<Image coffee love http://www.flickr.com/photos/javaturtle/133316103/>
Stephen Downes pointed at this piece from Tony Bates arguing that the choice facing higher education institutions is often phrased as one of 'innovate or die'. It prompted me to blog some half baked thoughts I'd had around innovation recently.
In my presentation on Academic output as collateral damage I suggested that organisations like projects. They are set up to work with project structures, which have lines of responsibility, a set of deliverables, milestones, and fixed budgets. I understand this and for a lot of tasks it is the best way to work. But here are three statements I would like to put forward:
1) The small scale, web 2 type innovation we need to see doesn't fit well into conventional project structures.
2) As money becomes tighter in higher education, there will be a strong push to control resources more, with everything and everyone allocated to a specific, accountable project.
3) The organisations that do best in the financial crisis will be those that can manage small scale innovation, and transform this into a varied offering, so that at low cost they can meet a wide range of needs.
You'll see the dilemma here – in economically straitened times, the instinct is to control everything tightly through a project structure, but this project structure is not well suited to the type of innovation you need to engage in to perform well. The institutional instincts may be contrary to the overall well being of the institution as a whole, rather like a wounded animal fighting off a vet.
A very, very, small example of this happened last week – I wanted to try a video experiment with a few people at the OU. I asked if we could provide them with coffee and biscuits to entice them along and help with the ambience and was told no, unless it was related to a specific project. In fairness I think I could have got the coffee money if I'd tried a different route (and we didn't go ahead with the experiment anyway). But it's the type of example we've all come across probably. My point here is that this might be exactly the sort of innovation you want to encourage, or maybe it's providing pizza for a bunch of developers (what cliche?), or getting someone's time for a couple of days. All of these types of informal projects become increasingly difficult in a project-centric approach.
The solution is probably to set up a non-project project, or something like Google's 10% time when people are free to explore other approaches, but these are by their very nature, unpredictable and uncertain. And in times of financial crisis unpredictability and uncertainty are not favourable characteristics for a proposal. We know, however, that these are precisely the qualities that lead to exciting developments online. So, how to square that circle?