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Organizing for Innovation in an Era of Elevated Disruption

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In response to unprecedented technological disruption, many colleges and universities have begun to organize for innovation, creating more agile and responsive campus communities that can benefit more quickly and more profoundly from new discoveries in an era of rapid change.

At most universities in the United States, decentralized organizational structures enable autonomous faculty to teach and conduct research in deeply specialized contexts. Organizational silos, usually in the form of departments and schools, focus researchers on addressing increasingly specific research questions within a single discipline. In fact, many faculty choose to collaborate with peers from their academic discipline at other institutions, rather than collaborate with faculty at their own campuses outside their area of expertise. This phenomenon affords faculty the ability to look outside their campuses to identify new innovations. However, this discipline-centric approach creates remarkable inefficiencies: 1) faculty are often unaware of potentially beneficial innovations being employed for the institution or research around them at their own campuses; and 2) the resources needed to support the implementation of innovations are either redundantly deployed or not sufficient to support scholarly work.

Meanwhile, several technological innovations have appeared and begun to gain traction within teaching, learning, and research, including XR ("extended reality"), digital manufacturing, data science, and learning analytics. The pace of innovation across all four areas presents challenges to institutions. These innovations show promise to measurably improve outcomes but can confound researchers looking to apply them to research. Mere awareness also presents a challenge: faculty may not even know about the newest technologies and techniques.

Nonprofit organizations and the private sector often play an evangelical role to inform faculty and administrators of innovations. Yes, often, this includes a good dose of hype, but these remain important channels that bring outside expertise and knowledge of innovations to campus. For example, HP Inc. sponsored XR research through EDUCAUSE, which has resulted in two studies on how institutions are using virtual and augmented reality to improve research and learning outcomes. The data and analysis were performed free of any corporate influence, and the results were made public in well-produced reports. Similar efforts by individual universities, think tanks, and other groups add value to the innovative process. However, relying solely on outsiders to manage the diffusion of innovations on your campus is not a sustainable strategy.

In response to their own historic organizational structures and the rapid advancements of new technologies, several institutions have begun to organize for innovation, intentionally creating the conditions for ideas and practices to spread across university schools and departments. The original model was pioneered by centers for teaching and learning, focusing on instructional innovations across disciplines. Now, institutional actors are focusing on accelerating Everett Rogers's Decision-Innovation Process across innovations.

  • Columbia University established the Columbia Emerging Technologies Consortium (ETC) to "[f]oster information sharing, innovation and collaboration across disciplines within areas of emerging technologies."
  • Florida International University created Miami Beach Urban Studios, "a 'collider' for people and ideas in arts, design, technology and the sciences."
  • Hamilton College created several interdisciplinary programs through its Libraries and Information Services team to evangelize effective use of emerging technologies in a liberal arts context.
  • Yale University created the Blended Reality Program at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM), which "explores applied uses of blended reality—3D design, augmented/virtual reality, digital imaging and 3D fabrication technologies—to enable new ways of learning, communicating and understanding our world."

On each of these campuses, academic freedom means that faculty participation is voluntary. As a result, these organizations must properly incent participation and community engagement. Activities ranging from scientific talks to lab visits and poster-session days help attract audiences made up of faculty, staff, and students. Increasingly, administrative leaders of these new organizations employ sophisticated marketing and communications techniques to spread the word and inspire participation from faculty and students.

By organizing for innovation, these institutions have taken steps to accelerate the knowledge and evaluation of innovations on their campuses, while establishing ownership of the innovative process on their campuses, managing partnership interactions with the private sector and other institutions. These start-up organizations prove that even the most decentralized, most complicated, most traditional universities can apply agile organizational techniques to ensure their faculty and students stay up-to-date on innovations which can dramatically improve teaching, learning, or research.

Gus Schmedlen is Vice President for Worldwide Education at HP Inc.

© 2020 Gus Schmedlen.