What’s the Best Way to Create Innovation in Higher Education?
A few years ago, I was asked to develop and teach a course on Education Innovation and Entrepreneurship to a cohort of doctoral students enrolled in the Executive Doctorate in Higher Education Management program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
As I constructed the syllabus for the one-semester course, I realized that I needed to find instructional content/materials to provide the students with some knowledge about business models in order to adequately complete the final assignment. That final project was an 8- to 10-page paper outlining in some detail a unique idea to generate revenues or reduce expenses for their institution.
Most of the students in the cohort were administrators at a college or university. Very few had worked outside of higher education. In addition, very few had earned an undergraduate or graduate degree in business. I had to find content that provided enough information to allow all of these students, regardless of education or experience, to build a simplistic business model.
Eventually, I discovered a book, Business Model Generation, that I assigned as one of the required readings for the course. Co-authors Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur collected ideas and feedback from 470 “Business Model Canvas” practitioners in 45 countries and wrote a book that concisely explains business strategic concepts and tools and makes them easy to organize and explain using the Business Model Canvas.
The book was perfect. I didn’t have to compile a collection of chapters from textbooks in marketing, accounting, and finance and assume that the students in my class could learn enough from that material to cogently support a revenue-generating or cost-cutting idea.
Fast forward to today. The COVID-19 pandemic has upset the traditional higher education business model. Enrollments are down and costs are up. Observers of the sector are calling for institutions to innovate in order to emerge stronger once a vaccine is approved, distributed, and proven successful. Some believe that only the strongest of the traditional colleges and universities will survive and continue with a business model similar to their pre-pandemic model.
From 2002 until August of 2020, I was fortunate to lead American Public University System (APUS). We have been innovative in many ways. As one of the first universities in the U.S. to operate wholly online, we built systems and infrastructure over the past 25 years that enabled us to successfully operate uninterrupted during the pandemic.
In most cases, our innovations took years to conceptualize and implement. We built an online university from the ground up, so we didn’t have the advantage/disadvantage of an existing business to compete for resources or to interfere with our thinking about the best way to serve our students online.
I asked myself the question: If I were a senior-level administrator at a traditional university impacted by COVID-19, how would I go about evaluating the opportunities for innovating and implementing change during this crisis? I’m sure the colleges and universities that can afford it are evaluating proposals from many of the consulting practices with a higher education focus.
For the colleges and universities that can’t afford the seven- to eight-figure consulting fees, what options are there? Some institutions have senior leaders who have operated in a crisis and are experienced at cutting expenses. Cutting expenses won’t solve the problem in the long run, particularly if the traditional model is broken and innovation is required. Neither will reading The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed and deciding to follow the good idea fairy by announcing that you’re going to serve the unmet needs of a non-traditional group of adult students and add online degree programs.
There are many books about innovation. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could comprise a lengthy literature review of the top 50. However, a few years ago, senior leaders at a consulting firm called the Doblin Group published a book, Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs. The book is based on the firm’s years of experience as a leading innovation consulting firm.
The introduction to the book states that executives have equated innovation with the development of new products. From the authors’ experiences, creating new products provides the lowest return on investment (ROI) and the least competitive advantage. Based on their experiences, they created a 10 types of innovation framework to identify opportunities beyond products and develop viable innovations with higher ROIs.
The 10 types of innovation are organized in three categories: configuration, offering, and experience. Under configuration, there are four types: profit model, network, structure, and process. Under offering, there are two types: product performance and product system. Under experience, there are four types: service, channel, brand, and customer engagement.
The consultants at Doblin believe that an effective innovation requires at least five of the types to be implemented successfully. One example is how Zappos incorporated an innovative brand, customer experience, channel, product assortment, and business model to create a unique position in the market.
The consultants at Doblin also identified over 100 innovation tactics which are known ways that the 10 types of innovation can be used. In addition to writing about them in the book, they offer these tactics as a set of cards that can be purchased separately and used as a tool for teams to utilize in their innovation planning and development.
Doblin is now a consulting arm of Deloitte, and their consultants are likely available for engagements for companies with the resources to hire them. For anyone contemplating the establishment of an innovation department or task force, I would suggest reading Ten Types of Innovation. You may ultimately decide to engage a consulting firm to assist your institution, but the few hours required to read the book will make you a better participant, regardless of which direction you pursue.