Must Read Blog February 28, 2023

How to Build Innovation and Learning Capacity for Better Student Success 

We work with institutions and organizations that are constantly innovating in service of building experiences, products, and services that can benefit students. There is urgency for institutions to adopt approaches that drive innovation in order to deliver on the promise of socioeconomic mobility and close persistent student success and outcomes gaps that exist based on race and income. In this environment, new tools, business models, and ways of meeting students where they are needed. Creating capacity in organizations to build creativity, ongoing learning, and innovation around student success and outcomes is critically important and, to do it at-scale, approaches to innovation must be centered and approached in a structured fashion. 

Recently, we looked at what we’ve collectively learned about those organizations who effectively build innovation into their organization in ways that drive measurable and sustained growth and improve student outcomes. There are three core capacities – leadership and vision, implementation, and learning – that the most effectively innovating organizations create and nurture to drive outsized outcomes and a focus on student success. Here is what we are learning about what works to scale and sustain innovation and how you can apply it to your organization. 

Leadership and Vision Capacities

  • The presence of a clear north star that centers students. Consider, for example, the case of SNHU and a relentless focus on how to build and design for the needs of adult learner. A compelling and clear north star of this strategy was building an experience that removes barriers from the student journey. It was a critical rallying cry for the success and growth of an institution that now serves more than 170,000 online students
  • Experimentation culture or put otherwise, a culture that encourages taking calculated risks and celebrates failure as key to learning. Accepting and managing failure is part of the learning process. Arizona State University, for example, explicitly includes “Value Entrepreneurship” as one of its nine institutional “design aspirations”. This commitment to innovation is practiced and reinforced both top-down from the President and Cabinet and bottom-up from ASU students and staff.  
  • Alignment of leadership (faculty, academic, administrative, and the board-level) is also critical. Those of you who are parents know that even the youngest humans are smart enough to identify where their leadership (a.k.a., parents) may not be aligned and exploit it for their benefit (extra dessert or screen time, perhaps). So, consider then how at large organizations comprised of PhD-trained professionals with diverse and varied incentives, leadership has an even higher threshold to be aligned on the most important strategic goals. Innovation and constant improvement in the service of student success must be a clear and undisputed priority across institutional leadership. Leadership alignment is critical to removing barriers that prevent institutional stakeholders from moving in the same direction. 

Implementation Capacities 

  • People, processes and policies create the scaffolding and connection points to bolster innovation across organizations. Georgia State University’s well-known approach to driving student success innovation took a broad-based institutional approach. A VP of Student Success was put in place reporting to the president and with a clear mandate, authority team resources to prioritize student success. The institution routinely evaluates and adjusts institutional processes and policies using data, running experiments and partnering with external partners to bring in critical capacities with remarkable results. 
  • Another approach we see institutions take to accelerate new ideas and ensure that people, process, and policies are aligned is through a lab or a new ventures model. Used at Arizona State University, Northeastern University, Portland State University, and Western Governors University, among others; this model creates a dedicated team with a clear mandate, skill set, and processes to ideate and manage a portfolio of ideas that are then folded back into the institution. In this model, there is a team directly accountable for driving innovation with the appropriate skills and experience. A team actively engages in an agile process to pilot and test new ideas with a focus on scaling pilots that succeed. Portfolio approaches to idea generation in each of these models put forth a series of small pilots, monitored pilots with evaluation criteria and used a stage-gate model to evaluate progression, scaling and further investment, with underperforming experiments/pilots being eliminated and successful ones, such as Northeastern’s Experiential Network, growing and scaling to serve thousands of students. 
  • The capacity to partner with external institutions, organizations and companies is another key ingredient to accelerating innovation. External partnerships can fill gaps between leadership and vision and internal implementation capacities. Common internal gaps that institutions fill with external partnership are access to capital, expertise, speed of execution, leverage to focus on capabilities outside the core, and to gain internal capacity. 

Learning Capacities

  • Importantly, organizations that innovate effectively use key performance indicators clearly defined and aligned to goals and used to actively measure and evaluate innovation initiatives. Data gathered is used to stop, start, or continue new and established initiatives. As you design KPIs, consider and monitor a range of leading and lagging implementation measures in service of ongoing learning, sharing and adjustment that measure and monitor success. It is important to include: 
    • Formative or leading indicators that will help you adjust along the way 
    • Summative or lagging indicators that will support longer term planning 
  • Lastly, communication of key learnings, successes, AND failures are shared throughout the institution and as part of ongoing change management and innovation. Sharing success generates buy in and sharing learnings from failures encourages healthy risk taking, which is key to learning. 

Reach out if you’d like to learn more about how we help institutions build out structures and approaches to bolster innovation in student success and at your institution.