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Rethinking higher education innovation leadership in an age of commodification

by ​Dale Walsh

Today, higher education is a buyer’s market. It’s important for colleges and universities to stand out – and one way to do that is through innovation leadership.

According to a recent study1, roughly 70 percent of U.S. freshmen said reputation was “very important” in their choice of college. Perhaps most intriguing, that figure is the highest it has been since UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute began conducting the study in 1967. But how can colleges and universities improve their reputations and, by extension, attract top students? One way: higher education innovation leadership.

When people you trust come to you with outside-the-box ideas to accomplish bold goals or address problems you may not have known you had, don’t let the well-worn path of familiarity keep you from reaching new heights.

It’s a frequently sought goal, and one many organizations, unfortunately, struggle to reach. In a recent survey conducted by IDC2 on behalf of Ricoh, it was found that while 70 percent of respondents thought their organizations were innovative; only 14 percent actually were upon further review. Innovation is such a broad term, it can be hard to pin down how best to pursue it. In my work with colleges and universities, I’ve found three strategies that can help drive innovation at your institution. 
Table of Higher Education - practical and economic factors

1. Invest in blue sky projects

You don’t become a leader by doing what everybody else does. When people you trust come to you with outside-the-box ideas to accomplish bold goals or address problems you may not have known you had, don’t let the well-worn path of familiarity keep you from reaching new heights.

For example, I was recently working with a large, prestigious university, the administration of which was just as involved, as you might expect. Faculty, staff, administrators and everyone had a lot on their plate. However, when my team told them their big opportunity for change, both in terms of improving student perception of the university and in terms of driving cost savings, was a mailroom overhaul, they were a little skeptical. The fact was, student package volume had been increasing 20 percent annually, meaning the mailroom was a huge part of the student experience, and it was only getting bigger. By working together and with some upfront investment, we were able to drop wait times during peak times from 40-plus minutes to less than 3. That kind of difference doesn’t go unnoticed.

While these kinds of investments can be scary and following through on them can be incredibly stressful, they are worth it. Innovation, by definition, means trying things that haven’t been tried. Prepare to meet resistance and to feel uncomfortable, but have confidence in your vision and push through. Leaders lead from the front of the pack, not the middle. 

2. Create culture, tools and processes that encourage innovation

While innovation necessarily involves going off the beaten path, that doesn’t have to mean “winging it.” By putting a process in place to develop and adopt innovations, you aren’t just encouraging innovation; you are providing your best and brightest with the means to innovate. Work with your top innovators and other experts to hone your process and select the tools that best suit your goals.

Transform teaching support centers into innovation incubators. By putting these tools and processes in place, you begin to foster a culture of innovation as big thinkers feel their contributions are supported and valued.

Culture goes beyond tools, though. Even as you enable your campus community members to innovate, be sure to empower them too. Many of the best ideas start low in the administrative hierarchy, with some even coming from students. There’s no one place where all of the best, most successful ideas come from, so look everywhere and listen to everyone. Put your resources behind the ideas you think can succeed and watch the positive results and positive attitudes roll in. 

3. Make frequent, small changes

You wouldn’t sail a ship without a rudder. Similarly, once you’ve charted your course for innovation, you should make sure you’re able to course-correct as needed. One of the most exciting aspects of innovation is that things are always changing.

Successful organizations are always ready to adapt to meet the challenges of the day. Frequent self- or third-party assessment and adaptation help to ensure you’re always innovating.

Rethink innovative leadership

Looking to embrace innovation – and the gains in reputation it can bring – at your college or university?
Dale Walsh
Dale Walsh, Senior Strategy Development Manager, Ricoh USA, Inc., is responsible for developing new strategies, solutions and partnerships for Ricoh’s Managed and Technology Services organization, with a focus on emerging markets and technologies. Walsh also has on-campus customer support experience and is a Certified Mail & Distribution Systems Manager (CMDSM), as well as an Executive Mail Center Manager (EMCM) as certified by the U.S. Postal Service. He is an active member of the Mail Systems Management Association (MSMA) and has served as the Executive Vice President of the Atlanta Chapter of the MSMA. 
1 Eagan, Kevin; Bara Stolzenberg, Ellen; Bates, Abigail K; Aragon, Melissa C; Ramirez Suchard, Maria; Rios-Aguilar, Cecilia. "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015." Cooperative Institutional Research Program/Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
2 IDC Infobrief. Innovation Leadership (It's Not What You Think): Organizational Behaviors That Drive Innovation. January 2016.