Innovative visions often start at university level

University of Akron president Luis Proenza likes the word “innovation.” Not as a buzzword, he insists, but rather as the driving force behind the way the University of Akron does business and educates its students. After all, the word “innovation” appears in the university's latest strategic plan — Vision 2020 — more than a dozen times. Innovation is in the university's DNA, if you will. 

Dr. Proenza likes the word so much he touted it in one of the university's regional Super Bowl commercials. The university even launched a so-called “innovation campus,” a research park of sorts where university researchers can mingle with the business community to launch new ventures. 

“The bottom line is that universities play a very, very critical and essential role in the innovation ecosystem,” Dr. Proenza said. 

Dr. Proenza has long been an advocate of higher education serving as the catalyst for innovation. Universities, for one, are where ideas can blossom into full-fledged business ventures. In addition, universities are where students are encouraged to think creatively and formulate ideas that can shape tomorrow's economy. 

“If you are able to innovate across the full spectrum of our disciplines and the full spectrum of our community, you create the basis for economic success that without which, we would flounder and all whither away,” Dr. Proenza said. 

The University of Akron, of course, isn't alone in its efforts to drive innovation. A bevy of Northeast Ohio's colleges and universities have stressed innovation in recent years, with many launching programs with innovation at their core. Baldwin Wallace University in Berea boasts its own Center for Innovation & Growth. Kent State, meanwhile, launched its own Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation. 

On a very macro level, academics view higher ed's focus on innovation as being driven by the need for the United States to be more competitive on a global scale. The country, after all, isn't the only superpower in the world generating new ideas and technologies. 

Also, companies simply aren't looking to hire graduates interested only in taking marching orders. 

“Companies are saying they can't wait for a new employee to be 40 years old until they contribute a new idea,” said John Lanigan, the director for BW's center and a retired executive vice president and chief marketing officer for BNSF Railway Co., a Berkshire Hathaway company headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. “They need them to contribute a new idea when they're 22 years old.”

Teaching innovation

An April 2013 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities indicated that 95% of employers say they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will “enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.” Also, employers say skills such as critical thinking and problem solving are more valuable than someone's field of study. 

Academics like BW's Mr. Lanigan insist that it's possible to teach students to think like innovators. 

For instance, he said part of the university's role is to instill that spirit of innovation. BW, for one, exposes its students to entrepreneurs through guest lectures in hopes of giving them the “courage to be innovative,” according to Mr. Lanigan. 

“A lot of it is getting them in that mind-set and intentionally talking about what it means to be innovative and how you can think of new ideas,” Mr. Lanigan said. “New ideas aren't always revolutionary, they're evolutionary. Apple didn't invent the cell phone. They just took it to a whole new level.” 

Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management recently launched a department its leaders suggest will inspire students to work creatively to solve problems. Weatherhead's new Department of Innovation and Design incorporates faculty from the former marketing and policy studies and information systems departments. 

Richard Buchanan, chairman of the new department, said employers are looking for people who can cross disciplines, think creatively and go beyond “best practices.” Students will interact with practitioners from outside typical business circles, such as product designers and architects. The idea is to demonstrate the creative problem-solving process they experience in their fields in hopes of translating it to the business world. 

“This is a department that is now oriented to innovation, studying it and creating it,” Dr. Buchanan said. 

Sergey Anokhin, who leads Kent State's Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation, said that business schools haven't always promoted creative thinking. It wasn't until the 2000s, for example, when higher education really embraced the idea of entrepreneurship as a specific field of academic study. 

“There's been a loss of belief in corporate America to an extent,” Dr. Anokhin said. “You can't rely on a 30-year career with a company, so many are taking entrepreneurship as a second major as a fallback. They're becoming masters of their own fate.”


POSTED: Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 12:00am
UPDATED: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 - 8:32am