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Reflection on the Opening Forum Session

February 15, 2012

The first event of the Innovation Forum kicked off this morning with a discussion by three members of the Advisory Board for UWB: Deborah Wilds, President and CEO of College Success Foundation, Rick Shea, President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Olympus Respiratory America, and Lou Gray, entrepreneur and CEO.  Introduced and moderated by Chancellor Chan, the discussion focused on successful strategies these innovative leaders have adopted that fostered innovation in their organizations.


The discussion was so wide-ranging I can’t do justice to it here, other than to mention a few items I found to be interesting and worthy of emulating.  Lou Gray emphasized the importance of openness, and of encouraging the belief that it was okay to fail.  Rick Shea mentioned the need to think big, to remove self-limiting obstacles and ideas in order to foster a discussion “without boundaries” that could stimulate the imagination, and to encourage experimentation and see the inevitable resulting “failures” as part of the learning process.   Deborah Wilds stressed the importance of distributive leadership coming from throughout the organization, and of creating a culture of using data to drive new innovative policies.


As the discussion evolved, some clear strategies began to appear on the table.  The panelists acknowledged that most people tend to resist change, and therefore emphasized the utility of creating pilot programs that were given the mission of experimenting—what didn’t work should be abandoned, and what did work should be preserved and adopted.  [My first thought when I heard this was that this wasn’t just a strategy for organizational change; this was how evolution in nature itself worked—differentiate, select, and amplify!]


The more they talked, the more the discussants started spinning off ideas on how to improve education.  Rather than identify individual speakers at this point, let me just hit a few of the high points of the discussion:

  • Throw out the standard model of having students spend a small fortune coming to a central campus for exactly four years of seat time—take learning to where the students are.
  • Figure out what it means to be “educated,” and then figure out a better means of evaluating and measuring when you have achieved that goal.
  • Change the incentive structure to get faculty out of their silos.  You can talk until you are blue in the face and it’s not going to change behavior as long as the incentive structure reinforces the traditional model of learning.  In other words, incentivize risk.
  • Create collaborative systems that bring students into the process with more hybrid forms of learning.
  • Create cross-functional teams that bring all members of the organization together to solve problems.
  • Celebrate successes and make innovation fun and meaningful.
  • Foster leadership to manage all the component elements of a successful team so that the pieces reinforce each other in positive ways.
  • Create in students an appreciation of life-long learning, particularly as the specific skills that might apply in one stage of technology are no longer relevant a few years later.
  • Get students into practical learning environments as interns where they can see how their learning is applied, so when they graduate they have already developed practical skills that are valuable to potential employers.
  • From the perspective of potential employers, too much curiosity and imagination can become a liability when they are not channeled into some constructive and practical purpose.
  • Cultivate a global perspective among students—their “competitors” are not the people sitting next to them in class, or even nearby, but people sitting in China and India and Brazil studying hard and working hard and learning how to collaborate.
  • What would happen if tomorrow companies in the United States (and elsewhere) suddenly said okay, a college degree no longer matters to us?  We don’t care about the piece of paper—what we want are skills and learning, and we have discovered that there is very little correlation between skills and degrees.  Many students graduate without learning the skills they need, and without acquiring the knowledge they need, while other students have developed those skills and knowledge without ever graduating.  Why should students spend a small fortune going to an institution when they can get those skills and learning on their own?  Who said students need to plant their seats in a chair for four years before they are certified as educated?  It might have made sense a century ago, but it no longer does.
  • We need to radically re-think our funding mechanism.  Lou Gray mentioned President Young’s idea of students getting a free education and then donating a percentage of their future earnings to their schools as a great idea that ought to be tried out.


So what are my own preliminary thoughts after today’s session?  I am frequently struck by the obstacles to change that we ourselves create in the university, and in the end most experiments never get off the ground because the existing system does such a good job of discouraging change.  That’s why I’ve always been intrigued by skunk works—protected places that businesses create which are given the freedom to experiment.  We don’t have that in academic life.  But clearly, we are in a new world now.  What we are doing is unsustainable.  We must change.  So how about the notion that came up in today’s discussion of “pilot programs” that are given some kind of autonomy from the constraints we all know and love.  Yes, most faculty members would not be willing to participate, because the risk is too great.  But there might be enough folks willing to set sail into the unknown that could form a kind of institutional exploring party.  Let’s experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.  What doesn’t work—we jettison.  What does work—we embrace.

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