May 20, 2019

Exercise the Institutional Muscle for Innovation

As the academic year comes to a close, I’d like to take a moment to thank you for reading and reacting to my monthly blogs. When I began my first blog on “playing the infinite game,” my aim was to find a new way to share my thoughts—while engaging the Mason community—on a variety of complex and sometimes charged topics, such as liberal arts and STEM education, philanthropy and academic independence, and online learning at scale. I have benefited a great deal from the variety of perspectives you offered, sometimes through posted comments, but more often in the course of organic interactions. It is extraordinarily gratifying and a privilege for me to interact with you in this way.

I was recently visited by a few reporters from the Chronicle of Higher Education who are looking at how institutions respond to the fast changing landscape of public higher education. Some of the issues are familiar—declining government support and rising operational expenses—and some are emergent, such as changing workforce needs for knowledge acquisition or the rapid shifting value proposition for higher education.

Among other subjects, we talked about the need for journalists (and universities) to reexamine or challenge academic conventional wisdom—preconceived notions of what constitute quality education, effective teaching, or the requisite roles of faculty and students. In other words, how do we, as conscientious players in higher education, lead the change demanded by our society, in our time, rather than be changed.

Mason is viewed as an innovator in higher education, and that might be the reason the Chronicle came to us. We make a practice of challenging the conventional wisdom, we have the potential to ensure that “disruptions” enhance rather than undermine our mission, fostering new ideas and paradigms for research and learning that change the world. As with everything we do, our actions derive from our values— putting students first and upholding our commitment to academic quality. As such, this becomes more than a matter of anticipating disruptive forces and their repercussions; it is an enactment of our ethos as we continue to create and innovate—it can never stop.

As rewarding as it may be for Mason to be seen as a thought leader on the future of higher education, critical questions persist, such as: how do we go from idea to action, especially when change is exhausting and inherently destabilizing? How do we build our collective capability for innovation? If a capacity for organizational learning can be envisioned as a kind of institutional “muscle” that has to be developed, how do we create an environment conducive to exercising that muscle via institutional learning?

Here are my initial thoughts. This spring, we have had extensive campus engagement for online learning through town hall meetings, panels, roundtables, and invited speakers. These engagements help to expand our collective thinking. Our experiences to date is based upon what we have been exposed to – it’s finite and limited, and there is a tendency to take for granted what we are and what we have. In contrast, dare to go “outside the box” seeking diversity of thought not only challenges our presuppositions but provides sources of inspiration. While higher education has always generated creative ideas that disrupt society, in a world of rapid change, disruptive trends will increasingly operate in the opposite direction. Managed properly, these challenges could present exceptional opportunities for institutional growth, and no university is more up to the task.

This blog is just a preamble to the conversation I would like us to begin. Even as you turn to your summer plans, I invite you to share your thoughts, and perhaps your own questions, about how Mason can develop that innovation muscle.

I’ll close for now by wishing you a very enjoyable and productive summer.

1 thought on “Exercise the Institutional Muscle for Innovation

  • You asked: “[H]ow do we go from idea to action, especially when change is exhausting and inherently destabilizing? How do we build our collective capability for innovation? If a capacity for organizational learning can be envisioned as a kind of institutional ‘muscle’ that has to be developed, how do we create an environment conducive to exercising that muscle via institutional learning?” These are such excellent questions. In my experience, an organization gives its people the strength to keep adapting by reinforcing the security and flexibility of their jobs–and giving them a meaningful, concrete problem that they can help the larger organization solve. When you empower your people to do their best work (flexibility) without fear that everything is going to fall apart if something doesn’t work (security), you are going to keep them. And when you give them a seat at the table as you attempt to solve tough problems that stymie other organizations, you are creating an environment that authentically honors input. Those fundamentals can encourage a virtuous cycle of continued innovation.

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