Top Five Roadblocks to Innovation in Higher Ed
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Top Five Roadblocks to Innovation in Higher Ed

Without innovation, a higher education institution cannot grow and compete in the new postsecondary environment.


Higher education is deep in the midst of a period of change the likes of which this industry has never seen before.

Every day, we’re being told about new ways to see and do things; students are customers and universities are businesses competing to survive. This isn’t your grandpa’s higher education.

In order to keep pace with these developments, innovation must be a central ideal for every college and university in the United States. We must constantly evolve our practices to meet changing expectations and needs. Yet, innovation, creativity and change can be surprisingly hard to find on campuses today.

I have identified five major roadblocks to the creation of an innovation culture in the higher ed space.

1. Stasis Due to Lack of Funding

Some feel that innovation only follows money, and when there is no funding, there can be no innovation.

Brilliant, creative minds need little more than what they have right now in order to increase innovation and foster creativity where they work. “I can do nothing new until my superiors provide me more funding” is a tired, old song. We need (and some have) a new anthem: “Let’s just see what we can do with what we have already.”

A significant challenge today? You bet. Doable? Absolutely.

2. Lack of Innovators throughout the Academy

Innovation at the grassroots level could flourish on its own, but enterprise-wide interest and attention is a different matter entirely.

Institutions need to showcase their creativity mavens — those just waiting for the chance to share their passion. Someone who is truly passionate about innovation can champion the effort and enable things to happen. Just like the innovators, leaders are ready to take up this mantle, given the opportunity.

Rare? Yes. There? Yes.

3. Inability to Break Down Silos

Silo mentalities exist throughout higher education and departments are slow to share successes, let alone innovations.

Celebrating innovative educators and practitioners will introduce significant peer pressure throughout the institution — and others will take it from there. Educators pride themselves in leading in their respective fields; they are experts and seek recognition and acclaim as such. Leading in innovation will be no different. They will rise to the challenge, showing colleagues what they can do.

4. Guardedness Instead of Collaboration

There is no easy way to share innovative ideas with colleagues in higher ed, nor is there a compelling reason to do so.

Showcasing team efforts will spur inter-departmental conversations, creativity and projects. Leadership needs to provide the venues within which innovations can be showcased and celebrated. Simple, low-cost approaches can start the ball rolling (e.g., faculty showcases or lunch-and-learns to start). Competition-based innovation showcases will surface creative initiatives, many of which already exist but remain hidden. I call them ‘pockets of excellence.’

Know this: they already exist. Let’s bring them into the light.

5. Fundamental Belief in Acquisition

Some people myopically believe that acquiring something new will necessarily bring innovation, fresh thinking and surprising results.

Remember one solid fact: acquisition does not equal adoption. Just because you have the latest, hottest thing, does not mean it will get any traction at all, let alone propel the institution forward. Acquiring more shiny toys is like broadening the horizontal part of the proverbial “T”.

The result? Higher ed remains shallow.

What we need to do instead is lengthen the vertical column of the “T.” Develop new, exciting and meaningful ways to use what we have today in more creative and innovative ways.

The result? Higher ed deepens (and learns and grows).

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3 Responses to Top Five Roadblocks to Innovation in Higher Ed

  1. dean Reply

    2014/04/08 at 2:59 pm

    At our institution, the silo mentality reigned supreme and we recognized early on that this posed a challenge to innovation.

    As a result, we created a council with representatives from each of our departments, with the sole intention of sharing administrative and curricular innovations. The council meets quarterly and has shared ideas and resources among departments that otherwise might not have connected.

  2. James Branden Reply

    2014/04/09 at 7:12 am

    I appreciate the distinction between acquisition and adoption. Acquisition without an understanding of why a certain technology or process has been chosen is ineffective and potentially costly. The focus should always be on adoption — of an innovative technology, process or other idea — with any acquisition needed as a secondary decision.

  3. Shawn Warren Reply

    2014/04/14 at 7:47 pm

    I have a model for higher education that is a disruptive innovation. I invite you to consider how it uses what HEIs already have while it deepens the vertical column of the “T.”

    If you can help it get traction I believe you will be doing not only your institution but all of us a service: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-new-tender-for-higher-education.html

    To help convince you consider your roadblocks in order:

    1) I am not affiliated with any institution and have received no funding for the development of this model beyond my family income.

    2) I am waiting for the chance to show my passion for this model and have others in better positions develop and champion the innovation.

    3) I have absolutely no problem with others taking the work and presenting it as their own, since I do this out of civil/professional duty and believe a great many people could benefit its study and implementation.

    4) At the same time it might be easier to collaborate on work that is not pocketed and proprietary, but from without – and see 3 above.

    5) The model I propose is very low tech and its adoption a high probability given it substantially benefits all interested parties: institutions, academics, students and society.

    I hope you find some use for this work. As a start on traction consider the economic benefits to institutions:

    1) http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2012/12/economic-argument-for-professional-and.html

    2) http://www.evolllution.com/media_resources/changing-role-educators-academic-vendors-universities-colleges/

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