How Universities Can Avoid Learning Innovation Theater

Unpacking the impact of institutionwide initiatives to advance teaching and learning.

October 30, 2019
 

In his recent Harvard Business Review article “Why Companies Do ‘Innovation Theater’ Instead of Actual Innovation,” Steve Blank’s focus was on companies and government agencies. While there are lots of problems with applying the analysis in the article to higher education -- the most significant of which is that we do not produce a product like many industries -- Blank’s understanding of how organizations often approach innovation initiatives theatrically, as opposed to strategically, is worth considering in the context of higher education.

The HBR article identifies three stages company and government agencies typically go through when enacting an innovation agenda. These three stages (synthesized below) may sound familiar to many academics.

Stage 1: Organizational Theater. Hire consultants and reorg to a matrix structure. Everyone is busy navigating the new organizational structures and reporting lines, and very little of substance is accomplished.

Stage 2: Innovation Theater. Lots of innovation activities, such as hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops. Folks start to use innovationspeak, but the core business operations are little changed.

Stage 3: Process Theater. Efforts are made to change processes such as procurement, personnel, security, legal, etc., in order to execute on an innovation mandate. As these process changes are divorced from long-term and durable strategic investments, they are as durable as building sandcastles on the beach.

Sound familiar?

In our travels to college and university campuses, and in our discussions with colleagues at peer institutions, we have witnessed the full range of institutional learning innovation efforts. At some schools, learning innovation is identified by leadership and embraced by faculty and staff as core to the identity and culture of the institution. At other schools, learning innovation projects come to life as expressions of a provost’s or president’s vision, but they fail to take root in the operations of the institution and therefore seldom survive the inevitable leadership turnover.

The university equivalent of organizational theater sometimes involves consultants, but it often starts with a new leader coming to campus. What results is a snow globe reorg, with lots of shaking and movement, but almost always very little change in how teaching and learning occur once the snow settles.

This is often a result of the reorg coming before the articulation of a learning innovation strategy. Ideally, any campus reorganization should be in the service of a strategy. Moving the organizational pieces around by merging groups or changing reporting lines can be satisfactory, as it feels like rapid change in a normally slow-to-change academic environment, but not necessarily successful long term.

The reality is that a reorg can cause damage as easily as it can unleash creative productivity. Learning organizations within a university, say a center for teaching and learning and an academic computing unit, develop their own cultures and maybe most importantly often have vastly different scopes and mandates. Combining groups together in the name of greater collaboration and communication almost always sounds like a smart move -- after all, who wants to defend organizational silos? -- but can lead to scope creep, reduction of services and often a resistance to innovation rather than an embracing of it.

It is not that reorgs to advance learning innovation are bad. It is that the reorg should not only align and support the strategy for learning innovation. It needs to do so while recognizing the importance of supporting ongoing institutional needs -- how we find new ways to transport goods should not come at the expense of no train running on time. At the same time, any reorganization should also recognize the incredible value of the creative, thoughtful, innovative people who carry out this work. Too often institutions of higher education undervalue the very people who make the institutions what they are, assuming they are disposable in the name of efficiency or superficial strategy.

A reorg strategy should be developed and refined with the faculty and nonfaculty educators who will be implementing the projects and initiatives that have been identified. If the community of educators agrees with (or at least understands) the learning innovation strategy, then a campus reorg will have a better chance of being productive, rather than theatrical.

The activities of innovation theater that the HBR article identified for stage two have their own higher ed analogs. Among a certain set of elite institutions, the shiniest set of activities that flew under the banner of learning innovation over the past few years were MOOCs. With the MOOC hype bubble now deflated, new campus initiatives may loudly proclaim the virtues of mobile learning (everyone gets an iPad) or the virtues of learning analytics (everybody gets a dashboard).

Learning innovation initiatives that rest on a foundation of new technologies (iPads, dashboards) or new technology-enabled programs (MOOCs) are excellent at generating noise. What technology-based campus initiatives are less good at is enabling sustainable and resilient campus change. This is especially true in the domain of teaching and learning, an area where institutional structures and norms are deeply entrenched.

Institutional investments in technology in the name of promoting innovation will have little impact if the foundational structures in which teaching and learning occur remain unaltered. No technology will compensate for an institutional faculty strategy that prioritizes the hiring of adjunct and other contingent faculty over the investment in tenure-track positions. Technology will be ineffective in improving student learning if the educators doing the teaching are not well supported and securely employed.

The higher ed learning-innovation equivalent of HBR’s stage three of process theater is where the analogy to higher education is harder to align. Higher ed is not in the business of creating products. We’ve argued elsewhere that this is the biggest misconception of the disruption movement of the past six or seven years.

Still, there are processes that can create the illusion of innovation that are worth unpacking. For instance, the process of moving existing residential degree programs online is not innovative in and of itself.

Online education is not an innovation.

What would be innovative would be to invest in fundamental changes in how the program is delivered, or whom it is delivered for. These fundamental changes may be to pair faculty with a learning design team and to build the courses around a combination of professor’s subject matter expertise and an instructional designer’s knowledge of learning science. Equally innovative would be to develop an economic model for the online degree program that allows for the price of tuition to be radically lower than the on-ground program equivalent.

How colleges and universities will avoid learning innovation theater is to commit to rigorously aligning new educational programs to a broader strategy. This strategy should include a commitment to a relational, as opposed to a transactional, model of education. The well-being of the educator, as well as the success of the student, must also be understood as a feature of a well-designed learning-innovation strategy.

The good news, as we discovered in writing a book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, is that an ever-increasing number of colleges and universities are moving beyond the stages of learning innovation theater. Having learned from the disappointments of technologically driven initiatives and educational outsourcing, most schools are moving toward a more deliberate and systematic approach to learning innovation.

This shift in strategic focus toward institution-led learning innovation across the higher ed ecosystem is still new, and largely untested for resilience or impact. Determining if the pivot away from learning innovation theater, and toward a set of more durable and consequential learning-innovation structures and activities, will require that we in higher ed commit to studying these changes.

We should not allow the explanations and theories for how companies evolve (disruption!) to be grafted once again onto the narrative of how learning is advancing across the higher education ecosystem.

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