Innovation Deficit

In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to travel overseas and present my thoughts (and quite honestly the thoughts of others) related to innovation.  Most recently I co-authored a book chapter with my colleague Sarah MacDonald (in press), titled “Innovation: Open Source and Nonprofit Models in Drug Discovery.”

So when we saw the recent statement from the presidents of 165 universities calling on President Obama and Congress to address the “innovation deficit” facing the country, we were intrigued. (See I asked Sarah to join me in writing this blog post related to their statement as well as some thoughts about higher education and innovation.

In their statement, the presidents called upon the White House and Congress to end the eroding of federal investments in research and higher education due to sequestration, and to provide “sustained strategic federal investments in research and student financial aid to close the innovation deficit and bolster our nation’s economic and national security for decades to come.”  (The full statement can be found at

As the presidents note, countless innovations have resulted from federally funded scientific research over the long history of higher education.  While we agree with the sentiments of the letter to the White House and Congress, one of things that strikes us is that increasing funding is only one aspect of closing the innovation deficit.  Well beyond the funding, what is needed for innovation is an actual plan to innovate.

You know, this notion of innovation and higher education is an interesting quandary.  Many look to higher education to be a source of innovation, particularly as it pertains to research and the development of new knowledge.  And there is certainly a record of this happening.  However, when it comes to innovation in terms of institutional operations, we haven’t been all that innovative.  So, when the presidents call for additional dollars for innovation, we suggest that additional dollars are just a start.

Many of our institutions have an office for planning and/or an office for institutional research, but you don’t often find an office for the chief innovation officer.  In their seminal book, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want, Carlson and Wilmot remind us that innovation is not a magic process, or a bolt of lightning, but is the result of a disciplined, intentional, continuous improvement process. Peter Drucker, in a 1985 Harvard Business Review article, describes innovation as “the effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.”

If innovation is the result of a disciplined, purposeful process, and if someone came to your campus and asked “what is your innovation process?” — what would you say?  To their credit many higher education institutions go through strategic planning processes on a regular basis.  This is an important process, but sometimes the process is all that is accomplished, and the result is not institutionally transformational.  This brings us back to the notion that innovation/transformation doesn’t just happen; it must be the result of a disciplined, intentional, continuous improvement process.  If what we are striving for is transformation/innovation, the examples we’ve found most helpful come from Carlson and Wilmot’s book.  (Please don’t be put off by the word customer below, for higher education a better word might be “social good.”)

The five disciplines for innovation that Carson & Wilmot describe are:

  1. Work on important needs, and concentrate on those unmet needs.  What are the unmet needs for higher education? We believe we are surrounded by them, ranging from providing an opportunity for access, finding ways to lower the cost of education (this doesn’t mean providing greater financial aid, it means finding ways to cut the cost of providing the education), to truly engaging our communities in solving what they see as important unmet needs.
  2. Determine the value — what value is created?  What can we provide to our customers (i.e., students, parents, communities) that will add value for them and their lives? At a time when some are questioning the value of a degree, our response must be able show the value in a very tangible way that goes well beyond personal financial gain.  We must better understand and articulate the value of what we do and of our product (our graduates).
  3. We must cultivate and have innovation champions.  One of the problems we face in higher education, particularly in public institutions, is that there is very little tolerance for failure. It’s very difficult to nurture champions when there is no room to experiment and fail.  One question is where in the tenure and promotion process is innovation considered?  Where is the risk, the capital within your institution? Do we purposefully nurture potential champions?
  4. All significant achievements require a multidisciplinary team.  Higher education is uniquely positioned because we do have many disciplines but then the question is do we nurture the multidisciplinary approach?  There is a great deal of hand-wringing about striving for more multidisciplinary programs, yet most institutions are still organized by colleges and disciplines. Perhaps there is much to be learned from President Michael Crow at Arizona State University, where he has tried to organize the institution around solving important problems (which by their very nature are multidisciplinary).  Or we could learn from the School of Evolution and Social Change, or the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. (Read more at
  5. Finally: organizational alignment.  In SRI terms, is the organization aligned for continuous value creation throughout the enterprise?  Who do we engage in our innovation process? Is it top down, or bottom up?  Our institutions are made up of many divisions (finance, academic, etc.) — do we encourage innovation across divisions?

Clearly funding is one of the keys to encouraging innovation on our campuses, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.  Our institutions are uniquely positioned to innovate because we have dedicated people who can bring a multidisciplinary approach to address important unmet needs. Drucker provides one measure of true innovation: “the successful innovation aims from the beginning to become the standard setter….if an innovation does not aim at leadership from the beginning, it is unlikely to be innovative enough.”  We believe our institutions strive to be a standard setter in our specific niche, to get there we suggest that institutions need to have a plan, an innovation plan.


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3 Responses to Innovation Deficit

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    As usual my friend you are on target. As I read the request by the presidents, I see the same old plea for more federal funds to higher education and primarily research dollars that I’ve seen promoted over and over through the years. Now don’t get me wrong, I support their request and certainly would agree that university research investments have paid tremendous dividends to this country and the world. However, couching this argument as “innovation deficit” would seem to propose that all investment in education and research produces innovation, and hopefully the presidents really don’t believe that. You and Sarah are correct in saying that funding is a part of the problem, but only a part and I’d venture to say it’s not the major part. You folks are also correct that higher education institutions organizationally haven’t been very innovative; at least I can say that based on the four that I worked at during my career. But, there are indeed, pieces or units of these institutions that did produce tremendous innovation, and many are building and going strong.

    I totally agree with the five disciplines for innovation described by Carson & Wilmot. (By the way, never apologize for using the word customer in higher education to describe presidents, faculty, staff, students and all our publics; if these folks don’t see that we are all customers it is way too early to talk about innovation.) I also commend you for suggesting that if we say we innovate, then what’s our plan.

    I had the great opportunity to spend the last six years of my career in an institutional situation that because of a innovative provost allowed for the creation and development of a truly creative and innovative unit of outreach to: work on important needs; create agreed upon value; have innovation champions; create and operationalize multidisciplinary teams; and create an organizational alignment (however only as it pertained to this small unit within the institution) that allowed the unit to be highly successful and profitable for the entire university. Ironically, this example of innovative success within a university was accomplished without any infusion of new funding.

    What you folks are pointing out here is great keep hammering on it. Just try to move the stones you can, you can’t move the mountain without everyone understanding that it is only made up of stones anyway. Carry your idea for an innovation plan to everyone who will listen.

    • shaeffjm says:

      Don sorry for the delay in my response, as usual you and I are on the same page and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your feedback on the blog posts.

      Hope all is well with you and your family and retirement. jim

  2. Pingback: If I Had Nothing But Money | Shaeffer's Forays

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