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Innovation Forum Highlights: Fostering Innovation in Organizations

February 10, 2012

I am writing to invite you to the kickoff panel for the Innovation Forum at 9:30 Monday morning.  Chancellor Chan will introduce the session, which will include Richard Shea, President, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Olympus Respiratory America, Lou Gray, entrepreneur and CEO, and Deborah Wilds, President and CEO of College Success Foundation.  I will moderate.

I thought I might provide some background thoughts on the issues that prompted the focus of this panel for those of you who are interested in attending.  As some of you know from my previous ruminations on the mission and identity of this campus, I tend to see the world through the lens of paradox, and nothing could capture the essence of paradox better than the relationship between innovation and bureaucracy.  The first great scholar of bureaucracy, Max Weber, observed a long time ago that bureaucracy itself is not a bad thing (in spite of our visceral dislike of it).  It is necessary to do complex tasks and to preserve knowledge.  In stable times, doing routine tasks, it accomplishes miracles of organization.  But it also has drawbacks.  Because of its commitment to process (normally a good thing), bureaucracy is slow to respond creatively to rapid change and to emergencies.  Its success in promoting stability becomes a failure in promoting innovation.  Innovation requires risk, and risk requires a high tolerance for failure.  But bureaucracies have a low tolerance for failure—the bigger the bureaucracy, the lower the tolerance.  In other words, the very qualities it needs to run properly during times of stability are opposed to the qualities it needs to run properly during times of rapid change.

So what does that mean for us?  Are we in a time of stability or change?  Most folks would probably opt for the latter.  In the 21 years since the University of Washington Bothell campus was founded, there have been (at least) three major changes in the larger environment that surrounds the university.  First, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of globalization have transformed the world economy and given birth to a global commons.  Second, the advent of the Internet, advances in computer technology, and the proliferation of mobile phone technology have revolutionized human communication and learning.  Third, the social contract between American society and the academy has eroded to the point that education is no longer seen as a public good but a private benefit, undermining the long-standing commitment of the American republic to its once-fundamental faith in equality of opportunity through education.  Increasingly, the best universities in the United States are private and expensive (and now, increasingly, public and expensive).  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that this trend is not a terrifically good thing.  Can we do anything about it?  I think so.  At UWB, we have the opportunity, with leadership and with the support of the community that surrounds us, to innovate on a grand scale.  Because we are new, small, and growing rapidly, we just might be able to create a new model of higher education based on a public-private partnership that enhances learning while reducing costs to students.  I don’t know yet what that might look like, but I do know that we cannot do it alone.  We need all the help we can get.

Hence this panel, the members of which have a good deal of experience in large K-12 education organizations, non-profits, start-up companies, and Fortune-500 companies.   All these organizations employ varying levels of bureaucracy.  And yet these individuals have all been successful in fostering innovation.  So I asked them to think about two questions:  What strategies have they found to be successful in getting their organizations to innovate, given all the pressures that act against innovation?  And are any of those strategies applicable to the present predicament of higher education?  To be sure, universities are unique entities in their mission and their function.  Nevertheless, there still might be some principles that apply to all human organizations, regardless of time and place.  So join us and explore this rich terrain of new possibilities!

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