Why 'Innovation' Has Become a Dirty Word Across Much of Higher Ed IT

Why skeptical academic IT professionals are right to be wary.

September 14, 2016

I’m all about innovation. Experimentation. Research and Development. What excites me is non-incremental change. The status quo has never held much interest.


The problem is that in some minds and in some places in higher ed IT - ‘innovation' has become a dirty word. And for good reasons.

In this post, the skeptics that I am referring to are my colleagues in IT leadership - colleagues whose skepticism over “innovation initiatives” I have watched grow over the years. We can (and should) have a separate discussion of how faculty interpret language around IT innovation (not good), but for now the observations below are confined to those professionals working in postsecondary information technology leadership positions.

For many of these IT leaders, ‘innovation' has become code for a set of beliefs and practices that have actually worked against the larger goals of the campus IT organization. There is a level of ‘innovation fatigue’ amongst many academic IT leaders. Why is that?

‘Innovation’, like ‘disruption’ -  at least in the buzzy and marketing speak that we higher ed yackers are all too likely to succumb  - has become code for:

  • A failure to attend to the resiliency, redundancy, and professional management of core higher IT resources and services.
  • The launching of passion projects (often following the latest educational or technology fads) without regard to long-term sustainability or alignment with larger institutional goals.
  • The failure to adequately account for downstream dependencies in resources (people and dollars) to keep the 'innovative' project going.
  • The devaluation of essential but “non-sexy” IT services  that the institution depends on for daily operations.
  • The segregation of a class of privileged employees who get to work on high-profile (but ultimately low-impact) projects, and the commensurate devaluing of the contributions of professionals engaged in the core work of the institution.

If you have the great good fortune (and dumb luck) of being able to spend significant cycles on postsecondary innovation work - a privilege that few enjoy - I recommend communicating the following 5 points:

1 - The ability to invest time and resources in work around innovation is completely dependent on the success of the core operations.  Core operations pay for - and are the foundation upon - any innovation (research and development) work rests.

2 - Experimental (innovative) efforts should support and contribute to the operational (day-to-day) work of the institution.  In order for that to occur, there must be strong communication and transparency across the different domains of effort - as well as the people involved in both types of efforts.

3 - Any innovative, long-term, and experimental initiatives should have buy-in and support from leadership.  Ideally, executive sponsorship should come from leaders who have responsibility over both the operational and experimental projects and teams.

4 - Anyone involved in disciplined experiments or other innovation projects needs to be fully aware of the challenges and scarcities faced by their colleagues working on core initiatives and projects - and should do whatever they can to support this core work.

5 - It is important to realistically set the expectations around the benefits of academic IT innovation efforts.

The fact that ‘innovation’ has become in some places a dirty word in higher ed IT can also open up space for productive conversations.  Even the most skeptical IT professional believes that institutions must experiment, take calculated risks, and move forward. Anyone who has made a career in academic IT has done so because they believe that technologies can be used to advance teaching, learning, and research. Every higher ed technology professional believes that that technology can be a strategic lever to promote institutional advancement, resiliency, and long-term sustainability.

What those skeptical of innovation in IT don’t want to see are projects and initiatives that crowd out, and detract from, the necessary services and operations to which every campus IT unit is accountable. Both the direct and opportunity costs for any academic IT innovation initiative must be recognized, accounted for, and paid for.

We can move a higher ed IT innovation agenda forward, but doing so will require us to listen more closely to the concerns of our most skeptical IT colleagues.

How should we think of campus IT innovation efforts in this new era of permanent postsecondary scarcity?

Where have you witnessed ‘innovation’ becoming a dirty word within the world of academic IT?



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