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Moving past the ‘tyranny of innovation’

How a supportive culture can allow innovation to thrive, without stifling creativity.

What does a culture of innovation mean?

In very general terms, innovation means doing something new, whether that’s creating a new product, a new service, or something else. As technology brings an increasing pace of change into the sector, there is an onus on leaders to ensure innovation is aligned with pedagogy. But what does that really mean for education, and how can it be put into practice?

Colm Blake, cloud solutions consultant at Jisc, describes a culture of innovation as the “freedom to create without fear of failure” and an environment which allows people to “fail fast and move on, without dwelling on what doesn’t work”. He also notes the role that this kind of culture plays in “freeing people from repetitive, mundane tasks so they can focus on insights and innovation”.

Innovation, says Blake, is also about increasing the frequency of small changes, rather than infrequent but large changes. This means that change is more responsive to varying customer requirements (in education’s case, learners) and the impact of failure is limited. Incremental change is also an important factor in delivering an organisation’s value and quality.

A paper published in the International Journal of Advanced Engineering and Management Research in 2017, titled ‘The Organizational Culture as a Support of Innovation Processes’, cites innovation as “the new frontier for quality, on which the adaptation of organizations to new requirements depends, including the concern for achieving excellence and the sustainable existence of the organization”. 

Recognising what an innovative culture looks like 

Do you already have an innovative culture? If you’re asking this question, says Blake, then probably not.  

There are also more concrete signs that your organisation isn’t nurturing a culture of innovation. These include teams working in siloes, and decisions not being driven by data. In fact, a 2016 McKinsey digital survey revealed that siloed mindsets and behaviour had a negative correlation to economic performance, and that “risk aversion, customer focus, and silos [as intervention points] are a valuable road map for leaders seeking to persevere in reshaping their organization’s culture”.  

The difference between innovation and change for change’s sake 

However, it is important to know the difference between change and innovation. “Activity as the illusion of innovation” is dangerous, says Blake. As with introducing any kind of technology into education, doing so for its own sake is likely to cause more problems than it solves. Again, Blake adds, this comes down to understanding the key goals and aspirations of your organisation:

“What is it that you want to change, and why? Once you know the answer to these questions, innovation can really happen.” 

It’s also vital to be aware that ‘innovation’ as a buzzword can be used as a marketing tool by vendors to “sell aspirations and technology”, and by senior teams “writing strategies that use innovation as a substitute for creativity and performance”, cautions Lawrie Phipps, senior research lead at Jisc. This is what Phipps refers to as the “tyranny of innovation” and says that overloading staff by trying to “force” innovation on them is not an effective strategy. He suggests instead that innovation is much more likely to organically flourish in a supportive environment.  

Blake adds that the IT sector suffers with the “number of, and messiah status given to, buzzwords”. He emphasises the importance, instead, of understanding “what innovation means to an individual organisation, and even to an individual team”.  

How to develop innovation culture in education 

The danger with being too focused on innovation, says Phipps, is not providing staff enough space to develop their creativity. And it’s this creativity that is the centre of a successful and developing culture. Helping staff be creative in their role starts with giving them the tools they need (both technical and otherwise) to do their job well, says Phipps.  

In a recent blog post reflecting on eCampusOntario’s TESS2019 conference, Phipps cites a successful ecosystem as “creating an environment where people are able to perform, to do what they need to do, and where necessary reach into the community for support”. In simple terms: performance + creativity = innovation in practice 

Jamie Smith, executive chairman of cloud learning advisers C-Learning, says that in a digital age where technology is disrupting nearly every aspect of how we live, learn and work, the pace of change is only going to increase. He says:

“Change is being driven by technology. This means that educators need to be confident in the use of constantly evolving technologies as a prerequisite for success – especially if the measure of education is to prepare people to make the most of the opportunities in the wide world around them.” 

In order to develop a continuous culture of innovation, says Blake, it’s also important to “promote and celebrate innovation from the top down, as well as from the bottom up”, which helps break the mindset of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’. This means keeping all areas of the organisation engaged and up to date on developments.

A good place to start, adds Blake, is identifying change that has a wide scope and limited business impact, making that change and highlighting to the whole organisation how the change has impacted users positively. For instance, if a change in processes saves one person four hours per week, the accumulative saving is of five working weeks per year. An incredible saving.  

Another way to help a culture change spread organically through an organisation, says Blake, is to use ‘innovation champions’ that “have organisational importance but not necessarily seniority. They can then make changes and feed them into the organisation by word of mouth”.  

Innovation in practice 

As part of C-Learning, Smith works with educators across the world to help them achieve positive impact through the effective application of technology to learning. On seeing successful models, he says: 

“A common theme is evident in most of them. The impact observed is people-driven, not technology-led. For example, Leeds City College has a demonstrable track record of enabling innovation that transforms learning outcomes through a people-centric approach.” 

Steven Hope, head of independent learning at Leeds City College, says:

“Just enforcing the use of technology doesn’t always work. Staff need to have coaching and training support along with guidance for it to be used effectively. Get that right and it’s a game changer.” 

Smith also cites Coleg Cambria, a leading college based in North Wales, that has adopted a similar approach and over time enabled a culture of innovation through a continual process of workforce development. By normalising innovation in this way, the college “enabled its people to transform ways of working and learning to support its journey to becoming one of the most successful colleges in the UK,” says Smith. 

David Jones OBE DL, former principal and CEO of Coleg Cambria and now chair of Qualifications Wales, says:

“I’ve long believed in a distributed leadership type model where everyone feels empowered to try new things and contribute to the overall strategy. Technology is just a tool, and like any tool, for it to be used effectively people need to have the skills and confidence to use it. You only get that right if you provide people with the right development opportunities and support.” 

Moving forward 

Ultimately, a focus on creativity and improving outcomes will be more likely to lead to organic innovation and help sustain this as part of the culture, says Phipps.  

In short: 

“Let’s not overload people by trying to force innovation on to them. 

Let’s give peace a chance, let’s encourage them to take stock, to reflect. Let’s say one thing: ‘take some time, be creative, no pressure.’” 

To learn more about putting people at the heart of digital transformation and to hear other practical examples of innovation, visit Digifest at the Birmingham ICC from 10-11 March 2020.