Reconsidering Innovation in Higher Education Alex Emmanuele

Every morning, after a carefully prepared egg white omelette from a box from the internet, I open my email to catch up on my Higher Education gossip. IHE, Huff Post, and the Chronicle are usually all waiting there, unopened, and often with a title related to Innovation, Design Thinking, or Process Mapping. I get excited easily when Design Thinking is the focus, as my undergraduate study was in Innovative Education and Human-Centered Design. However, every morning, I remain disappointed by what I read — tutorials, retrospectives, and blogs that leave me with “this is all you need,” when, in fact, I (we) need much more. It seems that we are more interested in the results than the process, and it is the process that separates this type of human-centered innovation from regular product design and decision making.

Thus we arrive at a question — is the culture surrounding innovation an impediment to impactful innovation? Let us examine innovation culture in higher education, and assess whether it needs to be reconsidered.

From a cursory Google search, we see that innovation culture is “the work environment that leaders cultivate in order to nurture unorthodox thinking and its application. Workplaces that foster a culture of innovation generally subscribe to the belief that innovation is not the province of top leadership, but can come with anyone in the organization.”

Yes; this ideal is great—one that allows ideas to come from anyone and anywhere within, and can change everything from the cafeteria’s layout to business development and work processes. In a college environment, this means faculty, students, administrators, and other community members coming together to tackle a sticky and complex problem on campus or in the world. It means openness to different perspectives and ideas, changing mindsets and approaches based on the needs of the ‘user,’ the person who experiences the problem.

But this way of supporting innovation seems alien or opposed to many aspects of academia, which often seems hesitant to embrace new ideas; the usual ways of thinking, teaching, and getting things done have ‘worked forever’, so why change now? Oddly, peer review, a fundamental way of assessing new ideas, is applied throughout higher education, except in innovation. All these new ideas, process maps, and product solutions get trumpeted and endorsed, but are not subject to empirical peer review. This high visibility of quick fixes catches everyone’s attention—hence the daily higher ed news updates.

There is a constant stream of advocacy in colleges and universities for interdisciplinary partnerships to face some of the most complex problems facing society. I wholeheartedly agree, and promote this kind of collaboration, true radical thinking that is transformational in nature. But how do we parse through the hype and get to the good, meaningful, and impactful innovation that allows us to operate more effectively, better serve our students, and support their learning and success?

Can we create a scholarship of innovation — a place to review the merits and downfalls, scalability, limitations, and effectiveness of proposed innovations within institutional context before they are thrust into use in institutional and industrial environments? Who volunteers to chair this higher education patent office of transformational ideas? Don’t look at me, I have to get back to my garage to build my world-changing innovative product. More to come.