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Five Steps to Building an Academic Innovation Engine

The EvoLLLution | Five Steps to Building an Academic Innovation Engine
Institutional transformation and innovation needs to be a priority for everyone at every level of the institution—it cannot be the sole responsibility of senior leadership. That said, senior leadership must create an environment in which innovation thrives.

Academic innovation, change and transformation. All are seen as vehicles to solve many of higher education’s challenges. Institutions are increasingly investing in such efforts. Approximately 10 percent of the American Council of Education member institutions surveyed in 2014 had an organized institutional-level unit or effort dedicated to academic innovation development.[1] 94 percent of the academic innovation leaders at the Leading Academic Change Summit, led by the William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation of the University System of Maryland and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have been in their position 6 years or less, and 59 percent have been so for 3 years or less.[2]

The number of unique professional job postings in the higher education sector with “innovation” in the title or description rose 211 percent from 2010 to 2015 (from 75 postings in 2010, to 233 in 2015, according to Burning Glass Labor InsightTM). In addition, it appears that a new interdisciplinary field of academic innovation is also emerging within higher education.[2,3]

As a provost or dean, is your institution ready to take on an innovation agenda?[4] And if so, where do you start when it comes to building an innovation engine? This article provides a set of five first steps to establish, nurture and sustain an engine of academic innovation.

 1. Focus on Purpose:

Articulate a clear purpose for the innovation engine and the changes it will attempt to drive. Further, ensure the purpose is aligned with the institution’s strategic initiatives, which are both widely known and widely accepted at your institution.[5] Many new and emerging approaches, pedagogies and technology are available, but the messaging is less about what innovative practices will be adopted than about why such innovations will be sought. For example, indicating the positive impact on students the innovation engine is meant to incubate may help to build acceptance of the engine by faculty, who, in various studies, indicate they are most motivated to adopt innovative approaches if they ensure student learning. [6,7]

Equally important to communicate is the engine as an explorer of opportunities, as top-down attempts at change in a specific direction may not be effective.[6] Change simply for the sake of change is often met with opposition and can result in a failure to launch or thrive—don’t let your innovation initiatives fall prey to this all too common outcome.

 2. Calibrate Approaches:

Recognize that innovation is often relative, context-based, and spans a wide spectrum. What’s groundbreaking at one institution may be long-standing practice at another, or require a quantum leap forward at yet another.

While benchmarking to other institutions is important and instructive, the innovative practices of others may not fit your culture, goals and problems. Acknowledge your institution’s culture and challenges and select strategies that match them, rather than simply trying to mimic another institution at the cutting edge of innovation. Such misalignment can lead to activities that don’t make sense for your institution to pursue, are ultimately useless to address your particular problems, and result in the wasted application of resources. Calibrating internal directions and expectations can be achieved in part by identifying, showcasing and fostering the islands of relevant and impactful innovation that already exist at your institution.[6]

Identify what approaches would be innovative for your institution and get started with them—don’t wait for the next big sweeping disruptive idea in higher education. What’s most important is forward progress, no matter your starting point.

 3. Designate a Driver:

To ensure momentum designate a primary driver of the innovation engine. Successful innovation is a multi-dimensional enterprise and requires the involvement and collaboration of many different constituencies. A unifying leader is key to harnessing the combined perspectives and skills of numerous stakeholders, including faculty, teaching and learning centers, instructional designers, library units, traditional, research and development arms, student affairs, and administration to fuel the innovation engine.

This catalyst can take many forms—a single position, a particular unit, or a cross-functional collaborative group. The work of Bishop and Keehn indicates that individuals in the Associate or Vice Provost roles, as well as re-visioned faculty development centers and centers of teaching and learning are becoming the primary promoters of change.[2] Such centers are particularly well positioned to encourage academic innovation as many are at the nexus of a robust set of activities that speak directly to the issues facing higher education.[3,8,9]

In addition, such centers interact with a population somewhat predisposed to innovation. 40 percent of respondents in a 2014 national faculty survey have already adopted, or are ready to adopt, new techniques that benefit students.[6] Coordinating committees that bring together many different perspectives and areas of expertise, such as those originally conceived to lead online education efforts, can also serve as drivers. Regardless of the many possible forms, designating drivers that are respected and relevant is important to acceptance of the change that they will seek to affect.[1,2,3]

4. Remove Barriers:

Innovation can often be stalled by internal barriers rather than by a lack of good and creative ideas. To move the innovation needle, commit to identifying internal barriers and working to eliminate or minimize them, or to finding alternatives. The most commonly cited internal barriers to innovative change are:

  • Knowledge as to how to execute an innovation,
  • Evidence that the innovation has a reasonable chance of success,
  • General discomfort with new approaches,
  • The opinions of colleagues,
  • Technical or technological capacity,
  • Time,
  • Support,
  • Resources,
  • Incentives, and
  • Reward structures.[1,6,7,10,11,12]

Innovation leaders can be especially effective by creating a sense of safety and clearing a low-risk path to high-impact innovations, or a series of successive low-impact innovations that build upon one another.[13] Providing for the opportunity to engage in external networks and collaborations can cultivate the exploration and development of new models, overcome internal gaps in knowledge, capacity, and the availability of resources, and provide a level of comfort and security.[1,14,15,16] Among faculty, networks serve to inspire change and facilitate the diffusion of practices.[6]

Internal policies and procedures are also barriers to consider. These can be especially potent if engrained in large bureaucracies or an institution’s long-standing culture and governance. The hard and often sensitive work of considering old ways in the context of a new environment must be done to get past such barriers. Helping an institution shift its mindset to one that embraces disruption can be key to overcoming barriers.

 5. Engender Patience:

Patience, steadiness and balance are guide posts for the work of innovation in higher education. Building an effective, respected and sought-out innovation engine doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s important to communicate that the overarching purpose of innovation units can take time to achieve. It’s often not a single silver disruptive bullet, but rather an accumulation of small efforts that achieves the original strategic and institutional goals for which the engine was built to support.

Time must be spent to plant and cultivate the seeds of ideation and cooperation, to remove barriers and work through resistance, to establish a mindset receptive to change and innovation, and to nurture a steady flow of creativity. Time must be spent to achieve a balance between tradition and change, the zeal of early adopters and the trepidation of others, the status quo and risk taking, and structure and free-flow.

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[1] Andrich, M. (2015) Academic Education Incubators: Emerging Models and Strategic Considerations for Leaders. American Council on Education and Huron Consulting Group.

[2] Bishop, M.J. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early Market Scan of Leading-Edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers. William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland.­edge-postsecondary-academic-innovation-centers

[3] Straumsheim, C. (2016) Contours of a New Discipline. Inside Higher Ed, May 16.

[4] Dworkin, D. and Spiegel, M. (2015) Assessment: Is Your Company Actually Ready to Innovate? Harvard Business Review, November 6.

[5] Pisano, G.P. (2015) You Need an Innovation Strategy. Harvard Business Review, June.

[6] FTI Consulting (2015) U.S. Postsecondary Faculty in 2015: Diversity in People, Goals and Methods, But Focused on Students. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and FTI Consulting.

[7] Brooks, D.C. (2015) Study of Faculty and Information Technology Report. EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research.

[8] Kim, J. (2016) Centers for Teaching & Learning as University Red Teams. Inside Higher Ed, February 28.

[9] Kim, J. (2016) Three Questions about Centers for Teaching and Learning. Inside Higher Ed, March 28.

[10] Martin, J. (2016) Why Don’t More Faculty Members Adopt Learning Innovations? Education Advisory Board, January 7.

[11] Martin, J. (2016) Scaling Learning Innovations, Education Advisory Board, March 23.

[12] Weimer, M. (2016) Why Are We So Slow to Change the Way We Teach? Faculty Focus, February.

[13] Sinfield, J.V. and Solis, F. (2016) Finding a Lower-Risk Path to High-Impact Innovations. MITSloan Management Review, Summer.

[14] Carey, T. (2015) Innovation Networks. Inside Higher Ed, December 17.

[15] Fain, P. (2014) Sharing Intel on Completion. Inside Higher Ed, September 17.

[16] Bishop, M.J, Girelli, A., Ragan, L.C., Sax, C.M., Stephens, L. (2016) Introducing the CAIT Matrix: A New Collaboration Process, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Annual Conference.

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