Disruptive innovation versus resilience in higher education

In the research I am currently conducting, there is a need to borrow from other literatures in order to come to understand the concept of innovation as it is used in various forms. Innovation is not a new concept for higher education research, as it has a place alongside research itself within the entire tertiary landscape. Much of the literature of innovation focuses on either impressionistic biographical sketches and case studies (e.g. “the N habits of highly effective innovators”), or cheer-leading for a new management idea, not infrequently by its originator (e.g. “buy my book to discover how polymorphosynergizing is the key to successful innovation!”).

What has united both of these types of works on popular innovation is the sympathetic magic term ‘disruption’. It is held up as the desired and required form which innovations should take. You’re not actually innovating unless you’re disrupting something. Admittedly, there is the term ‘sustaining innovation’, but even this is split into its ‘discontinuous’ and ‘continuous’ flavours. The discontinuous type is that which is transformational, and in flights of corporate hyperbole, revolutionary (notwithstanding the fact that revolutions are, historically, bad news for business). Continuous sustaining innovation is evolutionary, and thus boring. That falls less into the camp of innovation, and more in the wilderness of just keeping your head above water.

So out of the varieties which we are given, for two of the three, sudden, wrenching breaks with continuity are a Good Thing. They are what we should aim for. This is to be our goal. Form of disruption X worked for Company Y, so with a little tinkering this can be translated across to the higher education world. A company is an organization, and a university is an organization, so surely there is something they have in common which allows the principle to be transferred from one to t’other.

Except there are numerous false equivalences being drawn here. Who are companies answerable to, and who are universities answerable to? It’s a very different matter when you have to answer to shareholders and when you have to answer to the minister for education, and thus to citizens. As well as this, the time-scale for innovations in higher education and in the marketplace are markedly different, going from the quick spin-up time of quarterly earnings, to the usual minimum term of a few years (often the length of time it takes a cohort to pass through their entire undergraduate studies).

Disruptive innovations take place in a wider context of how things are generally done in a given market. There is the market for accommodation, in its traditional forms of hostels, hotels, motels, B&B’s, guesthouses, etc. Then there is the disruption of this in the shape of AirBNB, which has found a gap in the market which is a way to use the effort and capital (in the shape of unused bedrooms) of the public/users, and to reap the benefits, without any of the hassle of compliance with legal codes, taxation, and other protocols which have historically emerged to guard against exploitation and abuse. Seen in this light, disruption is a euphemism for “as of yet unregulated”. But as we saw in New York City, our God (the tax-man) is a jealous God, and offers your business model the choice of death or taxes.

So what applies to universities and other higher education institutions? Well, without becoming embroiled in the row about higher education and marketization, it is important to see that there are qualities specific to to higher education that mean innovation isn’t a concept which we should be applying. In terms of the demands of a society and an economy, education is there to provide strengths, longevity, stability, and engagement. Disruption is about side-stepping all these, and it is about introducing shock from within. Higher education is that “within”, and it has sufficient shocks to deal with already in terms of fluctuations in the world economy. There is an alternative concept which might be of greater relevance:

“Resilience is realized when a disruption is unfolding or cannot be avoided. It is the system’s potential for adaptive action in the future when information varies, conditions change, or new kinds of events (even external shocks) occur.”

Jan Erik Karlsen and Rosalind M.O. Pritchard, “Resilience – The Ability to Change” in Resilient Universities: Confronting Changes in a Challenging World.

Resilience applies a different set of ideas, and allows us to consider the entire picture in different terms from those that see business as business-as-usual. I suggested above that there is a contrast between within and without when the notion of innovation is applied. This contrast may mislead us into simplifying matters too quickly, or it may lead us to ignore some elements of a situation entirely. If we focus on resilience rather than disruption, we give ourselves space and freedom to develop ideas. Instead of reacting to circumstances, we can instead think first, and then respond intelligently. Focusing on our activities with a view to resilience allows us to avoid the apparent need to do-for-the-sake-of-doing. Resilience allows us to prioritise our activities according to what is the most desirable approach to take.

As an example, if we reframed the discussion of innovation in higher education, we could move away from the fetishizing of MOOCs, and save ourselves the indignity of pandering to vested interests that have more of a focus on euro/pound/dollar-signs than the education and continued prosperity of citizens. Starting out with the concept of resilience allows us to turn to evidence-based policy, rather than governance by sound-bite. If we start with resilience, we are obliged to work through the implications of this word, to ask questions like “resilient in what sense?” By contrast, the word innovation simply and crudely implies mere novelty. Its thought process stops at the fact that something is new, rather than proceeding to interrogate why it is new, and whether this novelty is a good thing.

Resilience makes greater cognitive demands on those who deploy it because it requires us to think through implications, it needs us to consider where we are now in the light of where we want to be in the future. As such, it stands in tacit opposition to the status quo which is implied by innovation. Innovation asks no questions such as whether education should be a public or a private good. Innovation isn’t troubled by whether inhabitants of a state should be considered citizens or customers. Innovation, for all its apparent focus on the future, is uninterested in where we are going. For these reasons, I think we do ourselves a disservice by continuing to use a concept that seeks only to use us as a means to an end, a bottom line, or a quarterly statement.

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2 thoughts on “Disruptive innovation versus resilience in higher education

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who and Abrupt Change | Authentic Voice

  2. Pingback: Are university lectures dinosaurs or sharks? Innovation in higher education | Wetwiring

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