Creating a Bachelor of Innovation

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This entry is about a ongoing educational innovation, a paradigm shift, offering new degrees with a common core focused on teams of students learning and practicing the key elements of the innovation process. It crosses department and college boundaries and changes the product at the very core of the university, replacing the centuries old BA and BS educational silos with a new Bachelor of Innovation™ (BI) degree family with a core built around multi-disciplinary multi-year teaming with real companies.

In business, innovation from new startups is common, maybe even the norm. Yet people almost exclusively look/point to the old estabilished research universities when it comes to innovation. Many among the academe, and even the government and public, mistakenly consider research universities cornerstones of innovation. They confuse invention and innovation. As Ray Mears of 3M has stated back in 2001, “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge – Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money!” The top 100 universities produce and teach knowledge and research, not innovation. When innovations spring forth from universities it is usually because there is a concentration of the innovation raw materials – an abundant diversity of ideas and people. Innovation happens in spite of the university’s educational programs, not because of them.

I had tried, with limited success, to introduce ideas changing how and what we teach, first at Columbia University and then at Lehigh University, where one administrator’s response was along the lines of “why should we change, we’ve been doing it this way for over 100 years and are doing well.” Classic market leader innovation blindness. Looking deeper one sees that despite the research output, universities are, with only a few exceptions, the antitheses of models of innovation: they cling to centuries old models of how to operate and what “products” to offer. A “new product” takes 4-6 years to produce and 2-5 more for market assessment after release, so change presents serious investment and risk. Academic processes change slower than the ivy growing over their buildings.

The barrier to our innovation was the long product cycles, ultra-conservative and territorial model of universities combined with their sense of superiority and resistance to change. So how did we successfully achieve the Bachelor of Innovation family of degrees? The answer, not surprisingly, was to look at the proven innovation processes we would be teaching and adapt/apply them to the university:

  1. First, find somewhere where the culture is partially willing to embrace change and innovation. I moved from being the endowed department chair at a stodgy top 40 university to a young aggressive growth university, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where I saw the core quality/talent with the potential for accepting change.
  2. Start off in “stealth mode”. I quietly laid the groundwork for the change, introducing key elements as small changes and proving they would work.
  3. Design a Value Innovation strategy by identifying elements of performance and the most important customers then analying their needs and designing using the new performance dimensions to deliver more value to the customer. This included developing story lines designed for each different customer segment and major personality types in those groups.
  4. Form an initial team that engaged key influencers and administrators in discussions on program elements and implementation issues, all to ensure high-level management engagement and buy in. We needed them to develop ideas on their own (often being led into them) so they could take ownership of the ideas and champion the process.
  5. Gather market data, including asking the hard questions about competitive (dis)advantages. That market research introduced a new space of possible ideas to the broader community who in turn put pressure on many otherwise uninterested people in the organization to take change seriously. People like to think they know what the market needs. Real data is sometimes a critical revelation.
  6. Seek external validation and seed funding. We went after, and won, grants from NCIIA and NSF Partner for Innovation Program.
  7. Design to co-exist with existing product lines and minimize the number of people impacted by implementing the change. Build strong support and minimize detractors.
  8. Anticipate roadblocks and develop strategies and partners to ensure one can get through or around them. We capitalized on strong external fiscal threats to catalyze open discussions and negotiated with stakeholders, initially asking for an idealized package, but settling on something that was still very viable.
  9. Build on market data and the early success, to develop an exciting pitch backed with a detailed business/program plan. We used these to sell the BI in the many-stage campus/state approval process. The pitch was for the intuitive types where passion and ideas matter most. The detailed 60-page plan addressed the data-driven, judging people, which seem to dominate academia.
  10. Under promise and over deliver, while aggressively managing growth and resources. The result, our BI Family of degrees, is a unique program focused on teaching innovation, with awards from the American Society of Engineering Educators, and Innovation India. Our growth has been more than double the initial plan, with over 120 students across five majors. We have more partner companies, and have had more funding for student teams than we have had qualified students willing to work for pay.

Does the BI work? Only time will tell for sure, but the first two years have exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. In our first term we had one team’s first business plan get “defunded” at the first pitch half way though the term, only to have their second idea/pitch be good enough that we then partnered with a local company to go after, and win, a $100,000 Navy SBIR contract. The freshman/sophomores produced about 80% of the project’s deliverables, and the company has asked the BI to partner on other contracts. In the past year, student teams have supported over $2M in grant/contract proposals, with multiple ongoing funded projects. Not bad for a “startup” program of freshman and sophomores at a campus founded after the microchip, word processing, hypertext and the mouse were already invented.

Maybe we can partner with your organization to help support your innovation, as we transform the next generation of students into experienced innovators.

Dr. Terrance E. Boult is the El Pomar Professor of Innovation and Security at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and @dr_innovation on Twitter.

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Dr. Terry Boult




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