The Innovation Crisis in Higher Education

One can use a lot of words to describe the typical higher education culture, but “entrepreneurial” is usually not one of them. To the contrary, although there are a few exceptions, higher education cultures are more likely to be defined by a powerful inertia in favor of the status quo. That reality is not just unfavorable for innovation, it is actually at the core of the existential crisis facing much of higher education today.

The process that does exist to facilitate change in traditional colleges and universities generally favors extensive deliberation over timely action and distributed authority for decision-making. It also is driven by institutional needs rather than market needs. That process works really well when the external pace of change and/or need for change is equally slow and incremental. The central problem for higher education today is that the external pace of change is disorientingly fast, exacerbated by the fact that the market need is for transformational change. The current rate of college and university closures is painful evidence of the mismatch between traditional higher education culture on one hand and external and market demands on the other hand.

Although the world of higher education is fundamentally different in some ways than much of the “private sector,” with requirements for accreditation, governance, and complex financial models being prime examples, much of what mitigates against innovation, even though deeply structural, is nonetheless by choice. In other words, it doesn’t have to be the way it is.

The number one facilitator of nimble, speed to market activity in organizations is culture. Organizations that function with continuity, lack of politics, appetite for risk, and teamwork will be more entrepreneurial, more agile, and more successful over time because those things reflect the value of human capital and cannot be commoditized. As Gary Vaynerchuk of VaynerMedia notes, technology and skills and products offer a painfully short competitive shelf life, but the emotional ability to interact with others and work collaboratively toward shared goals cannot be coopted or copied by any competitor and it is renewable. Although it’s harder to create, once you have it, human capital empowered by culture is the number one determinant of success, in the tech world, and anywhere else. In the higher education ecosystem it may be an even more powerful asset and competitive advantage because it is so rare.

So, how can institutions of higher education operationalize innovation? A place to start would be a model that recognizes the massive human capital that already exists in institutions as the source of innovation rather than the keepers of tradition and status quo. This is as much or more a cultural shift than an operational one, but it can start small, with individuals, and grow to eventually be institutional in nature. No one would describe most college environments as having appetite for risk, operational continuity, or even much sustainable collaboration, let alone as “apolitical.” In fact, as the scarcity model pervades higher education, institutions are often becoming less collaborative. Having said that, even with the cultural challenges inherent in much of higher education, there is a surplus of ideas and energy, and a powerful, if unrecognized and untapped army of potential entrepreneurs waiting to be empowered. Some simple steps include:

  • Ensuring that, at the enterprise level, the institution has identified a list of high risk-high reward initiatives/strategies and implements at least one or two each year.
  • Doing a similar exercise at the school/division/department level and creating an “experimental” channel for new initiatives that is outside the normal evaluation/approval process.
  • Add an item for entrepreneurialism or innovation in every individual’s performance evaluation.
  • Create interdisciplinary teams to work on high priority challenges and give the teams the authority to choose the desired solution.
  • Incentivize innovative problem solving with shared rewards generated by successful solutions.
  • Create innovation or entrepreneur grants that do not require a quantified return on investment.
  • Volunteer with regulators/accreditors for every advertised pilot project and take a leadership role in suggesting others.
  • Invite industry and/or the community to be a ground level partner in all material initiatives.
  • Identify the most entrenched, inviolable, “sacred” constructs in the institutional culture and history. Put that list next to the greatest challenges faced by the institution. Which sacred cows exacerbate which challenges or present a barrier to success? Determine which of those the institution will abandon in favor of solving a critical problem.

The strategies above reflect a very small list of potential initiatives, but when implemented, they support entrepreneurialism, result in innovative outcomes, and support a culture that becomes self-sustaining. Obviously, institutions that are led by people who believe in the value of human capital, risk-taking, collaboration, teams, and empowerment are going to be better positioned to address the “crisis of innovation” that is compromising much of higher education than institutions whose leadership and core culture value tradition and status quo over innovation. But even in those institutions, support for incremental experimentation can lead to innovation and culture change. Higher Education is already experiencing the greatest contraction since WWII and the institutions that survive and thrive in the current environment will simply be those that adapt through innovation and an openness to the “new” in every way.

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