Innovation to Impact

“Innovation to Impact: Whilst there is a great deal of innovation in the University, it has been difficult to get ideas realised and tested quickly.  It will be necessary to take more managed risks to enable us to innovate rapidly and bring the benefits of innovation to our students.”

L&T Vision and Plan 2025  – Belinda Tynan PVC LT

In my last post Adaptive Capacity I began by setting the scene around the innovation agenda for The Open University, and more widely across UK Higher Education in order to meet the challenges that are currently faced by the sector. I’ll now delve a bit deeper into the Learning Innovation area to cover some of my recent work.

I’ll begin by setting out some of the current organisational barriers in the area of learning innovation as I see them:

  • There is frequently no early dialogue between different units to establish when services could be more widely applied to OU Learning and Teaching.
  • Research systems are not created to be enterprise ready and not designed with operational criteria in mind.
  • There is no organisational resource earmarked to bridge the gap between research funded activity and operational activity.
  • There is no systematic joining of the pedagogical, content and technical expertise across the organisation to enable leveraging of scholarship and research expertise to drive forward enterprise level innovation.

I suspect this is not uncommon in most large organisations that have grown organically and responded to different market forces and funding regimes. At the heart of this is a deep rooted risk aversion that has grown over the past decade. I speak to other people across the organisation and I hear things such as “the project and risk management expected of a mature organisation”. What this brings with it is a culture where experimentation is treated as recklessness and where it is deemed unacceptable to take risks.

So what should we do to address this? – I’ve had a number of workshops with colleagues from the Institute of Educational Technology, Knowledge Media Institute and Learning and Teaching Solutions (in particular the Learning Innovation team) along with a number of academic chums from across the faculties to try to tease this out and we’ve done lots of creative scribbling on boards! …















The objective has been to improve the environment for innovation. The above scribbling represents a ‘maturity model’ where as a project moves from incubation to larger scale there is a process and environment to allow that transition to take place and at each stage a gradually larger amount of ‘transition funding’ is released (and consequently rigour applied) following an evaluation to allow the project to move to the next stage…but before I get into too much detail what framework is needed?

Let’s call it an “action plan” to addresses the four areas:

  • Governance – Directing investment and identifying opportunities for adoption from existing research work
  • Process – Creating a managed innovation process
  • Systems – The structure required to manage innovation projects
  • Culture – Developing a culture which enables innovation and managed risk taking

This is easy to say but difficult to achieve (see my previous post for details on that). I intend to cover all of these areas in future posts but I’ll begin by taking one of these, let’s take process for example, how would we achieve that objective?

Objective: Create an innovation pathway

  1. Identify and track opportunities to leverage research, scholarship and innovation investments etc.
  2. Regularly review the Learning Systems Roadmap and priorities in light of these opportunities.
  3. Ensure a clear and transparent process is in place to support the inclusion of worthwhile opportunities – where colleagues know how to get their work adopted to benefit students and learners and understand the learning systems priorities.
  4. Opportunities are developed by the appropriate teams at the appropriate stages for sustainability, quality, performance and security.
  5. Opportunities are reviewed throughout the development stages and continued or culled as appropriate.
  6. The cost/benefit of all developments is tracked.

The overall investment in learning systems results in an improved experience and outcomes for students and learners.

So on a practical level what can we do to enable this, what concepts can we apply?

Concepts discussed:

  1. “ideas club” – fostering ideas in a friendly informal environment
  2. Create an “ideas bank” and allow mechanisms for worthwhile ideas to get incubated and sponsored. (N.B. this needs to be carefully managed and orchestrated so that it is more than just a popularity contest but addresses mundane but important organisational innovation as well as the “shiny stuff” – Neilsen and Norman have done some good work on this within the usability research field)
  3. Build innovation into work planning and career development processes so that people are encouraged to develop ideas (i.e. building time in to allow everyone to develop scholarly practice across the organisation).
  4. Three stages
    1. “feral” – use anything, built it try it, agile, cull or iteratively improve.
    2. “incubated” – evaluated, developed further, sponsored, fostered.
    3. “mainstreamed” – roadmap ready, enterprise ready, robust, scalable, sustainable.

How do we remove blockers to taming the “feral children”? – That is the cultural challenge. To put this into perspective I often quote Ron Tolido, Chief Technology Officer at Amazon

“At Amazon, you must write a business case to stop an innovation proposal, rather than to start one. Silences 90% of nay-sayers”

This can be achieved if we all treat innovation as something we expect and sponsor. If you haven’t read it the Educause paper Building a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education: Design & Practice for Leaders is a good read with lots of practical advice.


I’ll talk more on the cultural aspects in my next post.

Cities Turn To Rubble

I’ve been reading articles over the past year by a number of people amongst them John Naughton, Luis Villazon and Stephen Baxter who have all give some views about how the current technology is influencing our society. Stephen Baxter wrote a fantastic piece in BBC Focus magazine a few months back about it which was a vision of how people will work in small communities and the idea of cities will just that since they will have broken down and the people dispersed. 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

I do like considering how the technology in our society influences us both on a daily basis and also in a more ambient and subtle way over a long period to make changes that are felt across the globe. A good example of this is the way people have integrated mobile phones into their lives. Love them or hate them they now form part of our connected presence. I regularly use my iPhone to pick up emails and to book events or browse the web when I’m on the move. I see people using their phones all the time. This is not just a western but a global phenomenon. 

There are potentially much bigger changes however happening across our society and in western culture the economic downturn and destabilization of transport services through industrial action in the UK is influencing people to think seriously about video conferencing and conducting meetings remotely (VR, Unified Comms, etc.) – A good example within the OU of this is that last year we hosted a big conference called “Making Connections” which was well attended. This year it has been decided to run this as a “virtual event” and Martin Weller is leading the organisation of the event which takes place this Summer and I’m contributing my knowledge and support with the technologies for it and Elluminate are partnering with us to provide the event. There will be a number of nationally and internationally renowned keynotes however I’ve been asked to keep quiet about the lineup until it’s officially launched.


The whole event will be organised to be available totally online and will be location neutral. I’ll be interested to see how successful it is but it’s just one of thousands of meetings that now take place in the virtual rather than by a traditional face to face method and academia is actually behind commerce in embracing the use of new technology to support distributed meetings. 

Other influencers are the green issues and the combination of green and economic is driving people to consider purchasing locally, reducing their travel costs and to grow their own food and become more self sufficient. I was at a wedding a few months ago with friends who are scattered across the globe, with ages ranging from mid twenties to mid forties, and the conversation turned naturally during the meal to the things we’re all growing ourselves. I was amazed that almost everyone at the table was growing their own fruit and/or veggies in some cases in such large quantities that they were providing it for their local community. 

So whilst I don’t think that cities are going to turn to rubble overnight (you only need to look at the population figures for greater London to see that cities are still doing very well thank you!) I do think that over a long period of time the things that are currently moving people subtly in a particular direction, using cycles rather than driving, buying locally, travelling less, communicating online rather than in person etc. will impact more on our society on how we live. 

traditional farming

traditional farming

The idea of smaller well connected  ‘village like’ groupings, forming their own socio-economic communities and becoming much more self sufficient is one that harks back to the wartime but also seems to be in tune with how the world is shaping up today.

Connected Thoughts and People

I’ve been taking a break from technology (stuck in forest for a week with the family and no signal!) – It got me back in the zone again and also gave me a chance to do some reading. I’ve been reading “A Theory of Fun” (for game design) by Raph Koster. It’s a very lighthearted look at the whole game culture and well worth a read. It covers quite complex ideas in a way that doesn’t make them boring. It’s given me a few ideas which I’ll get down in a post when I have more time to work them up into something that doesn’t sound lame!

I’ve also been looking at Michael Wesch’s Library of Congress talk which is also in some senses inspirational and some senses slightly disconcerting. I love the bit about the rage culture and also about the mimicking that takes place on YouTube. People do use internet to communicate in a different way and these interactions are not something that should be taken lightly (but possibly lightheartedly).

The video blogging is interesting, personally I’d hate to video blog because I’d feel it was like talking to a huge audience of unknown people whose reaction you cannot judge, therefore it seems to me like performing on a world stage and not personal enough for me, I like to connect with people before revealing myself. Wesch discusses this in the talk and also the people on YouTube talk to YouTube so there are methods people use to define their audience.


I’m very much taken by the changes on our culture that Wesch talks about (away from local stores to big supermarkets etc.) and the disconnection and the effect this has on the people and perhaps explaining why we are using such a myriad of means to keep in touch with each other.

I love the bit about the anonymity and rage too. People using this to feel free to express themselves.