Transforming Higher Education Through Innovation

Higher education, at its best, allows us to pursue our curiosity in service of bettering ourselves and the world around us. In order to best leverage that potential, institutions need to lean into a business-minded urgency for change and growth. 

Humanity is at its best when we are seeking to understand ourselves, each other, and our world.  This seeking, fueled by curiosity and awe, becomes a way of knowing that leads to significant innovation and transformation. Our instinct for curiosity results in innovation that transforms the world, from medical to industrial, social to personal. This curiosity sparks exploration, outward toward understanding the world and inward toward understanding our complex, paradoxical human nature.

Though flawed and imperfect in execution, at its best higher education provides structure, tools, partnership, and opportunity to pursue inquiry fueled by this spirit of curiosity. Higher education can create space for us to exercise our curiosity in service of evolving human potential. For better or worse, however, our institutions mirror humanity, magnifying our brilliance, curiosity and hope as well as our biases and fear. 

Management studies

The evidence of this duality of brilliant potential and painful constraint often shows up as institutional support for management research that is infrequently integrated within the educational institution itself.  Recent management research, along with a myriad of intersecting fields, produces opportunities for deep insight into human motivation, leadership, team building, and multiple levels of sustainability. In particular, this research provides resources for understanding development of organizations that are sustainable beyond profit and meaningful beyond product. It also helps us understand the impact of flourishing individuals and engaged teams on organizational outcomes and success, regardless of industry or sector.[1]

Engaged teams

Research findings regarding the impact of engaged teams helps us understand what motivates human work and drives innovation. Margaret Heffernan, in her TED talk Forget the Pecking Order at Work, shares that “…what motivates people are the bonds and loyalty and trust they develop between each other”[2]. Dr. Linda Hill at Harvard Business School describes leadership for innovation saying, “Innovation is not about solo genius, it’s about collective genius… You have to unleash the talents and passions of many people and you have to harness them into a work that is actually useful.”[3]  

Impact and outcomes 

Management research offers both an understanding of human organizing and getting work done and how to improve the lived experience of the people within those organizations.

Higher education provides an opportunity for research and tools that allow us to lean into curiosity, be courageous in our seeking, and innovate across sectors. These innovations show up in businesses like Patagonia, Badger Balm, and a host of other organizations that equally prioritize social, environmental, and organizational performance outcomes. Both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations outside of higher education leverage the research and tools developed within higher education to innovate and grow.

Higher Education: What’s missing

These innovations are not often modeled in higher education. Rather, higher education has a reputation for being staid, slow to change, and steeped in tradition that exacerbates internal divides. In contrast, business leverages the research produced in higher education to innovate new models of organizing, development of engaged teams to drive organizational success and responses to the pace of global change. The focus of organizational innovation in higher education is almost solely focused on improvement that is directly linked to students. If we broaden our understanding of how all institutional practices, direct and indirect, impact the student, and build on management research that hundreds of businesses have capitalized on, we can create agile educational environments that are ripe for innovation and creativity that serves a broader, more inclusive, educational community.

What’s possible

Perhaps one of the most inspiring elements of higher education is the sense of limitless possibilities that exist within our search for understanding. If we are committed to constructing an educational landscape and institutions that are responsive, innovative, and leverage the best of the research they produce, we need to:

  • Reimagine the vision and expand our sense of the purpose. Beyond students, how many other ways can we impact all the lives we touch? 
  • Be courageous. Courage means being willing to let go of traditions and patterns that no longer serve our reimagined vision.
  • Discover where it already works. Management studies gave us David Copperider[4] and Appreciative Inquiry. Let’s invest in seeking teams in education where there is life, engagement, and success. What can we activate in our teams and organizations from those examples?
  • Develop strategies for accountability and assessment. 

In a world with no recent recollection of a global context like the current one, there is no reason to maintain allegiance to old patterns and traditions of higher education institutions. In fact, we can leverage management research to help us build organizational resilience[5]. We can embrace innovation as a way of life and embody the best of the research our institutions produce – not just for students but for every member of the educational community. We must be willing to not only allow transformation but actively pursue it as a means to grow and innovate. Higher education has the potential and opportunity to become the principal integrator and consumer of the research it produces. 


[1] See Positive Organizational Scholarship for a myriad of research regarding the impact of positive psychology in organizations.

[2] Margaret Heffernan, “Transcript of ‘Forget the Pecking Order at Work,’” TED, accessed October 10, 2020,

[3] Linda Hill, “How to Manage for Collective Creativity,” TED, accessed October 10, 2020,

[4] “David Cooperrider,” David Cooperrider | Weatherhead School at Case Western Reserve University, accessed November 10, 2020,

[5] Marisa Salanova et al., “We Need a Hero! Toward a Validation of the Healthy and Resilient Organization (HERO) Model,” Group & Organization Management 37, no. 6 (2012): pp. 785-822,

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