Revving the Business School Innovation Engine

I've taught and researched innovation management for 25 years, teaching tens of thousands of MBA students about operations managements while helping hundreds of companies innovate more effectively. Sometimes I feel I have led a double life, an innovator trapped in the body of an operations management professor. That is until my recent appointment as vice-dean for innovation at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile). Now I must practice what I preach.

The Wharton School, like many business schools, has innovated continually throughout its history. But innovation is not simply the creation of that one brilliant new idea. It is also the process of achieving that innovation again and again. Rigor transformed the management of production in the 20th century. I believe a similar rigor can transform the management of business school innovation in the 21st century. As vice-dean for innovation, it is my mission to create these opportunities for innovation throughout the school, thereby raising the momentum of innovation at Wharton to new levels. To understand how that's possible and why it's necessary—both for Wharton and many other business schools—it helps to take a closer look at how Wharton currently innovates and how the process might be improved by a centralized innovation initiative.

If E'er the Twain Should Meet

In our complex organization, Wharton operates a bustling executive education institute on one corner of our campus. Our 2,300-student undergraduate business program sits 200 paces away, yet almost no activity occurs between these two vital communities. While serving very different constituencies, these two units of the school share several key opportunities for innovation, such as the use of Web-based instructional technology to improve the depth of learning. My hope is that a centralized innovation group can sense common needs across the institution and coordinate a focused response.

A culture of innovation will allow for a dynamic rethinking of underlying structures at the most fundamental level of the school. The administration of Wharton's MBA program does not need a vice-dean to tell it how to innovate. The short-term needs and opportunities of the MBA program are in fact best addressed by those immersed in that community. Challenges that require a core rewiring of the organization, however, are unlikely to be pursued by the existing operating units of the school. For instance, how might the school create a seamless, lifelong learning experience for its students and alumni? An effective solution likely involves a different partitioning of roles than into "educational programs" and "alumni relations." I hope our innovation team is able to recognize such opportunities and broker the shifts in organizational structure required to respond to them.

We all realize that running a successful educational program requires facing an unending stream of pressing challenges, including staffing courses, communicating with students, and generating funds. The immediate concerns tend to crowd out investments in the future and the exploration of highly promising, but highly uncertain, long-term opportunities. By forming a group dedicated to innovation, the school is making a deliberate investment in opportunities that can ensure a vital future.

Professorial Smackdown

For schools like Wharton, the most urgent challenge is the need to supercharge the opportunity pipeline. Three years ago, I chaired the school's strategy committee, which mounted campaign called "100 great ideas" that challenged our faculty and staff to identify strategic opportunities. We actually identified 134 and have implemented about a half-dozen of those ideas, including intensive week-long courses in San Francisco, India, and China, an office dedicated to global initiatives at Wharton, and the further integration of faculty research with the student experience, such as this Fall's Iron Prof. The fierce interdepartmental competition pitted nine Wharton faculty members against each other in a set of back-to-back five-minute speeches drawn from each department's cutting-edge research. At the end, a house vote crowned the winner.

I believe this highly successful ad hoc effort can be converted into an ongoing organizational process. I hope we can catalyze the tremendous innovative potential of our students, faculty, and staff, accelerating the innovation that occurs organically within our departments and programs. Indeed, our first major initiative is a Web-based idea management system that provides a funnel for capturing good ideas, vetting them, and connecting people with common interests to form innovation project teams.

The promises of innovation won't be realized solely by cheerleading and the brokering of relationships. The fuel for getting things done is resources. The school has committed money, people, and space to the innovation initiative, which we hope attracts those faculty and staff with needs, ideas, and vision to the effort.

An irony in higher education is that the elite institutions are followers in innovation. The organizations fighting to thrive in a rapidly changing environment are leading, and they have innovated in distance learning, Web-based instruction, and novel employment arrangements. Will the wealthy and comfortable stand by, or can they muster the will to change? Higher education generally, and business education specifically, face unprecedented pressures from globalization, technological change, and a dynamic social landscape. Incremental improvement may no longer be sufficient for those institutions that intend to flourish. At Wharton, we believe continued preeminence requires a deliberate commitment to innovation.

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