Institutions of higher education are particularly susceptible to the innovation argument, because they are under fire for being irrelevant, because they are the major location for research in the American economy, and because they have an overwhelming desire to distinguish themselves from each other. But there are at least four major concerns with pushing innovation as a major value in education.
- Confusion--though colleges and universities talk about innovation--renewing an older thing to make it better and more meaningful--they often are hoping for invention--the creation of something almost entirely new. The conflation of innovation and invention means that small innovations often lack the appeal and funding they would need to get established, while big sparkly new things get the go-ahead on the basis of their inventiveness.
- Integration--as my colleague Ian Symmonds has pointed out, without integration, innovations will lose their luster, remain isolated,and eventually wither rather than change the institution. But unless institutions are purposeful about integration, it doesn't happen.
- Leadership--Often innovation is associated with a leader (think Steve Jobs again) rather than an institution or a set of processes. But as with other large institutions, higher education leaders come and go. If innovations are tied to them, or sparked largely in their offices, the spirit of innovation may leave with them, or take on their own idiosyncrasies.
- Focus--At the same time that schools are being called on to innovate, quieter voices are calling on them to focus. There is logic in this call, since without focus, many schools on limited budgets will fail to allocate resources wisely or pursue risky new activities to their detriment. And in a crowded market, institutions that lack focus will get lost. Unfortunately, higher ed loves the lack of focus (we even have a name for it--the university). But as Jim Collins argues in How the Mighty Fall, lack of focus is one of the major sins that lead healthy organizations to collapse.
Here is what I mean. Innovation is essentially taking something old and reworking it to be something new. If an institution goes to the same few sources as birthplaces of its innovations, it can count on the innovations having at least some focus at the end. So if a religious university wants to innovate it should comb the memories, writings, speeches, and histories of its religious tradition, looking for some idea that is analogous to the current situation. If a teaching college wants to innovate and focus it needs to go back to the same well again and again--the same philosophers of education, say, or the same peer institutions, or the same sort of pedagogy.
Here Apple and Steve Jobs are instructive. They have few products, all with the same look, feel, and appeal. They have been innovative to be sure, but their focus is even more impressive. Few colleges and universities have that same sort of limited product line and common design. Instead they work incessantly on creating a brand--a logo, a color scheme, a tagline--to somehow make it seem like their sprawling programs and new initiatives feel like they come from the same place. Most brands cannot live up to that task.