Higher ed needs chief innovation officers, report argues

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Colleges and universities are trying to harness technology to foster their students’ academic success, enhance their educational offerings and streamline operations as a way to address tight budgets.

One organizational tactic to achieve these goals is the creation of a new position — a chief innovation officer — according to a new report from Entangled Solutions, a San Francisco consulting company.

“The Rise of the Chief Innovation Officer in Higher Education: The Importance of Managing Change on Campuses” makes the case that institutions of higher learning need specific, dedicated champions to bring about the kind of technological innovation they seek. The report finds that more than 200 institutions have created a senior position with words like “innovation” or “digital” in their title, and another 200 have online learning positions linked to their broader innovation initiatives.

“Too often the problem is that innovative ideas take hold in a corner of campus — within a specific school or department — and rarely spread to the rest of the institution or beyond,” writes the report’s author, Jeff Selingo, a senior strategist with Entangled Solutions and longtime education journalist. “Innovation happens from the bottom up, at the edges of the organization and usually in ad-hoc ways. As a result, innovative ideas turn into boutique programs that are typically identified and mostly owned by specific individuals. This is why colleges need a chief innovation officer, someone who can coordinate disparate projects from across campus and build a systems approach to change management.”

The report identified seven key responsibilities for this new position:

  • “Help faculty, administrators and staff look up and out.” Silingo points out that leaders of these institutions often are consumed by the daily demands of their jobs, but new ideas are going to be found outside their institutions.
  • “Generate and build momentum for ideas and develop an innovative mindset within the campus community.” A chief innovation officer may be responsible for identifying the best ideas, but also has to have the institutional status to turn those ideas into projects, those projects into accomplishments.
  • “Develop processes for innovation.” Innovation is not a one-off. The person in this position has to create a process that fits the institution’s culture while emphasizing speed and ongoing iterations.
  • “Connect with partners and funders outside of the institution.” Like a business development position in a company, the chief innovation officer can make those outside connections and provide a bridge to the internal bureaucracy.
  • “Administer seed funding and ‘release time’ for promising projects.” Silingo makes the case that providing a separate innovation budget allows projects to be pursued outside of the normal funding structures, and levels the playing field for institutions with decentralized budget models.
  • “Give ‘air cover’ for innovation.” Having a formal innovation office provides “a safe space and infrastructure to support new activities without getting derailed by faculty and administrators who want to maintain the status quo,” he writes.
  • “Act as the external spokesperson for innovation.” A chief innovation officer can speak to all the audiences — colleagues at conferences, donors and alumni, the media — as an expert on all the facets of the projects at each stage of development.

The report identifies alternative models for where a chief innovation officer can fit into the existing organizational structure, including one suitable for smaller colleges.

The biggest risk Selingo identifies is the danger that the innovation officer, and the function as a whole, becomes siloed.

“Many of the innovation officers I interviewed told me they have little interaction with student or financial affairs, although much of the innovation that must happen in higher education needs to include both constituencies,” he states. “Student affairs, for example, is critical to improving retention and graduation rates, so it’s important for institutions not to replicate structures that encourage the segregation of ideas when designing innovation efforts.”

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