Cultivating innovative colleges and universities

Demands for increased innovation are commonplace today, with leaders of all stripes—including those in postsecondary education—calling for individuals and enterprises to be more innovative

Demands for increased innovation are commonplace today, with leaders of all stripes—including those in postsecondary education—calling for individuals and enterprises to be more innovative. However, few know much about innovation or its cultivation. Not surprisingly, innovations are typically stumbled upon by accident or, as is most commonly the case in higher education, occur within the contexts of one-off initiatives.

Over the past 20-plus years, I have held a number of postsecondary roles (e.g., student, faculty, administrator, accreditation evaluator, etc.) at a diversity of colleges and universities—from access- to research-focused institutions. Through those experiences, I’ve concluded that innovative colleges and universities are those which, through deliberate efforts, establish cultures of innovation—ones that extend beyond labs and incubators, engage diverse constituencies and apply to any (or at least many) organizational areas. Strategies essential for fostering innovative cultures follow.

Hire Creative People

Most who seek to establish cultures of innovation face doing so within existing organizations—as opposed to developing them from scratch. Nevertheless, any colleges or universities looking to become more innovative must incorporate into their onboarding processes mechanisms (e.g., case studies) which gauge the creativity of prospective employees. There is a Chinese proverb about the best time to plant trees. The best time? Twenty years ago. The second best time? Now. Gaining insights into prospective team members’ capacities to innovate can significantly advance an institution’s efforts to foster a culture of innovation.

Define Innovation

Organizations which seek to expand their capabilities to innovate must establish working definitions for innovation (e.g., “novel means of creating value for organizational stakeholders”). While definitions will differ, they generally include two components: creativity and improvement. A common understanding of what innovation is—and is not—will be critical to creating an organizational culture around it.

Identify Innovation Domains

As with developing definitions, colleges and universities must explicitly delineate the domains (e.g., products, sources, practices, markets, etc.) for which prospective innovations will be considered. Some will only entertain ideas relevant to specific strategic organizational priorities (e.g., academic programming, extramural resource generation, student services, outreach, etc.) or be interested in low- or no-cost innovations. Others will actively seek potential innovations relevant to any aspects of their operations. Though the domains identified will vary widely from one organization to another, they provide much needed focus to related efforts.

Integrate Innovation Strategies

Wherever possible, innovation-oriented activities must be harmonized with existing institutional processes (e.g., resourcing and onboarding) and programs (e.g., stakeholder recognition and professional development). A lack of integration often begets stakeholder uncertainty and, consequently, diminished engagement.

Crowdsource Ideation

Unlike many private sector organizations, relatively few colleges or universities have individuals or units explicitly focused on innovation. Still, innovation should not be the responsibility of a relative few whose attentions and energies are directed primarily to core organizational activities. All organizations have bright, creative stakeholders who can contribute significantly to the advancement of virtually every aspect of their enterprises. If colleges and universities truly desire to become more innovative, they should actively seek potential innovations from all possible sources. This happens best when diverse constituencies (e.g., students, staff, faculty, alumni and community partners) are encouraged to continuously ask: “What if . . . ?” While some institutions will choose not to engage all institutional stakeholders in their innovation processes, the more involved the greater the likelihood of creating sustainable, innovative cultures.

Delineate Processes for Procuring Ideas

Colleges and universities must have defined mechanisms (e.g., web-based forms) through which innovative ideas may be submitted, and explicitly identify data required for consideration. The latter may include: descriptions of the issues or opportunities the innovations are intended to address, potential tangible and intangible impacts, requisite resources, timelines, etc. Striking balances between requiring sufficient information to consider ideas fully and necessitating so much that stakeholder participation is discouraged will be key.

Establish Frameworks for Vetting Potential Innovations

Everyone engaged in an institution’s innovation effort is responsible for its success. Nevertheless, someone(s) must be accountable for its execution. Many innovative ideas will be able to be implemented with little cost; others will require considerable organizational investment. Therefore, while the evaluation of potential innovations may be delegated, and multiple stakeholders will likely be engaged in an organization’s vetting processes, leaders representing key institutional areas (e.g., business affairs and student services) will most often be accountable for them.

Just as idea generation can be crowdsourced, so can idea evaluation. Though many colleges and universities will limit those engaged in vetting potential innovations, some will actively solicit broad constituent participation.

In most cases, ideas evaluated will be selected to be: 1) piloted or implemented, 2) retained for refinement and/or reconsideration (see Keep Good Ideas Alive below), or 3) dismissed. Some proposals will not be potential innovations but concern critical issues like health and safety. As a result, institutions must establish means for handling such submissions.

Not surprisingly, evaluation processes and their outcomes will vary depending upon a variety of variables. Regardless, they must be timely and transparent. Otherwise, stakeholders will disengage.

Keep Good Ideas Alive

A number of ideas proffered will have merit but be ill-timed and/or require further refinement. Therefore, organizations should retain and periodically reevaluate such potential innovations until they are piloted, implemented or dismissed.

Develop Innovation Communication Flows

Colleges and universities which seek to create sustainable cultures of innovation must develop and implement communications that promote and support each component (e.g., ideation, evaluation, etc.) of their innovation processes, and thoughtfully convey the value innovative thought and action can have for organizations and their stakeholders. Timely, strategic communications will positively influence their initial and ongoing engagement.

Foster Diverse Collaboration

Diversity is essential to excellence. Likewise, engaging stakeholders with unique abilities and perspectives is vital to fostering innovative institutional cultures. Therefore, organizations must actively encourage collaboration between diverse individuals and groups—particularly in the procurement and evaluation of innovative ideas.

Recognize Contributors and Contributions

All who contribute to a college’s or university’s innovation efforts should receive some level of recognition. Acknowledging those involved underscores the importance of innovation and participation in related processes. Further, such recognitions often lead others to become engaged and those already involved to increase their support. Recognizing individuals’ contributions increases the quality of their and others’ future contributions.

Assess Innovation Undergirding and Success

Institutions which seek to cultivate cultures of innovation must continuously and candidly evaluate their innovation practices and success on that front. Most can assess their efforts and outcomes by asking two simple questions: 1) To what extent do our stakeholders consider our organization supportive of innovative thought and action? 2) To what degree do our peers view our organization as innovative?


Undoubtedly, a subset of the calls for greater innovation within postsecondary institutions is rhetorical. Nevertheless, so long as colleges and universities fulfill such critical roles for so many, demands for their continued improvement will persist. The abilities of higher education institutions to develop sustainable cultures of innovations will be essential to meeting that charge. Subscribing to these strategies will advance institutions toward that reality.

Scott Newman is a 2013-14 American Council on Education Fellow currently on placement at the University of Arkansas. His home institution is the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology.

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