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Launching Innovation: What Does It Take to Succeed?

AUDIO | Launching Innovation: What Does It Take to Succeed?
Sometimes the best approach to launching a radically innovative program is to ensure all key stakeholders are represented among your supporters.

The following interview is with Angus Kingon, university professor of entrepreneurship and organizational studies and and academic director of the IE Brown joint executive MBA program at Brown University. Kingon was instrumental in developing Brown’s partnership with the IE Business School to jointly offer the executive MBA. In this interview, Kingon sheds some light on the process of taking the program from concept to reality and discusses the roadblocks that often face administrators trying to launch innovative graduate programming.

1. What are the most common roadblocks administrators will run into when designing an innovative graduate program?

If you’re looking at innovative graduate programs at universities, it’s not only the administrators that are the source of these innovations; very often, it’s faculty or some combination of faculty and administrators.

The next thing to mention, of course, is what we mean by innovative. In this case, the question is, “How innovative?” If the innovation is relatively incremental or ‘legitimate,’ then that can be fairly straightforward. If it’s truly innovative, meaning outside the bounds of what graduate programs usually do, then it can be considerably trickier. In the case of truly radical innovation in graduate programs, the question is, “How legitimate is the result of the innovative graduate program?” By ‘legitimate’ here I mean, does it really fit with the academic structure and norms and traditions of the university and its graduate programs or does it really fit outside of it?

When it’s outside of the norms, one really needs to pay some attention to how these innovations can be implemented or can be developed.

2. What would you classify as a radical innovation in graduate programming?

You can ask a variety of questions: is the curriculum different than others? More than that, if you want to implement it, is there already a natural decision-making process in place that it would naturally follow to allow implementation or approval of this particular program? Does it fit with the culture and tradition of the institution or is it outside the culture or tradition?

The further outside it is, the more one has to pay attention to how you get there. The IE-Brown executive MBA really is innovative in terms of the curriculum. It doesn’t draw from the standard silos of either institution; it integrates interdisciplinary elements from both curriculums into a brand new curriculum. In addition to that, the partnering between an Ivy League institution with 250 years of tradition with an upstart entrepreneurial business school in Madrid that most of our faculty have never heard of represents a challenge. It’s not the typical institution Brown partners with.

There’s a very good reason for partnering with IE [Business School], but it wasn’t obvious from the outset. Additionally, this IE-Brown collaboration required some formal collaborative process but, in addition, the degree had to be granted by both institutions. There wasn’t a natural mechanism for getting approval for this joint degree; it all had to be constructed. That’s what made it … both innovative but also outside the standard legitimate structures of the academic home of Brown, in particular.

3. In your case, you developed your program in partnership with the IE Business School, based in Madrid. Were there any particular challenges that came with developing a joint program with an international institution?

We had to deal with reputational issues — IE certainly isn’t the classic Ivy League university and not everybody knew about it. The approach that we took was [to] experiment in the curriculum while having IE initially grant the degree, not Brown and not jointly. This allowed us to build up a very strong curriculum and core faculty and allowed us, at the same time, to [showcase the] very good reputation of IE in the business world.

4. Were there any other steps you had to take in order to gain the approval at Brown to fully put this program into place, to move from the initial design to the point you’re at now, where Brown and IE give the certification together?

[After the first step] we gained approval for the alumni of this initial degree to be part of the Brown alumni as well. The third step was a full joint degree.

Brown’s governance structure is one of faculty governance. In the initial collaboration, we avoided entirely the attempt to get the Brown faculty to approve a joint degree. We knew it had taken over 20 years to do the first Brown joint degree and that was with the Rhode Island School of Design, which is just down the road from us. I wasn’t prepared to go that route. The strategy was to have IE grant [the degree] first and then build a reputation, build the knowledge on campus, build the creditability of the program, show the academic rationale for the program and then introduce the joint degree.

There were clearly a set of steps. The first thing we had to do was have the president and the provost approve the collaboration and the experiment. Then we ensured we incorporated teaching from very good faculty members and made sure they were part of the program.

Then we simply showed that we built a very strong case, showing that the collaboration makes strategic sense, that we’re not doing this just as a money-making exercise — although it is profitable. The real motivation here was to experiment with graduate, executive-level business education where we felt that the unique curriculum that built in the human sciences component from Brown was really going to be important in the future.

We appealed to the Brown faculty side by showing that this is not just a professional, vocational exercise but that it’s truly an academic exercise that has some meaning in the business education world.

5. What is your advice to administrators looking to develop their own innovative graduate-level programs?

If it does fit within the normal decision-making bounds, then you’re simply making an argument through the normal channels. If it’s outside of those bounds, then you really have to design a strategy that decides who the key stakeholders are, who the key decision makers are and build a solid case with each of them.

I certainly am a believer in a faculty champion/administrator partnership where there’s a faculty champion that is often the innovative person that sees the vision — it’s not always the administrators that are the visionaries — and understand[s] the faculty perspective, then an administrator — who is a very good partner — helps to affect this. That’s a very good way for a program to be advanced. That type of partnership can be very powerful and I think that’s a good way to move exciting programs forward.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the process your team went through to develop and get approval for the IE-Brown joint executive MBA program, or the more general theme of innovation in the graduate education space?

Faculty and administrators together should be looking at what changes are being imposed from the outside, but also the crossroads we’re at in higher education. We need to all be thinking about how we can guide our institutions in such a way that we both gather strength from our tradition and ensure we’re flexible and agile enough to both innovate and really improve the quality and value of our education.

This interview has been edited for length.

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