Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Universities get an "F" for innovation

For a long time I've pondered the dichotomy of the higher educational system in the US.  On one hand the American university and collegiate system is perhaps one of the finest in the world, drawing students from many countries and cranking out many exceptional graduates.  On the other hand, I'll assert, it is failing our students and our economy miserably, because the educational system is rote, designed for a production age when we are clearly in an informational and innovation age, does not encourage risk taking or experimentation, and is far too comfortable and complacent, far too unwilling to change.

Let me illustrate by an example.  I am a terrible golfer, as anyone who has every experienced the hazards of playing golf with me will testify.  I would never agree to provide golfing advice for even a child, worried that my advice would lead them astray. In contrast, our university systems pride themselves on "innovation" yet, in every way are strangers to the word, steadfastly clinging to centuries of history, discouraging the very factors that make innovation possible, content to produce the same sorts of outputs they created years ago, and unwilling or unable to recognize that they need to change, and that their customers and funders want them to change.  How does a university system, which clings to old methods, old curriculum, produces graduates with the same experiences and same knowledge as in the past, and refuses to update its own structures, claim to be "innovative"?  You wonder why it's hard to innovate?  One reason is that few people are trained in innovation tools, but even more importantly, many are indoctrinated in their educational systems to conform rather than to create.

There are a host of reasons why universities are failing us, right when we need innovation most.  And I realize I'm painting with a broad brush here, but far too many degree systems and universities aren't teaching the stuff that leads to creativity and innovation.  Just because one department or one program has some innovation going on doesn't make up for the fact that the rest of the university is stuck in the 1950s thinking.  We need a revolution in how people are taught, how they think about the world.  We need graduates with better and more tangible skills, people who can create jobs and products rather than people who hope to be handed a job.  We need more value from the collegiate experience than we are getting, and that we are paying for, and we need universities to start innovating, in every dimension.  Here are just a few of the obstacles standing in the way of innovation at most universities:

Innovation isn't a recognized discipline
Visit your alma mater's website and look up the various degrees and colleges or courses of study.  Find the business school, or the English department.  You can find these with blinders on, most likely.  Now, go and find the "innovation" department.  Heck, find the innovation courses.  You'll probably end up high and dry.  That's because innovation in the real world is a highly collaborative activity which embraces a lot of different skills.  Strangely, college and the educational system in general is meant to introduce you to lots of perspectives and a wide range of skills, but ultimately they de-emphasize broad knowledge and curiosity for depth and expertise. 

Some universities will place innovation courses in the business school.  In fact many now have executive education programs that proport to teach innovation on the weekends to managers who have full time jobs.  So college professors, who can't agree on what innovation is, and often have little real world experience creating new products, will offer to teach innovation on the weekends to interested business professionals.  Perhaps it ought to be the other way around.

The educational system is more interested in deep courses of study rather than broad surveys of knowledge and good synthesis, which, along with creativity and curiosity should form the basis for innovation.  Our collegiate system of education has it all wrong, and perhaps that's why many true innovators (Gates, Jobs, Dell, Zuckerberg, etc) left college to start their own gigs. 

Innovation doesn't "belong" in the business school or the engineering school.  Innovation is a broad set of skills that draws on historical cues, experiences, insights, design and many other factors.  Innovation is broadly multidisciplinary and incorporates a lot of experiences and perspectives.  We need graduates who can think these ways.  That means we need to restructure how they are taught.

Universities don't innovate
I've often joked that you could pluck a university don from 12th century Cambridge and drop him into a modern university setting, and the only things he'd find confusing are the fact that women outnumber men and the amount of technology in the lecture hall.  Other than that, many of the characteristics and features of our educational system would seem entirely familiar, and that's a problem.  When the predominant way of learning remains unchanged over 8 centuries, increasingly the educational system diverges from the innovation and entrepreneurial systems.  If universities and colleges want to be relevant, they have to create people who are creative and innovative.  To do that, they themselves have to become much more adept not just at teaching innovation, but doing innovation.  How can you credibly teach innovation in a place that clearly isn't innovative?  And please don't suggest that because one lab or one graduate engineering program is turning out innovative stuff that makes the entire university innovative!

If there's another organization that has the potential for more innovation, I'm not sure what it is, but politics, silos, compensation and other factors keep the English professors and the Psychology professors and the engineering professors apart when they need to be talking to each other and exploring possibilities.  Until the curriculum and silos are innovative, the compensation and recognition systems are innovative, the university won't be innovative. And if the university systems can't become laboratories for innovation, they certainly can't expect to generate a significant number of innovative graduates.

Failure and Experimentation aren't encouraged
In most university settings, failure isn't encouraged.  Students know which majors will require more effort, and which professors grade on a generous curve.  It's a well-known truism that it's harder to get into Harvard than it is to stay at Harvard, where close to 90% of the grades offered are "As" and "Bs".  Either the classwork isn't challenging enough, or professors don't want people to "fail".  But what do we teach them if they don't fail?  They aren't encouraged to risk anything!  Beyond the lack of risk taking and failure, most students don't experiment with anything other than substances that are probably illegal, given their age and/or state of residence.  While many are busy experimenting with substances and ideas off-campus, their course of study, their path into the business world are both preordained.   Just as it's rare to find an English major in an engineering calculus class (and the opposite is also true), it's rare to find students experimenting with a broad range of classes, instead following the traditional course of study, becoming narrow experts in one specific field, able to spout historical knowledge and conform to a specific way of thinking, rather than experimenting with a lot of different ideas and gaining experience working in ambiguous settings without a "right" answer.

Teaching isn't rewarded
At a school where I speak regularly on innovation topics, the capstone class for fourth year engineering majors - a two semester class where they define a customer's needs and create working prototypes to address those needs - is taught by an adjunct professor.  The "full" professors are too busy doing research or teaching graduate students to bother to teach the class which is most akin to the life students will lead immediately after graduating.  The best teachers aren't full professors, and many of the most notable and recognized professors don't bother to teach much.  We need to place value on what the students need the most - encouraging actual teaching, exploration of concepts and ideas - rather than on research.

The value produced is declining

As a father with two kids in excellent colleges and another who will be in college shortly, I can't help but recognize that the value of a college degree is flat if not declining.  Certainly my kids need a degree to get a job, but far too many people are getting degrees that don't seem to be worth all that much, driving down the average value of a degree.  I'll lay some of the blame on the sheer number of people getting degrees, and some of the blame on the watered down curriculum.  But shouldn't the university system recognize it's shortcomings and, dare I say it, failure in this matter?  Any business that saw the value of its outputs declining in this manner would retool its processes or product development, seeking to create better outcomes and outputs.  Clearly universities don't work under the same expectations or pressures, but don't they owe something to the students, and to the people who partially fund the university's existence (taxpayers) consistently upgrade the output of their process?  What is the accountability for the university system to create better graduates who are more prepared, not simply to take a job, but to create a job, to create new products, to innovate from day one after graduation?

Safe and Protected
To their detriment, universities and colleges are somewhat safe and protected from the rigor of competition, and by the fact that most employers require a college degree as a prerequisite to get a job.  It's difficult to start a new college or university and difficult to keep accreditation, so few new colleges are started to compete with existing colleges, and many prestigious colleges trade on their names and historical laurels.  As long as the college degree is the ticket to corporate America, colleges will have a willing pool of applicants who don't look too closely at the value they are getting.  But soon two factors will converge. One will have to do with the actual capability of the new employee.  When jobs are scarce and skills are valuable, the people with demonstrable skills will win.  The skills most in demand will have to do with creativity, design, empathy, the ability to translate needs into requirements.  These skills are the "front end" skills for innovation.  The second will have to do with outsourcing and offshoring.  Anything that can be done offshore will be done offshore, from manufacturing to accounting.  Further, as Dan Pink pointed out, anything that can be automated will be automated.  Employees will be required to demonstrate their value from day one, and not in rote repetitive jobs but in actual contact with customers to create new solutions.  When graduates from prestigious universities cannot do these jobs effectively, they too will be living at home with their parents, driving for Uber.  Then the university system will face the result of these trends:  less demand for collegiate graduates, fewer people interested in a degree, and more people interested in the skills that are necessary to innovate or to create their own jobs, which may not require a college degree.  At that point the whole facade collapses.  I think they've got about 10-15 years to change before this all comes tumbling down.

Herbert Stein, an economist, and a professor at the University of Virginia, once wrote that anything that cannot go on forever will stop.  By that he meant that trends with unsustainable growth or expectations will have to crash.  There are several trends in the higher education system that all lead to the conclusion that things have to change.  Far too many people are getting degrees they can't afford and cannot pay for, which don't lead them to good jobs.  Far too many people are taking degrees that don't prepare them for work, and don't prepare them to create their own jobs.  Far too many people who have degrees are working in jobs that don't require a college degree.  These facts are often written off as a sign of the economy's slow recovery, but seven or eight years in the economy is growing but the facts aren't changing.  What needs to change is the way people are educated, and the ability of universities to innovate.

Who can push for change?

The real problem is that while everyone recognizes that change is needed, few constituents are in a position to advocate forcefully for change in the educational system.  Parents who send their kids to college remember fondly what college was like for them, not realizing that the demands on new graduates is changing.  Plus, these parents don't have the access or means to band together to demand change and are only involved with the college or university for four or five years while their kids are there.  Students are part of the system and don't have the power to create change because they too are transient and often unwilling to rock the boat about their own education.  Large and small companies which hire the graduates don't have a lot of sway with the university unless they hire significant numbers of students, in which case they can tailor a specific program to their needs.  State governments, which can create real change at least for public universities, often have conflicting needs and goals and don't always have the best intentions in mind.

Universities don't have a lot of accountability and few powerful organizations exist to force them to change.  This leaves societal trends and economic forces which will creep up on the complacent universities as the only real source of competitive change.  Emerging requirements, trends and economic forces will eventually whipsaw the university system and cause real, painful change for these entrenched systems.  Hopefully, some universities are recognizing the forces at work in the business world and are beginning to respond to the need for graduates who can innovate, think creatively, create their own jobs and have experiences at their educational institution that make them more attractive and more employable for the jobs that exist, or able to create their own jobs, products or solutions, when innovation is required.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:49 AM


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