Universities must opt for radical not incremental innovation

Some of the business world’s most respected voices have tried to draw attention to the new and growing demands of an era loosely characterised by the terms “knowledge economy” and “information society”. Their arguments go to the heart of a challenge that increasingly confronts universities in general and business schools in particular.

John Seely Brown, who spent a decade as Xerox’s chief scientist, recently highlighted the need for “new types of institutions that can stay in step with the information age”. Phil McKinney, Hewlett-Packard’s former chief technology officer, has stressed that possessing technical skill and a deeper level of knowledge than one’s competitors is nowadays less important than the capacity to come up with novel ideas.

In essence, what these and other forward-thinkers are championing is the value of radical innovation over its incremental counterpart. Radical innovation builds on possibilities and transforms. Incremental innovation builds on certainties and merely improves. By and large, universities are firmly committed to the credo of the latter and apparently highly resistant to the former.

The “real world” can fall back on a number of familiar justifications for its own disinclination. Short-termism, risk aversion and an obsession with return on investment are to some degree understandable in the face of economic, technological and political uncertainties. But what is the academic world’s excuse?

Many of the constraints and considerations that stifle radical innovation in the higher education sector are self-imposed. Curricula, assessment exercises, funding applications, peer review – all offer testament to a piecemeal, metric-driven philosophy that prizes the cosy inevitability of step-by-step advancement over the vast potential of “creative destruction”.

As a result, although in many ways ideally placed to support the innovation activities that commerce cannot accommodate, universities too, are crippled by natural inertia. Terms such as “paradigm shift” and “game-changer” are bandied about with self-satisfied abandon, but they have become hollow clichés.

Business schools cannot unilaterally sweep away every one of the barriers to radical innovation in universities, but they are certainly well positioned to spearhead efforts to foster the sort of open-mindedness required to drag the sector from the rut of incrementalism in which it currently finds itself. The issue of multidisciplinary collaboration provides perhaps the most obvious illustration.

Interaction between different disciplines has come to be regarded as a cornerstone of modern-day academia, but one does not have to look too closely to see that it tends to occur only when subjects are neatly and patently aligned. Moreover, it still accounts for just a small proportion of most departments’ or schools’ activities. Universities have a near-unrivalled ability to assemble an epistemic base – that is, an arsenal of useful knowledge, techniques and areas of expertise – but they habitually fail to exploit this capability to anything like the full.

The British Patent Office grants protection to concepts that are sufficiently radical to involve “an inventive step that is not obvious to someone with knowledge and experience in the subject”. Edmund Burke expressed a similar sentiment in Reflections on the Revolution in France when he remarked: “I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were very much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business.” In other words, only by bringing together very different disciplines can we hope to produce a much broader array of ideas, a genuine culture of creative problem-solving and, by extension, a bigger “solutions set”.

With all their real-world relationships and ties, business schools make for an especially attractive interdisciplinary partner. Yet they seldom engage in strenuous attempts to portray themselves as such, instead remaining overwhelmingly focused on their traditional audiences, stakeholders and concerns – companies, students, rankings – and determinedly going with the flow rather than against it.

Of course, it is easy to see why this torpor persists. On the whole, the wider system neither lends itself to nor rewards the unusual. Witness the Research Excellence Framework, which, like so many assessment exercises before it, is in the main driven by an eminently reasonable desire for quality assurance and therefore innately geared towards explicit measures of success.

Yet the tide may never turn if no one is willing to try swimming against it. Someone has to strike out in a new direction, if only to show it can be done. Someone has to reach out further than has become suffocatingly customary – say, by incorporating radical innovation thinking as a core element of the undergraduate curriculum – if only to set an example. If business schools are not prepared to assume that responsibility – particularly in light of their much-trumpeted facility for leadership and vision, let alone their unparalleled links to the spheres of commerce and industry – then who is?

The default argument against radical innovation is that there is much to lose and, at least initially, little to gain. This is true enough. Yet the evidence of short-termism’s inadequacies are manifest. It is only by being more open-minded that universities as a whole and business schools in particular can begin to appreciate quite how much there might be to gain in the long run.

The author is a professor of entrepreneurial development, dean of Nottingham University Business School and a contributor to Palgrave Macmillan’s forthcoming ‘The Business Growth Benefits of Higher Education’.

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