What is a Chief Innovation Officer?

One of the hottest college / university titles in the last 5 years is “Chief Innovation Officer.”  I should know…I was one of the first.  When I became Chief Innovation Officer for a Private University, I immediately began hunting for others. 

I was able to track down about 35 people with that title, but soon noted that “Innovation” was in a lot of other titles as well.  Directors, Managers, Vice Presidents, Associate Provosts, and more started adding “innovation” to their moniker.  Today, a search for Innovation administrators at colleges and universities today numbers in the hundreds. So it is important to note how the term is defined and (more importantly) operationalized from school to school and leader to leader. 

Some innovation leaders are dedicated to pushing entrepreneurship.  You have start-up incubators or perhaps you manage grants for small-business opportunities. You are tied closely to the community, engage in start-up weeks, and probably read “Inc.” or other early growth journals.

Other innovation focused administrators have a technology bent, possibly even reporting into IT.  You are seeking platform, system, integration, AI, and other initiatives that bolster the infrastructure, create new (and exciting) capabilities, and/or better connect ‘things’ at your institution.  If you have an incubator, it might be better described as a “lab” with virtual reality headsets, AI chat-bots, touch devices, or possibly even an entire learning space.

Still others have a much more panoramic remit, looking for solutions and ideas that will help just about any department at the college or university.  You may have a bevy of small pilots in your innovation portfolio or you may have experiments and initiatives that include a bunch of different stakeholders.  Often these innovators create an incubator of ideas.  You may welcome any and all ideas via any number of channels (like an Idea Lab), hoping to find something great or powerful or useful, all with the purpose of helping students be more successful.

For the record, I fell into the latter category with my work, but I regularly met with innovators across the spectrum, most of whom are doing some really cool stuff.

Innovation in Higher Ed

For these Campus Conversation blogs, I must admit, this is the one I was most excited about.  Why?  Because higher education innovators typically understand the institution space through a multi-factored lens, leveraging a healthy mix of academic success strategy, operational and infrastructure-based efficiency, technology management, business acumen, cultural change modeling, and design (systems) thinking.  In other words, you are the folks who can fly at 30,000 feet, then dive down into the weeds.  You generally understand that action – ANY action – is likely to move the needle, but small gains are not enough anymore.  You can see the holes in every department, you can see the flaws in every strategy, and you can understand every type of customer issue at your school (and that everyone is a customer of someone…).  You move back and forth between cutting edge, bleeding edge occasionally, and tried / true methods for success.  You have to be a good communicator and you have to be a consummate politician, attempting whenever possible to Tom Sawyer folks into doing work they would never choose to do on their own.  You read books by Jobs, Christensen, or Dyer (who arguably wrote the holy grail of innovation books).  And finally, you are the opportunistic people who can walk through problems and solutions quickly in your head, leading to an implementation of something you just found that needs to be exploited immediately.

Of course, all of that is also butted up against a bureaucratic system sometimes feeling designed to prevent innovation.  I’ve heard dozens of other Innovation leaders utter essentially the same phrase: “Higher education is where innovation goes to die.”  After all, we aren’t building new technologies based on the amazing research or theoretical underpinnings coming out of the labs at our schools.  The Institutional Readiness Boards (or other accountability groups) mean we struggle to experiment with ideas that might help people, because any advantage given to one set of students over another is expressly prohibited.  (There goes most A/B testing, an industry standard for innovation initiatives….)  Add to that the extremely well-spoken adversaries to change that surround us – academics who can create an editorial rebuttal that will muddy the waters making new ideas, no matter how powerful, seem trite.  When you add in administrations or executives who have historically never worked together (in the sense that is done at a successful company, for example), with interdependence, transparency, and willingness to adopt another’s struggles and solutions, and innovation is extremely hard.  (Notice I didn’t even go into budgeting….sigh.)

How Is A Central Hub Innovative?

Why would an innovator care about a portal replacement or a mobile app in 2018?  Why would you spend any political or innovation capital trying to displace legacy tools or to adopt a solution that gives mobile and web access to all of your stuff?  Is this even really innovation??? These are fair and important questions.  Here is part of our answer:

We believe this conversation matters because you likely see the harm caused by disparate technologies and even the silos that are fortified by disconnected people and systems.  You know that culture and process and infrastructure and success are woven together like DNA.  One thing needs to support the others, while the others support it.

To that end, innovation experts seem to have read (and thought) far more laterally than most higher education administrators.  You know the power of focusing on learning (vs teaching) while leveraging what we know about the brain (How People Learn – Bransford, 2000; Make it Stick – Brown, 2015; Brain Rules – Medina, 2014).  But you also know Innovation is about associative thinking (Innovator’s DNA – Dyer, 2011) as much as it is about being opportunistic, through networking, or experimenting.  You get that academic success is directly influenced by non-cognitive factors (Mindset – Dweck, 2007; Social – Lieberman, 2013), but that motivation outside of education can indeed promote success too (The Gamification of Learning – Kapp, 2012; Reality is Broken – McGonigal, 2011).  Taking advantage of experiential or service learning, but even for connection to non-college stakeholders like CEO’s and business leaders is on your radar. And so, in true systems thinking fashion, understanding that higher ed has told students what to care about and how to connect for too long, you are always looking for solutions that meet as many of the needs listed here as possible.

That is exactly what I did too.  Those problems and issues (plus more) are why I chose Campus for our University.  The power behind the Campus solution is why I left to become the Chief Academic Officer for the company.  I know that this (relatively inexpensive) solution can measurably help with everything noted here.  Yes, it is a technology play, but it is inextricably woven into how people want to communicate, what people need to access so as to succeed, and how people hope to generate community around what they care about in a personalized fashion, not what they are told to care about in a standardized way.  It’s private, allowing public social networks to stay in their appropriate places, while also being secure.  It has tremendous upside in terms of monitoring, actually allowing the right staff, faculty, or administrator to be notified when a student is in trouble.  And with a set of analytics that no other tool currently provides, we think “innovation” is an apt description of the Campus platform.

Yes, it will take implementation know-how which we have covered by people who have implemented the tool within higher ed.  (Not just techies, but experienced education administrators.)  Yes, the most effective practice is to iterate over time, leaning into the Apple Technology studies that speak to technology and transformation.  No it will not break your budget, but yes it will take some effort and time.  But most important to you, the innovation leader, it will help provide you with a platform ripe for new ideas, experiments, surveys, and other innovations, all while helping students, faculty, and staff be more successful.  It will look and feel fresh from the start, but it will also get better and better over time with people like you helping to drive updates and improvements to the system.

But on a final, more personal note, I want to say that it can help with one other thing.  My Innovation vision and strategy was clear at my University.  I wanted ours to be a “Learning Innovation” team.  What does that mean?  It means that everything we did needed to benefit our learners in achieving success.  So, a major focus for us was creating opportunities for learners to (personally) innovate so as to help themselves learn better.  This platform creates an interesting opportunity for students (or staff or faculty, etc) to generate learning innovation in whatever form they wish (technical assets, resources, groups, communities, etc) and see those innovations woven into the fabric of your institution.  Practically speaking, they could build an app during an appathon which the school finds so useful, you put it in the main menu or as an optional resource.  This toolset is flexible enough to handle a lot of innovation incubation.

We hope you’ll ask to discuss all of this in more detail.  Again, per the Innovator’s DNA, research is a serious component of idea creation.  Research our solution a bit more.  Let’s talk about adding it to your school’s innovation portfolio.  We look forward to talking with you.