Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Innovation From All Sides

Over the last few years, Innovation and Disruption seem to be making the rounds along the conference circuit.  Those speeches effects can be found in the actions of CIOs around the country making innovation teams, and disruption evaluation projects.  Unfortunately, most attempts to harness innovation and disruptive methodologies seem designed to run afoul of the same processes that have killed innovation in the past.

Decades ago, when explaining how to productively brainstorm, Alex Osborn made the case that quantity of ideas coming out of a brainstorming session was more important than the quality of the ideas.  The less restrictive the bounds on presenting ideas, the more ideas presented during a brainstorming session.  And, with more ideas, and less restrictions, one might actually find that golden nugget of an idea that can change everything.

Establishing a defined innovation group seems to fight that freedom that actually leads to challenging ideas.  By establishing a group dedicated to washing a fleet of cars, no one else feels empowered or has the responsibility to ensure that the cars get washed.  Washing cars is someone else’s job and I heard that Bob got in trouble for washing his own fleet car.  But, for any organization, presenting a good image is everybody’s responsibility.  The analogy holds, and generating ideas that can improve an organization is everyone’s responsibility.

And, any innovation group has to be ready to present their ideas to management.  Those ideas have to be actionable and there’s always a pressure to produce – on a timetable.  Anyone that will produce a truly innovative idea loves knocking around ideas for improvement.  Hopefully, an innovation team enjoys doing that even more.  But when those ideas have to be codified and reported up the management chain on a defined timetable, an enjoyable exercise becomes one more task that has to be addressed for the week.  Given that most innovation teams are composed of managers and subject matter experts tasked with a great quantity of work, this makes “innovation” work even more onerous.  Formalization of innovation can quickly make an enjoyable and rewarding exercise into a painful and soul-killing experience.

Innovative ideas can be the lifeblood of an institution.  But they don’t have to be big ideas to have big effects.

Recent readings in the Harvard Business Review all point to creating value for customers as being the criteria for which new ideas should be judged.  And creating value for customers, whether they are students or consumers, comes from understanding their needs.  Understanding the needs of our constituencies is not owned by upper level management, or even the most technically astute among us.  The needs of our constituencies are best understood by our constituency itself.  They may not be in a position to design solutions, but they know what they need.

And, in the case of a public university, our constituency consists of every student, staff, or faculty member that ever steps foot on campus.  They can be the font of innovative ideas that propel universities forward.  Innovation teams may be necessary, but not as the creators of innovative ideas, but as the people that make those ideas a reality.  An environment that fosters creativity doesn’t need to be much more than an environment that doesn’t crush it. 

Innovation teams can serve a vital role in that environment – but they don’t own innovation.
I was walking across UF campus some months ago with my daughter and talking about her future.  We tossed around the normal topics: school, her future, career, insecurities and son.  But in the midst of the discussion we crossed one of our many green spaces and I pointed out one of our wireless access points that we have mounted in one of our campus blue light phones.

I thought I had found a great teachable moment.  I told her the story of how that installation came to be.  Folks from networking had a problem, they reached out to folks in telecom, a member of UFPD chimed in with a solution, and finally working with grounds we had delivered Wi-Fi to the space.  It wasn’t really any one group’s job but an idea had taken hold and everyone made it happen.  I avoided terms like “leveraging original investment” and “maximizing return on deployment”.  I didn’t want to turn her off the conversation with jargon.  And then she asked a question.

“Where’s the camera?”

She had been paying attention and wanted to know with all the infrastructure in place, why hadn’t we put a camera there as well.  Wouldn’t we want prospective students to see how much fun it was playing Frisbee in the field?  Wouldn’t we want to have a live camera where students came to protest?  With all the work we had already put into the location, putting up a camera seemed simple… to her.

None of the highly paid technical professionals that worked on the project had considered the possibility.

With that, I went to work getting a camera in place.  It hasn’t gone online yet.  There have been holdups and roadblocks. But good ideas don’t die an easy death.

And good ideas can come from anywhere.  Listen to everyone at your institution, that’s where the next game changing idea will come from.  The groundskeepers will know some of the secrets of an institution that an executive will never understand.  Whether that knowledge can be acted upon or not, will be the province of administrative personnel but do not discount the input of the rank and file.

Often, they understand “you” better than you do yourself. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Embedded with the Enemy

For two years I was honored to serve as the chair of the Program and Content Committee for ACUTA.  My primary responsibility was to coordinate the committee‘s mission to procure quality speakers and intense educational content for these who work in Information Technology in higher education.  In the midst of those responsibilities, for the 2016 Annual conference in San Diego, I thought to assemble a random student panel to answer questions for our attendees. 

Like most of my good ideas, this one resulted from equal parts inspiration and desperation.  We needed to fill a speaking slot at the conference on short notice and San Diego State University was overflowing with students.  I thought a chance to interact directly with students might give our attendees (mostly back office information technology and telecommunications staff) a chance for some entertaining feedback.  It was a hit.  We held student panels at each event following until the end of my term.

From each panel, I took away insights into what students really wanted – not what a magazine reported that they wanted, what they truly desired.  It was invigorating for a back office staff member to hear how technology was affecting student lives.

And, if you’ve never heard a student directly thank you for your work in maintaining some obscure piece of infrastructure, then you haven’t lived.

But, rallies fade and insights can grow stale.  Once returning to the office, direct and energizing interaction disappeared and feedback was once again reduced to reports, customer surveys, focus groups, complaints, refinement requests, trouble tickets, project proposals, six sigma, performance appraisals…

And then I started graduate school in the Fall of 2017.  I was a student.

And overnight I stepped into a role I thought I understood, in a technological environment that I know I understand.

And immediately, I stumbled. Loss of Wi-Fi meant something completely different.  I was limited in where I could work on group projects.  I tripped during registration.  I registered for classes in one web site, found out what books I needed in another, and actually took classes at another web site.  I followed procedural forms from yet another web site in order to make sure my class fees were paid.

As a service user, I was left wondering why it was so hard to get the services I needed.  While working, I was busy patting myself on the back for being part of the team that delivered those services with minimal downtime and short response time.  I had never lived it from the user perspective.  And living it, is a completely different experience. 

And now, I was interacting with students on a daily basis.  In conversation after conversation, I was learning what was truly important to our student body: easy use of systems, calendars, and ubiquitous campus Wi-Fi in the exterior of buildings.  Student Pokemon Go players became an unpaid cadre of Wi-Fi testers now that they knew they had some one’s ear.  They’ve directed me to multiple sites where Wi-Fi needed to be reinforced and the students had a demonstrated need.

With all of the efforts we take to solicit student opinion, the simplest solution seems evident. Become a student.  Many institutes of higher education offer free classes as a benefit but I don’t think that we truly realize the gains that come from having employees become students.  The employees become invested in the institution.  The institution has value and the students are no longer complaining kids, they become our peers.

And, as UF begins the effort of rolling out two factor authentication to our general population, I’m glad that, as a student, I was able to bump my head against the student side of adaptation before the general population.  Luckily, my professor was kind enough to allow me to have my phone with me during our secure testing procedures.  His rules did not allow for any phones or anything other than a laptop, but without my phone I cannot log in to any university system.  He and I worked it out, and I was able to report back on a probable pain point in our upcoming deployment.

They aren’t the enemy, but there’s no better way to understand the students on your campus than becoming one of them.  And, staff enrollment is an underutilized option that institutes of higher education have available for both professional development, and student outreach.  We shouldn’t ask whether classes will help our employees in their roles, but rather acknowledge how the act of taking classes at our colleges inherently make them better employees. 

Staff involvement in our campuses pays dividends.