Balancing Innovation with Execution

Members of the IT Issues Panel believe that higher education IT organizations must balance innovation with execution in order to remain relevant and be successful.

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In their discussions this year (2013-14), the IT Issues Panel touched several times on the importance of balancing innovation with execution. The panel believes that higher education IT organizations must have the opportunity to innovate in order to challenge and improve existing paradigms. The ability to capitalize on the successes and learn from the failures of innovation is critical to moving higher education information technology forward strategically.

In answering four questions, the following IT Issues Panelists provided their thoughts on the tension created by balancing innovation and execution:

  • Christian Boniforti, Chief Information Officer, Lynn University
  • Tom Haymes, Director of Technology, Houston Community College Northwest
  • Barbara Howard, Associate Professor, Appalachian State University
  • Rebecca L. King, Associate Vice President for Information Technology, Baylor University
  • Francisca Yonekura, Associate Department Head, Center for Distributed Learning, University of Central Florida

1. What types of innovations are needed in higher education IT?

King: With the ever-increasing scrutiny regarding the costs of higher education, we've got to look for innovations that can limit costs and/or bring dramatic improvements in the quality of education and accompanying support services and in the enhancement of the universal body of research knowledge. This is more important than providing the next whiz-bang application of technology that looks impressive but in reality has little potential to positively influence our core mission.

Howard: The core business of most universities and colleges is providing postsecondary education in an increasingly competitive and global society. The twenty-first century student demands access that is convenient, highly technological, and relevant. Campuses must go farther to provide the infrastructure that will expand our classrooms beyond the four walls of a building. These types of innovations include classrooms without walls as students have access to the type of virtual worlds and online conferencing tools that allow collaborations with those in their field but not necessarily on their campus or even their country.

Boniforti: IT departments can also focus on providing a safe, stable, and reliable technology environment for all institutional members to have the resources and capabilities to be innovative. It should not only be up to IT to be innovative; we should be able to provide foundations and resources for faculty, staff, and students to engage in innovative thinking and solutions.

2. What is the most important element needed for fostering this innovation?

King: It is important to have in place an IT governance process that acknowledges and supports resource allocation for IT innovation work.

Haymes: IT organizations need to develop a collaborative culture where there is true cooperation with end users and their representatives. This will facilitate their reinvention as enablers. True collaboration also means that IT needs to come out from behind its wall of specialization. This will require a real shift in the mentality of many IT professionals.

Yonekura: One area that comes to mind as impactful in this balancing challenge is shared vision. To survive in a chaotic environment in which core and disruptive operations are encouraged, shared vision allows for a common understanding and reduction of ambiguity as to the direction the institution should be heading. Equally important is the mutual understanding that innovation is everyone's responsibility including IT staff, faculty, students, and administrators.

3. What risks do higher education institutions face as they consider innovative change?

Howard: There is always the risk that huge investments will become obsolete, but that is the nature of "innovations." There is also the risk that there will be insufficient buy-in resulting in lack of implementation or lack of resources devoted to it. There is also the risk of missed opportunity.

King: There are a number of risks to be considered. For example, questions regarding allocating budget funds to innovation; internal resistance from over-worked faculty and staff who are reluctant, and feel ill-equipped, to handle disruptive change; assignment of the most suitable IT staff to innovation projects and providing them the appropriate training; and an organizational structure that is not agile enough to support innovative change.

Haymes: I think the biggest risk we face is trying to stand in the way of disruptive change. Technology allows users to simply bypass systems that get in the way of their needs. The risk here is that we will lose all control over critical portions of the learning process with potentially negative consequences for privacy, accreditation, and accountability paradigms. While our approaches to these issues will also have to adapt to new realities, we want this to happen in a controlled manner. I think we all want evolution over revolution.

4. How do you strike the right balance between creativity in the workplace (innovation) and delivery of efficient and cost-effective services (execution)?

Boniforti: In order to find a good balance between working on innovative initiatives versus maintaining the network or systems, I believe that it is first important to have good governance within the organization. One thing that we also must do is learn how to stop doing things or providing services that can be done by someone else, or simply stop offering them altogether. We often find ourselves committing time and resources to services that are used by few or are not critical to the institution. Freeing up time and resources spent on these services will allow for an organization to spend on being creative in the workplace.

Howard: Communication that is open and involving all stakeholders in the process allows a balance. Determining and developing the types of innovative classrooms required by our society and students requires campus-wide changes in the infrastructure.

Yonekura: There lies the challenge. I believe that one of the strategies is to know how and when to provide room for creativity and when to operate within the bounded structure. First, creativity must be considered a necessity, not a luxury; therefore, creativity should be accounted for in the budgeting and planning process. Post-It notes and Gmail are great examples of how allowing room for playfulness is crucial for the survival of an organization. Closer to home, the projects we developed during one of our hack day events allowed us to migrate from one learning management system to another in record time and for the entire institution.