4 principles for prioritizing innovation and socialization in higher ed

To get out of the academic rut, or prevent backtracking to it, institutions should adopt an innovative business mindset
By: | May 17, 2021
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Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College

Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College

After an atypical academic year several institutions are looking forward to going back – back to the way it was in 2019. And although the ‘back to normal’ saying brings promise to a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it does not inspire progress nor sound inviting to incoming students.

So, as more people question and criticize the value of higher ed, and perhaps more high school grads consider a vocation right after graduation (which may be needed for the economy given worker shortage trends), colleges must confront their competitive inertia and consider unconventional updates to ensure enrollment numbers remain strong.

To get out of the academic rut, or prevent backtracking to it, institutions should adopt an innovative business mindset which, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), consists of four areas:

  • product innovation (improving or creating a new offering)
  • process innovation (enhancing or expanding channels and functions)
  • marketing innovation (engaging further or repositioning elements of the marketing mix)
  • organizational innovation (boosting performance or reconfiguring business practices)

Product innovation

With product innovation, sometimes less is more. Program offerings and student services are resulting in cannibalization, whereas success in one area is eating into the success of other areas. Institutions should simply focus on their core offerings, become best at those offerings, and leverage what sets them apart.

For instance, at a subway shop, the meal choice may be limited but the consumer can feel empowered by customizing their order and giving patronage to the shop of their choosing. The same is not true when ordering from an overwhelming diner menu that is too big to know what is good and where the value lies.

Process innovation 

Too many offerings can be problematic, but the same does not hold true when it comes to options for accessing those offerings.

Although higher ed has expanded a good deal into online education and increased the flexibility of course modality, degree attainment is still restricted to pre-set semesters and course availability.

Consideration should be given to short-term courses, block scheduling, and interdisciplinary credit options that promote transferable skills and can piggyback on programming with external organizations.

Marketing innovation 

With marketing innovation, the goal is to enact change regarding the marketing mix — what is being offered, how it is being distributed, what it is priced at, and how it is communicated to the audience.

To get the mix right though, you must know your audience, and what is of interest to them. And what students tend to be most interested in at college is, well, each other.

Making friends throughout 2020 proved tough when computer screens and distanced masked faces were the only means for interaction. Given that socialization is an important process for not only transitioning into adulthood but also developing soft skills, which can contribute to career advancement, the social element of a residential college is just as crucial to a student’s education as the courses they take.

For incoming students, campus life is an important factor when determining where to enroll, so the marketing of activities and amenities must live up to the expectations of registered students.

Organizational innovation

To boost not only connections but campus culture, students should partake in community service projects and student-centered social gatherings, and since organizational innovation pertains to new business practices and networks, administrators shouldn’t shy away from necessitating campus-related engagement activities.

Given that high schools require participation for field days and school assemblies, and future employers are expecting attendance at social functions and service days, engagement mandates wouldn’t be unreasonable for a campus community to initiate. And, students will likely appreciate being exposed to different people and perspectives since that is what college is all about.

To offer a unique experience to incoming students, campus administrators must demonstrate a commitment to the change process and, most importantly, allow for mistakes to be made. Design thinking requires trial and error, and a nuanced view of data compilation. Creative atrophy is commonplace within academia and this is due to reacting to data rather than pioneering new ideas. What is particularly problematic is the lag time between the reaction and the  implementation of a plan since bureaucratic methods within higher ed tend to result in data being dated by the time any change takes place.

Thus, if institutions want to inspire future generations to go further and challenge existing norms, they must do the same. Institutions should not look back to what worked and spend time figuring out how to reinstate it, but rather what can be tried and tested going forward.

Kimberlee Josephson is an assistant professor of business administration and associate dean of the Breen Center for Graduate Success at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.