Innovation, the process of creating lasting value by the successful mobilization of new ideas, is a critical capability if we are to address social, environmental and economic needs. Most of our work in higher education related to developing innovation capability focused on developing Innovation Leadership with a select cadre of students, originally in entrepreneurship and more recently including social sector innovation.

What about the rest of our graduates: for example, what capability do all our graduates need to engage effectively with innovation in their workplaces – with innovation practices for individuals and teams and with innovation processes for their organizations? Which elements of this capability can be adapted to enhance their other roles, as community members and global citizens?

Our current working definition of capability for Workplace Innovation has two complementary aspects:

  • Enabled for Innovation, by developing the capability to engage effectively with workplace innovation practices (integrating conceptual understanding, practical skills and productive mindsets)
  • Enabled by Innovation, in experiential learning opportunities embedded in our instructional designs, in our academic programs, and in work-integrated learning in partner workplaces

Enabled for Workplace Innovation
We’ve adapted the term Workplace Innovation as used in Europe, e.g., in the European Network for Workplace Innovation. The EUWIN initiative integrates human, organizational and technological dimensions. In the EUWIN formulation, Workplace Innovation includes improving organizational productivity and performanceimproving staff motivation and working conditions and creating better places to work and an enhanced culture of innovation.

As another example, the Australian government has defined a set of skills for “contributing to workplace innovation” – beyond generic “21st Century” competencies – and possible ways to assess them. The key elements include

  • Identify opportunities to do things better
  • Discuss and develop ideas with others
  • Address the practicalities of change

But these Innovation skills, however we articulate and evaluate them, will also need to be integrated into a broader and deeper capability. We need to ask about what components of conceptual understanding are needed to inform the when, where and how of applying these practical skills for workplace innovation, such as “identifying opportunities to do things better” and “addressing the practicalities of change”?

These underlying knowledge foundations could include understanding the different types of organizational innovations and how they relate to the workplace, as well a grasp of the potential positive and negative effects of workplace innovation. In addition, we will want to support our students in developing productive mindsets with a more deliberate and reflective practice-orientation and a resilient agency for engaging with the uncertainties embedded in the use of emerging knowledge and learning practices.

As another European example, a consortium of universities of applied sciences is working collaboratively with their workplace partner networks toward a Framework for Innovation Competencies Development and Assessment (FINCODA). The FINCODA project includes cooperation with workplace partners on a Needs Analysis for Innovation Competencies Development and Assessment and the exploration of specific instructional methods and assessments (e.g., How to Educate Someone to be Innovative).

Enabled by Workplace Innovation
In order to develop this capability for Workplace Innovation in all our students, we’re going to have to begin tackling the challenge in the contexts where all of them already participate – within our teaching and learning environments. The other methods we employ now to foster Innovation Leadership, such as social innovation incubators and entrepreneurship boot camps, aren’t  going to easily scale up to allow all out students to become ‘critical friends’ of Workplace Innovation.

All of our higher ed institutions want to increase student opportunities for work-integrated learning experiences in authentic workplaces. But our teaching and learning environments can also be viewed as authentic workplaces: the work is learning, students apply a set of work practices for learning, and changes in those practices can be treated as instances of workplace innovation. That’s what we mean when we talk about students being Enabled by Innovation, in experiential learning and reflection with the innovative practices embedded in our instructional designs and academic programs − and then going further into work-integrated learning within partner workplaces in wider contexts.

Here are a few of our initial scenarios – some still thought experiments, some already emerging into practice  – to illustrate how we might make teachable moments out of changes in work practices within our teaching and learning environments in higher education:

1. At  the activity level: Most of our instructors can easily cite examples where they have introduced a new learning practice only to have students respond with a mix of skepticism and apprehension. The most memorable instance for me was introducing group work in 2nd year and then pushing further by requiring peer review of assignments in 3rd year.  Inevitably, there would be lots of body language to indicate opposition, either to the specifics of the change or to the overall notion of changing the rules just when the students felt they had mastered the previous expected practices.

What if, instead of glossing over students’ concerns, we treated them as examples of natural responses to workplace innovation? We could ask them to flag their memory of these reactions, so that when the tables are turned and they are the ones introducing change to a workplace group, they can appreciate where the negative body language is coming from. We could refer them to the 4th of Scott Berkun’s Ten Myths of Innovation – the myth that People Love New Ideas – and ask them later to reflect on how their instructor could have introduced the idea more effectively, or been more convincing on how the risks of the innovation would be managed and mitigated to protect them.

2. At the course level:  as noted above, we will want our graduates to have conceptual frameworks for understanding Workplace Innovation, through curriculum components examining innovation as a process from multiple perspectives: social, technical, economic, ethical, epistemic, etc. While there are many examples of courses with Innovation as the subject matter, why couldn’t we treat this curriculum need as an opportunity to ‘practice what we preach’ through innovative formats and the innovative learning practices required for successful work with them?

For example, we could add a reflection component to one of the Massive Open Online Courses targeting Innovation, whether with a broad views  (e.g., Understand what innovation means and consider the history and developments of innovations that are important in our daily lives) or with a more narrow focus (e.g., Becoming a ChangeMaker: Introduction to Social Innovation). The reflection component could give students an opportunity to apply and extend their ‘critical friend’ of Workplace Innovation capability – providing evidence toward a digital badge, perhaps?

3. At the program level: we want to design our programs to move students from the learning practices they bring with them on entry (e.g., from secondary schools) to those they will be expected to apply within the workplaces. Nursing programs are a good example, because the learning practices required of entry-level nurses are detailed by the profession and programs are assessed on how well they have developed and demonstrated those capabilities. Explicitly or implicitly, the program structure is designed to move students step-by-step toward that target.

In a new scenario, these changes in our learning and teaching “workplace” could become opportunities to also develop their capability as ‘critical friends’ of innovation − knowledgeable, skillful and committed − in work roles, processes and expectations. How could we progressively challenge and support our students, in each successive year of their program, to think of these changes in our workplace as opportunities to intentionally link their emerging knowledge on Workplace Innovation with these efforts to adapt learning practices closer to what will be expected of them in their future workplaces?

4. In our culture for teaching and learning: all the scenarios above require a commitment by faculty to engage with effectively with innovations in teaching and learning, and to serve as models of Workplace Innovation in a sufficiently ‘enterprising culture’ to make the challenges and rewards a part of everyday student life in our teaching and learning environments. One way to support the expansion and institutionalization of this role is to more directly engage students with those faculty who choose to widen and deepen the impacts of their teaching in this way.
We’re already starting to see more involvement of students in such innovation projects to improve teaching and learning, which can further develop their innovation capability and ease the resource constraints which might otherwise block our progress. There are promising examples of such endeavours in England (where, for example, Birmingham City University aims to engage every student as Partner – not a Consumer) and in Scotland (where Students as Partners in Quality Scotland provides a national network of support and resources).

Canadian institutions are also leading the way, e.g., McMaster has an extensive Student Partners program and hosts an annual Institute to share expertise.  To move these efforts further as an opportunity to develop and demonstrate capability for Workplace Innovation, we could explore new scenarios such as the following:

  • We could reframe the student activities to emphasize the potential transfer of capability to innovation projects in other workplace contexts. For example, while many of these partnerships are labelled as Students as Partners in Teaching and Learning, reframing around Students as Partners in Knowledge, Learning and Innovation could be more helpful to highlight the transferability to other domains (both for the students and for their future employers…).
  • As in the scenarios above, we could link these projects more explicitly with curriculum resources and assessments of Innovation Capability. (Some of these scenarios are expanded further in a related blog post on Preparing Graduates for Future Knowledge Practices)
  • Supporting innovation experiences and innovation capability development for other students, as connectors, coaches and catalysts, can strengthen and extend the ‘critical friend’ capability for senior students and further expand their impact.

In summary, we believe Canada can become an international leader in developing for all our graduates – the “top 100%” – the capability to engage effectively with innovation in workplace practices and processes. As we plan a national Innovation Agenda, let’s ensure that we incorporate some distinctive innovations in our own educational workplaces so that our teaching and learning environments become beacons of innovation providing enduring value.

From Inside Higher Ed on January 30, 2017

Written by: Thomas Carey for the Higher Ed Gamma Blog

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