higher Ed's "Learning Innovation" column, Josh Kim noted that “Higher education will not figure out its future by only thinking about higher education. We need to look outside academia, and where possible, use these examples to think about our possible higher ed futures.”

We think the apparent contrast between these comments about disruptive innovation in higher education “look inside” versus “look outside” is really a complementarity:

  • Look inside for the new ideas that can dramatically improve teaching and learning
  • Look outside for help in designing new ways to scale the best innovations for strategic impact

We've been exploring this approach with scenarios of institutions setting a course to sustain strategic innovation in teaching and learning by looking inside to incubate and accelerate educational innovations and looking outside for guidance on organizing and managing those developments, including aligning innovative activities with strategic intent.

We present next an excerpt from one of those scenarios fictionalized from real cases we have closely tracked to illustrate when these institutions might be advised to look outside, where they could look and what they would find there of value. We'll close with a sketch of our ongoing research to reality-check these proof-of-concept scenarios against real world constraints.

Heartland State University: How Can an Established University Sustain a One-Off Innovation Success?

Heartland State is a (fictionalized) established midsize comprehensive state institution with a primarily undergraduate student body, drawing most of its students from within the state (as well as a growing international clientele). Heartland has won statewide awards for its integrative approach to demonstrating and documenting learning outcomes and for its innovative use of technology to support learning. This success has led to a recognized niche of excellence within the state and is supported by participation in a national network of like-minded institutions.

Now that Heartland has become a model for other institutions in the state, the senior team wants to sustain that leadership role by continuing to break new ground in related areas of teaching and learning (beyond just incremental improvements on the existing success). Looking back on “how we got here,” the senior team recognizes that institutionalizing strategic innovation will require new approaches. One of their key questions is how to ensure alignment between the bottom-up discovery and incubation innovation activities they want to foster at the level of individual faculty and teams and the more top-down decisions about strategic intent, where their most promising innovations should be accelerated to scale up new practices and programs to realize the intended return on investment).

Looking Inside

Having identified this alignment as one of the critical issues in sustaining innovation in teaching and learning, the senior team in the scenario instigated a search for insights from other higher education institutions. This was led by the special assistant to the president (whose responsibilities included an open-ended “strategic initiatives”). One resource her team consulted was Jeff Selingo's 2018 report on "The Rise of the Chief Innovation Officer in Higher Education," which noted that:

  • Some academic institutions have developed innovation hubs to serve as focal points for innovation. However, these were not always driven by institutional strategic intent and were not always successful in bringing innovations to scale.
  • Some have appointed a high-level chief innovation officer role at an associate vice president level. Few of these had as yet reached a second generation of incumbents, so it is not clear how stable these positions are. In addition, many of the institutional respondents expressed concern that their innovation efforts were not well-connected to the mainstream organization.

Moreover, the institutions with these developments were typically more complex and better-resourced than Heartland State. It soon became clear to Heartland's team that many other higher ed institutions were also seeking better answers to the alignment issue, either on their own or in collaborations.

Looking Outside: Research on Sustaining Strategic Innovation in Mature Organizations

In the next phase of the scenario, the team led by the special assistant was directed by Heartland's senior leaders to explore insights from outside higher education. The most-cited studies on sustaining strategic innovation in mature organizations was a collaboration of academic researchers (Gina and her colleagues) with corporate sector innovation leaders over more than two decades, whose results are described in the following sequence of books as well as numerous scholarly and professional articles:

  • 1995-2000: Radical Innovation: How Mature Companies Can Outsmart Upstarts [2000]
  • 2002-2008: Grabbing Lightning: Building a Capability for Breakthrough Innovation [2008]
  • 2010-2017: Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation Through People [2018] (from which all the sample research insights in the box below are excerpts)

An example of the conclusions from this research was the success of the “innovation function” approach in the leading-edge corporate partners, in which management of strategic innovation has evolved along the same lines within the organizations as marketing and human resources, from second-tier administrative units to key strategic level functions. In parallel, the focus among the most successful corporate innovators has shifted from “appointing a chief innovation officer” to understanding the activities and roles within the innovation function and the best way to sustain them over time within a particular organization. The adjacent table shows some of the details of the high-level activities and roles in successful corporate innovation functions. (The research conclusions also proposed various adaptations of the approach to fit into the context of smaller organizations.)

(How) Can Insights From the Corporate Sector Be Adapted for Higher Ed?

In the final step of the Heartland State scenario, the senior team adapted insights from this corporate sector research for incorporation into their plans for ongoing strategic innovation. The key goal was to achieve the model roles and activities in a way that suited Heartland's mission, values and culture (without any need to imitate the corporate sector structure for doing that).

Sample Research Insights on High-Level Activities and Roles in the Innovation Function

Direct strategic innovation activities via a top-level Innovation Council

  • Set domains of strategic intent …
  • Set appropriate metrics for strategic innovation function …
  • Make investment decisions on accelerating opportunity domains …
  • Align innovation agenda with strategic innovation capability …

Link Strategic Innovation with the Organizational Mainstream

  • Senior-level position and influence, e.g., chief innovation officer
  • Foster and monitor health of organizational innovation culture
  • Ensure innovation is embedded in strategic financial and operating plans, from discovery through incubation to acceleration

Maintain the Health of the Innovation System to Deliver Success

  • “Orchestrate” and link discovery, incubation and acceleration
  • Coordinate project and opportunity domain management
  • Monitor and align capabilities and talent management

Here are some adaptations from the scenario, to develop the necessary innovation function activities and roles in Heartland State's higher ed context:

  • Form a new high-level innovation task force as a unit within the executive council to provide senior-level oversight and governance for the new strategic innovation functions. This simplified version to direct and align the innovation function from the corporate research initially includes two academic vice presidents, two administrative vice presidents and two deans.
  • Instead of seeking a chief innovation officer, split the strategic innovation roles from corporate research into two assignments, both with ex officio membership on the innovation task force.
  • Assign the strategic linking roles from the corporate research to the special assistant in her strategic initiatives mandate, with clear top-level direction and support from the president.
  • Assign the orchestrator roles to an executive director for strategic innovation (to be filled on an interim basis by the executive director who had led the team for Heartland State's initial successful strategic innovation described above).

There's more information on the scenario results in the blog post series at our project website. Other insights from the corporate sector research, in areas such as innovation career pathways and linking discovery, incubation and acceleration projects, also were adaptable in scenarios at Heartland State and elsewhere. Of equal interest were the key research insights that did not fit into our higher education scenarios, due to differences in context from the corporate sector organizations where they succeeded.

Results like these from our proof-of-concept test scenarios indicated to us that further work on adapting insights from the corporate sector could provide valuable guidance for strategic innovation in higher education. We are now engaged in a further stage of assessment, testing our current prototype scenarios with senior leaders at representative higher education institutions and planning prototype tests of the adaptation process on current issues in strategic innovation with institutional partners.

Thomas Carey is co-principal catalyst with the Workplace Innovation Network for Canada and a former associate vice president at the University of Waterloo and senior partner with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Anahita Baregheh is an associate professor in the School of Business at Nipissing University and research director in the Workplace Innovation Network for Canada. Gina Colarelli O'Connor is professor of innovation management at Babson College, where she leads Babson's executive education programs in corporate strategic innovation.

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