The Innovation Nation Needs Academic Kangaroos

The mobility of the aforementioned marsupial was memorably evoked[1] by Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of Madrid’s IE Business School, to highlight the new breed of academic needed to help solve real world problems. Let the kangaroo bounce around your mind as you read the below.

A continual series of Government policies and reviews from the Lambert Review (2003) to the Witty Review (2013), published just this week (see separate post) , have repeatedly sought to enhance UK university-business collaboration[2] to increase innovation over the last decade. It is striking that this has remained a policy priority whichever party/parties are in power. While rankings rarely tell the whole story, the UK is clearly doing something right, because this year saw us climbed from 5th to 3rd place in the Global Innovation Index. Yet, we are no nearer the 2004[3] target indicator of R&D expenditure comprising 2.5% of GDP, which hovers around the 1.8% mark for the last few years (1.77% in 2011[4]).

So, has the Innovation Gap turned out to be real or illusory? And, if the former, are there enough kangaroos to leap across it? Nesta suggests that the gap is more perceptual than actual, and more to do with misleading measurements; for example, our service industries which account for about 78% of UK GDP[5], are not fully reflected in traditional innovation indicators.

Can we really claim, though, that in general, our universities are ideally configured, governed and equipped and rewarded to provide the optimum impact in innovation and in helping to solve real world problems? Indeed, if they were, some would argue that this would compromise the primary teaching mission and academic integrity. Nevertheless, we certainly need more kangaroos, and we need cultures and systems that enable the full and healthy mobility of those kangaroos. From Iniguez’s perspective, ‘We want kangaroos that can jump from one of these fields to another with equal excellence. These academic kangaroos will bring closer the worlds of university and business’.

Kangaroo for interface article

Image courtesy of

Andrew Petter, President of Simon Fraser University in Canada, recently highlighted at the GUNI conference how universities have tended to serve rather than challenge prevailing hierarchies. Effective innovation challenges rather than reinforces convention, and it is worth considering which capabilities, qualities and enablers are needed in universities for them to do themselves justice and flourish in this arena. A Jisc study on Open Innovation found that there are a number of key ‘enabling conditions’[6] for open innovation, both at the organisational and individual level – many of these, such as customer relationships, support for value creation and managerial ‘ambidexterity’ remain highly relevant for universities participating in any innovation activity. A Jisc resource highlighting good practice from tried and tested open innovation approaches, and from institution led local partnerships for progress, will very soon be released – watch this space!

In considering these questions, an exploration of some of the differences between a ‘typical’ research project and a ‘typical’ innovation project may prove illuminating. In other words, in what conditions do academic kangaroos thrive? Innovation activities and knowledge transfer activities are sometimes described as ‘applied research’; does that obscure some key differences?

While it may be obvious to those familiar with innovation and enterprise work in higher and further education, I think it is still worth pointing out that successful innovation projects typically have some particular characteristics, or principles, which distinguish them from traditional research activity, for example:

  • User-focussed – the solution/output is designed around user requirements;
  • Co-development driven – success depends on effective collaboration;
  • Two-way knowledge exchange rather than unilateral knowledge creation;
  • Shorter time limits – requiring agility, iteration and highly effective team cohesion;
  • Boundary-spanning rather than discipline-bound;
  • New service or product the goal rather than publication and dissemination.

These principles place new demands on institutional staff undertaking innovative and enterprising work, which in turn require specific non-traditional skills, experience and behaviours. A HEFCE commissioned report identified the need for ‘more enterprising and collaborative behaviours’ among university staff, and a Leadership Foundation for HE report highlighted the emergence of a ‘third space’ between professional (IT, administration, library etc) and academic domains.

The Professional Development Diagnostic Tool for BCE[7] – which is a national online resource resulting from Jisc-AURIL collaboration and wide consultation of all the key groups involved in knowledge exchange, public engagement, employer engagement and lifelong learning – itemises the key non-traditional skills and attributes required. Here are six examples:

  • Facilitation, boundary-spanning and translation
  • Team-working and working for organisational benefit
  • Responsiveness, active listening and continuous learning
  • Problem solving, conceptualisation and synoptic thinking
  • Leading, influencing and change advocacy
  • Empathy and respect for others’ perspectives

Some of the attributes mentioned above can be particularly well-developed through study of the humanities and languages; thus the arts-science division that still sometimes persists in the UK[8]  is a barrier to innovation, since the latter requires a combination of scientific analysis, artistic creativity and cultural awareness. The aforementioned Santiago Iniguez is persuasive on the value of the humanities to business: ‘In cultivating the humanities you develop well-rounded managers who can lead cross-cultural teams, understand diversity and work together with people from different cultures’.

Besides specific professional attributes, effective operation in innovation work requires several other underpinning factors for the kangaroo to thrive, such as clarity and understanding of the ‘offer’ and the engagement rules from all parties’ perspectives; shared objectives among the participants and a shared risk/shared reward approach; as well as sufficiently joined-up information management, and marketing capable of supporting innovation.

This brief and not very scientific analysis demonstrates that perhaps we underestimate how demanding it is to undertake genuine innovation activities in the university context; the right culture, skills, infrastructure and maturity as a ‘business’ are all prerequisites to effective innovation. So, given the premium the UK places on innovation, and the central role of higher and further education in this, is there a case for more recognition and better reward for those ‘kangaroos’ (individuals and institutions) engaged in these ground-breaking activities , especially as in many cases this is on top of traditional teaching and research demands?

[1] MBA supplement, The Independent, 12 April 2012

[2] Most recent development was the establishment of the National Centre for University Business Collaboration

[3] Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14 (2004)

[6] Facilitating Open Innovation, Jisc 2009, pp68-72

[7] BCE: Business and Community Engagement

[8] For example in pre-university education – the success of the International Baccalaureate shows the value of an alternative approach.

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