Competing on Innovation

Published: Wednesday, August 3, 2016   /   Categories: Education, Leadership


The United States will increasingly need to innovate if it is to maintain its position as
a global economic leader. Our economic engine is, in many respects, dependent
on the ability of existing firms and new startups to constantly improve, adapt, and reinvent themselves to remain competitive. This, coupled with the growing pace of globalization and automation, will put workers in a race against the routine work of the past. No longer is innovation something reserved for upper-level management or found in a lab. It is now embedded in the basic fabric of the modern workplace at every level, including those occupations commonly referred to as “middle skill. In other words, both businesses and workers need to be drivers of innovation to succeed in a knowledge-based economy. 

Innovation is not only defined as technological or scientific breakthroughs that happen infrequently. Instead, we take a much broader perspective of innovation as something that occurs daily inside companies to execute new ideas and approaches that produce business and social value. It is the ability to continually evolve and adapt to challenges and opportunities and is the cornerstone of free-market systems that drive the global economy.

In some respects innovation is deeply related to and encompasses entrepreneurship. While we depend on entrepreneurship to launch new business ventures, innovation also involves the creation of new business models, processes, or other major changes in existing enterprises. 

So how are companies competing on innovation? They are approaching it as a team-based enterprise that more fully engages workers across major functions and levels. Today, workers are less likely to be asked to perform routine tasks in an isolated environment. Rather, they are expected to work as members of cross-functional teams tasked with producing solutions for the larger enterprise. These teams often include members from other locations and companies throughout the world. This changing organization of work requires employees to be experts in a subject domain or function, as well as have a broader understanding of how to apply their expertise as a member of a team. This includes foundational “soft skills” that are frequently lacking in job candidates and new recruits, such as teamwork, communication, problem solving, and critical thinking. 

The team-based nature of innovation and the need for both depth and breadth in skills are quickly becoming key features of the modern workplace. This has significant
implications not only for how we build innovation talent, but also for the education
institutions whose mission is to prepare students for success in the race against
routine work.



If our economy depends on our ability to compete on innovation, then we need an
approach for preparing the talent that will sustain it. This approach must be designed
to better reflect the current organization of work and the skills that are in demand by
companies. It must also prepare existing and future workers to function effectively in
teams driving new ideas at all levels.

The work of innovation cannot simply be taught; it must be practiced and supported
by employers and their talent pipeline partners. The best way to build innovation
talent is to immerse cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams of students in
employer-sponsored challenges in need of solutions.


What Makes Challenges Different

Authentic—Challenges must be a real business problem or opportunity rather than one constructed by educators. For individuals and teams to fully appreciate the gravity of the challenge, the work must engage students in a real and substantive way with actual stakeholders tied to the challenge resolution.

Business Sponsored—Challenges must be sponsored by one or more employer stakeholders that have a vested interest in the solution. Challenges can also be sponsored by governments, nonprofits, or community-based institutions that rely
on innovation to achieve societal goals.

Diverse—Challenges engage various participants learning how to work effectively with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. This critical feature reflects the increasing diversity of the workplace and the changing demographics of an
employer’s customer base.

Team Based—Challenges do not rest on the genius of any one individual or entrepreneur. They are interdisciplinary projects requiring a team-based approach. This requires skills that leverage each person’s expertise while demonstrating a breadth of understanding on how any individual’s contribution can inform the larger solution.

Ill-Structured—Challenges must defy an immediate, apparent, or definite solution. They must allow for multiple approaches to advance a solution.

Student Led—Challenges require solutions that are driven by students working as self-directed teams. Instead of instructor-led problem solving, teams are given tools to understand the challenge, pursue a solution, and learn collectively from success or failure. Business sponsors and instructors play a support role and intervene to maintain timetables, help teams reach a decision, and guide them past an impasse.

Scalable—Challenges should be designed to engage multiple teams investigating a variety of approaches. The best challenges are those that can be crowd sourced to several project teams either competing against one another or collaborating on a solution. 

Reflective—Challenges at their core are a learning opportunity, even when executed on behalf of a business. Similar to how innovation occurs in the market economy, the ill-structured nature of the challenge requires a trial and error process among multiple and competing solutions. This mirrors how innovation works in a market economy.

With innovation serving as a cornerstone of how companies operate in today’s economy, there are examples of where many of the features that define innovation-based challenges are beginning to take root inside of K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions, and community-based organizations. 

K-12: In 2008, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the
Illinois State Board of Education, and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
launched a pilot program called Illinois Innovation Talent. The program matched middle- and high-school teams with industry partners that posed authentic challenges. The program began by pairing one corporate partner with one team. It later expanded to have several student teams assigned to a common challenge supported by one or more corporate partners. In three years, the program sponsored 42 challenges that reached 92 schools, 274 teachers, and 4,300 students.

2-Year Postsecondary: The National Science Foundation (NSF) launched a program to
improve STEM education in community colleges. NSF organized challenges
where students—supported by faculty, the community, and business partners— proposed STEM-based solutions to realworld problems. The challenges focused
on big data, infrastructure security, and sustainability (including water, food, energy,
and the environment). Students were asked to explore their topics, identify an
authentic problem, and propose a solution while articulating the underlying science and technology learnings that informed it. 

4-Year Postsecondary: The Liberal Education and America’s Promise program launched by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, encourages teams of students to engage in unstructured problems with outside stakeholders. This requires them to use many skill sets common to a liberal arts education (e.g., critical thinking, communication, and problem solving).

Community-Based Organizations: i.c.stars is a community-based nonprofit that uses a problem-based approach for teaching and supporting out-of-school youth. It focuses on connecting youth to employer-sponsored information technology and application challenges that address a real need. Students who successfully complete a project have the opportunity to continue working with their partner company and eventually be employed full time. Organizations like i.c.stars enable companies to tap into hidden talent outside of traditional education settings. 

These are just a few examples of how innovation is finding its way into education and training, and how education partners are interested in working with the business community to create a more authentic and scalable work experience. While we continue to learn from programs experimenting with how to best build innovation talent, we now turn to how business and education can partner to build on leading practices.

Source: https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/sites/default/files/USCCF_Competing%20on%20Innovation.pdf


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