Whither Innovation?

Whither innovation in educational institutions in these times of dramatic cuts in public spending and radical change in the student fees and funding arrangements for teaching in universities? The pessimist might quip: “wither innovation”. It seems like a good time to think a little bit about innovation; I seem to be looking at it from another angle of late.

It seems to me that innovation always follows adversity, that “necessity is the mother of invention”. At one level, then, just as mammals diversified following the K-T Extinction Event, so innovation will occur. I would, however, rather see innovation without extinction, a future more like horticulture than cataclysm. I want Innovation to be about opportunity not necessity but we are where we are, and an element of necessity is now with us. This  is what this post is about and I detect related sentiments in a recent blog post from Brian Kelly following the recent  CETIS Conference, which he entitled “Dazed and Confused After #CETIS10“.

Innovation theorist Clayton M Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to refer to the way apparently well-run businesses could be disrupted by newcomers with cheaper but good-enough offerings that focus on core customer needs (low end disruption) or with initial offerings into new markets that expanded into existing markets. Disruptive innovation threatens incumbents with strategy process that fails to identify and adopt viable low-end or new-market innovation. In our current context of disruption by government policy, this challenge to institutional (university) strategy is acute.

A short aside… In order to better understand these potentially disruptive innovations (or opportunities to weather the storm), we (UKOLN and CETIS with support from JISC) have made available an online tool to gather and allow ranking of such innovations. This will be available until about December 10th 2010. Please participate and disseminate the URL widely: http://tinyurl.com/disruption2010. [this survey is now closed; the report will be published in Jan/Feb 2011]

Strategy alone is inadequate; institutions need the capability to innovate in practice.

The Capability to Innovate

It seems clear that universities need to adopt innovations but what does this require? Could we leave innovation to the commercial sector and buy it in? Is there value to be gained in the sector through  JISC and other bodies supporting innovation?

I recently came across some accounts of studies into commercial sector R&D that seems to indicate that individual institutions should continue to have in-house innovation. There appears to be no a-priori reason to object to application of the argument to our context: universities innovating in their teaching and learning offerings (I intentionally omit mention of research). The most interesting account I came across is Cohen and Levinthal (1990), “Absorptive Capacity: A New Perspective on Learning and Innovation” Admin. Science Quarterly 35(1).  The abstract to this paper is:

“In this paper, we argue that the ability of a firm to recognize the value of new, external information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends is critical to its innovative capabilities. We label this capability a firm’s absorptive capacity and suggest that it is largely a function of the firm’s level of prior related knowledge. [...] . We argue that the development of absorptive capacity, and, in turn, innovative performance are history- or path-dependent and argue how lack of investment in an area of expertise early on may foreclose the future development of a technical capability in that area. We formulate a model of firm investment in research and development (R&D), in which R&D contributes to a firm’s absorptive capacity, and test predictions relating a firm’s investment in R&D to the knowledge underlying technical change within an industry. Discussion focuses on the implications of absorptive capacity for the analysis of other related innovative activities, including basic research, the adoption and diffusion of innovations, and decisions to participate in cooperative R&D ventures.

My hypothesis is that the same argument applies to universities in relation to their teaching and learning business if “R&D” is re-conceptualised as action research integrated across the following three areas:

  1. Pedagogy, specifically the application of unconventional models for supporting learning, whether “new to us” or “new to the 21st century”.
  2. Organisation, the way people and functions in institutions are structured and how they work should not be taken for granted. This isn’t about “business process re-engineering”, rather a more systems-thinking point of view.
  3. Technology, appropriately applied as an enabler.

For each of these, there are practical issues to work around – my spectacles are not rose-tinted – but this makes more clear to me the need for in-context innovation-oriented activities. Many of these issues are messy, complex or “wicked problems”. As Laurence J. Peter said: “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” This sounds like a case for conversation, dialogue, debate, … ideally also collaboration.

My top issue for each area is:

  1. Pedagogic innovation is limited the conservative view society at large has of valid educational activities and measures of achievement. This is compounded by limitations imposed on universities that arise from policy decisions in response to societal conservatism.
  2. Deep discussions on organisation are not the norm and Fordist assumptions abound.
  3. Technological considerations are generally not well integrated into institutional strategies; IT is too often an afterthought servant not a bed-fellow.

So… I think there is a case for intra- and inter-institutional innovation activities and conversations about them and I hope some of the above and the ongoing activities CETIS, UKOLN and JISC undertake and support will help. “Absorptive Capacity”,  the “ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it”, seems like an important concept to hold on to.

Oh, and please visit http://tinyurl.com/disruption2010,

Is there a Case for a New Information Literacy Inspired by …?

The problems that have to be solved in the 21st century to maintain or increase human health, wealth and happiness are highly complex. By “complex”, I mean that they are highly interconnected and impossible to understand accurately by looking at influential factors in isolation. Divide-and-conquer strategies and narrowly focussed-expertise are inadequate unless re-integrated to understand the bigger picture. This state of affairs is currently reflected in much research funding but isn’t just a concern for researchers.

Professionals in almost all walks of life will be faced with making decisions on matters for which there is little precedent and a shortage of established professional practice to fall back on.  There is, and will be a growing need, for professionals capable of drawing on information and adapting to the paradigms of multiple disciplines.

The trend in supply of data from both research and public sector communities is clearly in the direction of more information being provided under suitable “open data” licences and employing basic semantic web techniques. This resource, not confined by disciplinary boundaries or utility to specific lines-of-argument, has great potential value in answering the complex and novel questions required to navigate humanity through the complexities of sustainable development. I contend that realisation of the potential of this information is contingent on a new information literacy, specifically a new digital literacy if we are concerned with open data on the web or otherwise.

Whereas the use of historical data is well known in research in many established disciplines a new information literacy is required to realise the potential noted above that is not limited to academic research, that uses data disembodied from the narrative and argument of the journal article and that transcends the limit of the established discipline. The challenge for the education system is to prepare professionals of the future (and helping professionals of today adapt through appropriate work-based learning) with this new information literacy. This “new information literacy” requires a deeper and more explicit understanding of models employed within and outwith a professional’s “home” discipline and the embedded epistemology of that discipline.

The philosophy of General Semantics and the practices advocated by Alfred Korzybski and subsequent thinkers are of interest in that their focus is on “consciousness of abstracting” as a means of avoiding the conceptual errors often made in interpreting linguistic acts or experience of events. Rather than making an assertion that General Semantics is “the answer”, indeed it certainly contains fallacies and unsubstantiated ideas, I suggest that it offers some valuable insight into the mental habits that can improve the ability of professionals to work across disciplines, whether using Open Data from research and public sector sources or not, to answer the questions of tactical and strategic character that sustainable development requires.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), founded as a movement in the mid 1970s and with clear links to Korzybski, contains some further useful ideas if one looks beyond the psychotherapeutic dimension. My intention is not to develop a detailed position in this post but to suggest that there are some practices/habits advocated by Korzybski and others that offer a resource for us to consider. Some of the maxims and practices that I think are candidates for education in the new information literacy, hence also a new digital literacy, are:

  • Korzybski’s “extensional devices” are practical habits that stress relationship between things (as opposed to things defined in isolation)
  • Gregory Bateson in “Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity” presents a number of pre-suppositions that “every schoolboy knows” (sic) that are actually more representative of gaps in thought.
  • The meta-model of NLP provides a set of heuristic questions to identify distortion, generalization and deletion in language. These kind of questions are potentially useful when working across disciplines to reduce the chance of false-reasoning.

I will now complete the title, where the ellipsis left off: “… General Semantics, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Gregory Bateson”