Innovation Doesn’t Need to be Shrouded in Secrecy

March 12, 2017

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By Jonathan Gagliardi

How do you bridge the realities facing your institution with the real need for a future vision? Such was the question posed by Rick Staisloff, principal of RPK Group, to a group of college and university presidents at ACE2017.

The answer isn’t easy, and it’s often a glaring omission of college and university innovation efforts. Without it, faculty and staff might view efforts at change with skepticism, and they aren’t necessarily wrong to do so.

When improperly used, the word innovation is often associated with the corporatization of higher education, or with disruption. Staff get concerned about their jobs. Faculty worry that administrators and bureaucrats are toying with core academic principles. It’s also perceived as a cost-cutting move. People dig in their heels, and things remain as they are to the detriment of the entire campus community.

Conversations about higher education innovation are too often oversimplified, as if it’s something that can happen anywhere, in any way, at the snap of a finger. But it can’t. Innovation is a messy business that’s innately contextual.

A major hiccup in efforts to innovate is that these efforts aren’t always completely communicated. Picture this: a president walks into a room of faculty talking about return on investment and efficiencies without connecting it to a shared vision for the future. Crickets chirp, but it could be worse. After all, Frankenstein was chased up to the windmill by the town folk with pitchforks and flaming torches.

It’s important to speak to resources—not just dollars—with a focus on the future. Discussing strategic investment, and sometimes, reinvestment, while making it clear that it will help preserve the core elements of your institution’s brand and identity . . . and maybe even grow them, sounds completely different. Having a little data to back it up also helps. Investing in innovation and optimizing what you do best aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re symbiotic, and help shift the conversation from cost-cutting to maximizing return on investment for those who depend so much on the value provided by higher education.

Innovation without intent may as well not happen. It has to be based on a future vision, buy-in, the right incentives, sound implementation, data and evidence, and a focus on student success. That’s the kind of innovation that, while incremental, holds vast potential for colleges and universities nationwide. By doing these things, many colleges and universities could find themselves in a much different—and better—place in the coming years.

Here’s to hoping that happens.

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