Higher education is plagued by thorny issues that are extremely difficult to solve because any proposed solution is divisive, expensive, difficult to implement, and conflicts with the values ​​and priorities of other institutions.

Controlling costs is a tricky issue, and institutions try to solve these problems in a very correct way: outsourcing services, increasing class sizes, relying heavily on part-time teachers, and closing projects.

Improving the quality of teaching is another thorny problem that campuses are trying to solve through a combination of incentives (providing teaching awards and establishing teaching centers to provide practical support) and moderate authorization (establishing student teaching evaluations and requiring teachers to determine them). Learning objectives in the syllabus).

Student success is another thorny issue. Proactive, data-driven advice, degree planning software, early warning and behavioral boosts, emergency grants, and expanded support services can help, but in general, they can only play a small role.

Some difficult issues are usually left to a campus unit, such as career preparation (assigned to the career center), course and schedule optimization (left to various departments and projects), or establishing a sense of belonging and connection (a responsibility belongs to student affairs).

There are also problems that are so serious that most campuses fail to address these challenges systematically, such as making the transfer process more seamless or improving the status of part-time teachers.

Innovation is the most difficult problem in higher education. It requires support from different stakeholders, many of whom benefit from the status quo and usually have good reasons to worry about the consequences of change. By definition, innovation is destructive and conflicts with established practices and deep-rooted interests. Innovation usually has a high start-up cost and is rarely self-sustaining. Initiative fatigue will soon appear, and as leadership and priorities change, projects often have no champions.

Whenever innovation is top-down, teachers will conditioned to worry about losing autonomy and weakening shared governance.

In this case, most innovation occurs outside the academic core, in areas where managers have the most control. Typically, innovation includes additional items or enhancements, such as a new learning center or a new experiential learning office, because such additional items will not invade anyone’s territory.

In today’s turbulent and uncertain environment, all institutions must be flexible to respond to the ever-changing environment. In short, innovation is imperative. But, as you have heard, implementing change in higher education is as difficult as moving a cemetery.

Then, we better learn from others who face similar challenges. Many for-profit companies have to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, new competitors, rising costs and government requirements. A large body of business school literature discusses how successful companies innovate to respond to disruption.

You may already know some of these documents:

  • John Kotter’s 1996 change management model is one of the most influential models. Kurt’s top-down model calls on the executive leadership to create a sense of urgency, establish guiding alliances, formulate and disseminate strategic visions, and remove barriers to change. Focus on short-term victories to maintain momentum and ultimately institutionalize change.
  • Steve Denning’s 2011 cultural change model provides another top-down approach, emphasizing the importance of changing the organization’s goals, roles, processes, values, communication practices, attitudes, and assumptions. Organizational cultural change requires the use of three key tools: leadership tools (such as inspiration, persuasion, and role modeling), management tools (such as strategic planning, recruitment, role definition, training), and power tools (such as statutes, coercion, and threats).
  • McKinsey’s three vision model in 2000 provides another top-down model, encouraging companies to innovate from three dimensions: continuous improvement of the company’s existing business model and core competitiveness; targeting new customers and markets; and creating new ones Ability and business to respond to new opportunities or disruption threats.

There are many other changes to the model:

  • Institutions should make a lot of small bets, some of which will bring big returns.
  • Institutions should set up a dedicated innovation department to challenge orthodoxy, understand emerging needs, and disrupt the organization from within.
  • The key to innovation is to understand the changing needs of consumers or customers, as well as market forces, industry trends, macroeconomic and demographic developments, and to respond by providing a clear value proposition.
  • This kind of innovation requires organizations to identify existing and upcoming challenges, and then build a cross-functional team to design innovative solutions through the process of brainstorming, ideation, and prototype creation.
  • The innovation organization maintains its core competitiveness internally, while outsourcing other functions to suppliers who can provide solutions, support, and services in a more cost-effective manner.
  • This kind of innovation requires organizations to closely observe their competitors, peers, and examples, and then model their organizations based on their best practices.

In general, the institutional transformation models of these business schools are not directly applicable to universities with more restricted administrative leadership power, more decentralized and decentralized institutional management, more voluntary decision-making, collective and collaborative, and more diverse stakeholders. And opinionated.

Although there are many higher education leadership programs, surprisingly, few books tell us how to best implement and expand campus-level reforms.

In the absence of rich and powerful theoretical literature or detailed empirical research, it should not be shocking that a wide range of opinions and speculations have filled the vacuum. Anecdotes are supreme.

We are told that innovation is driven by charismatic, long-term presidents, such as Michael Crow, Paul LeBron, or Scott Pulsiver. Or foundations with strong financial resources, especially the Gates Foundation or Lumina. Or consultants like Accenture, Bain, Civitas Learning, EAB or McKinsey. Or a service provider who promises to land on the moon. Or approvers. Or a highly regarded front-runner (think Freeman Hlabovsky or Tim Renick).

The fact is that we don’t know.

Nonetheless, our institution can learn some lessons from these business school literature:

1. Innovation is imperative.
All institutions, including colleges and universities, exist in a highly competitive market, and innovation failure makes organizations vulnerable to destruction.

2. Innovation can take many forms.
It can be transformative or progressive, passive or active, evolutionary or radical, problem-centric or future-oriented, carefully planned or unintentional. It can face internally or externally.

3. Innovation must be carried out across dimensions.
Change can be organizational or structural, procedural or cultural. Innovation may also involve infrastructure or technology. Lasting change must usually occur in all these areas.

4. The motivation for innovation can come from many different sources.
Innovation can be implemented from the top down, but it can also be driven externally or from multiple aspects within the organization.

But in most cases I am familiar with, the responsibility for innovation is independent of executive leadership.

  • The drivers of change can often be external. The certification process is a powerful force that drives innovation, large and small. Why have learning goals become commonplace? Because these are required by certification bodies. According to my experience, the self-learning process and the requirement of institutional cooperation to formulate strategic plans provide the necessary impetus for innovation.
  • External examples often drive innovation. Success stories promoted by higher education media or research institutions such as Ithaka S&R provide a common source of inspiration. Regional and national meetings are also particularly important in disseminating ideas and examples. More and more subject groups are beginning to spread innovative examples.
  • The source of innovation can also be internal. In many cases, the most important innovation comes from the efforts of administrative staff below the administrative level: by the deputy provost, dean or deputy dean, dean of department, dean of student affairs, registrar or financial aid office, or some other unit.

Innovation is not necessarily positive. It is easy to think of educational fashion, such as open classrooms, but there is nowhere to go. Often, campus innovative methods-providing seed funding for various projects-result in nothing more than planting seeds in the swamp.

In order to be successful and sustainable, innovation must:

  • Align with the mission of the organization.
  • Provide a clear return on investment.
  • Meet widely recognized campus needs.
  • Call on key stakeholders.
  • Reflects widely held academic norms.

Innovation within the college is indeed a thorny issue. Many ideal innovations have become victims of initiative fatigue, leadership changes, teacher skepticism, inertia, tradition, entrenched interests, existing practices, legacy technology, and financial constraints.

Sometimes, a perceived crisis or imminent opportunity promotes innovation. However, in my experience, innovation is driven by loyal faculty or managers who solve problems on their own, not because they expect recognition, rewards or career development prospects, but because of a belief that change is necessary , And desirable.

In other words, I believe that loyal individuals are the true driving force of campus innovation. No one is obligated to regard themselves as an innovator or change agent. But if they don’t, don’t expect innovation to happen organically.

What is the key to innovation? you.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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