What You Need to Know Before Pursuing a Center for Innovation

Innovation Center: Image of reflections on a light bulb

Transcript of the Interview

We interviewed Dr. Stephen Whitehead, the associate provost of innovation at California University of Pennsylvania. A lot of institutions have shared their curiosity with us about how to launch a center for innovation, and we wanted to ask one of the foremost experts what his peers should consider first. Stephen Whitehead will also be discussing this topic in more depth at the upcoming conference "Developing a Center for Innovation on Campus." A transcript of the interview follows below the video.

What do you need to know before pursuing a center for innovation?

One of the big things when looking at creating a center for innovation is the feasibility of it. Every college is looking at cost and how they’re spending money. So, if the center can be tied to your strategic plan and be connected with the university’s mission, then it’s easier to go out for funds and justify the feasibility of the program.

Also, what are the outcomes you expect from the center?

  • If you’re creating a center that's built around entrepreneurship, then you want to see companies and projects developed out of it that will then give you a return on investment.
  • It's harder to look at the creation of a center when you are focused on doing faculty development and program creation. What's the return on investment? If you are creating programs, you could say, "Well, in 4-5 years we will have students, and that'll be the return on the investment."
  • If you are looking at faculty professional development, then developing the key performance indicators -- those mile markers -- is going to be really important on the front end of it. Then you could say, "Hey, look, this center has allowed us to take teachers who are average teachers, and make them great teachers. And it has allowed us to take new teachers and get them to this level quicker." Those would be key performance indicators that you could build in that would be beneficial to establishing a return on investment.

What kinds of institutions should be thinking about this seriously?

I think every campus should really be looking at the way they are engaging their communities – whether it’s the campus community or the community beyond. And I think there are opportunities to use these centers for these types of expansion and outreach.

I think you're seeing more colleges really take a look at the value of outreach into communities, especially as the student bodies incoming are starting to change and they're looking closer at the value of higher education, asking "What's the benefit?" There’s an opportunity for colleges to create centers for innovation that can reach down into the community and show those values, show the benefit in education, the benefit in research, the benefit in learning. For a lot of the incoming students, we're talking about them having six, even seven careers. So having a center for innovation where they could really explore their current learning and where that's going and then see the pivot points where it fits into their future is really beneficial.

I think every college should be looking at creating centers for innovation, but I think, once again, it has to fit your mission. I think creating a center for innovation because everyone is doing it ... let's be honest, in higher education we often follow each other. When the first school starts, we all sort of line up and follow them. It's a dangerous path to go down. You have to look at what is your strategy. I really think it goes back to your strategic plan and your mission and the vision of your university. And then how does a center for innovation, or whatever you want to call the center, how does that fit and how does that fit into creating that vision and mission, and how does it help you be successful in complete that mission?

How do we structure a center for innovation?

For a lot of these, the structure is based in academics because most of the business in higher ed is academics. If you were building an entrepreneurial center, then you could really move that more toward like a business focus, but you still want to have faculty engagement, you want to have those types of people. So, what we have done, what a lot of them do, when you're creating the center, when you're looking at the mission of it ... is identify who are the key stakeholders in it.

If your center is built around entrepreneurship, then you’re going to want to have your planning and development people involved in that, you’re going to want to have your corporate connections, you’re going to want to have faculty from business involved in that, you’re going to want to have those types of players in it.

The person who is in charge of it is where this gets interesting. If you look at some of the past models:

  • A lot of the centers that are built around entrepreneurship have someone from Planning and Development who is leading. So that person is the main driver of the center. They are looking for funding.
  • The ones that are more focused around faculty professional development are led through the Provost's office, so it could be an Associate Provost or it could be a Dean, depending on how your college is set up and the structure of your college.

When you’re creating the vision and mission for the center and you’re looking at the strategic plan, that's when you would say, "All right, whose role is really important? Who is going to be the driving person? And then who is the champion for this?" And you have to have a champion at a level that is going to be able to bring the center the attention it needs. You're going to have to have cabinet buy-in, your president is going to have to support it, the provost is going to have to support it, the vice president of finance is going to have to support it. If you don't have those key players, with the support from the top down, it's going to be really hard. You could be successful, but you're going to struggle with longevity.

How do we get internal and external partners involved?

I’m a big fan of Seth Godin, and Seth Godin believes the next economy is the connected economy. There are people on your campus who have connections, and they are really well-suited. So, depending on what you are creating your center for, you have to have the right people involved with it. If you are building a center around faculty professional development, you want to have the teachers who are using the newest technology, who are certified in Google Apps, who are really pushing the kids to do things differently. You want them to be a part of this. You want their buy-in, you want their success so they can bring that success to the center.

The whole process of building a center and getting community growth and campus involvement with it -- is getting to that Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point. So your first wave will come, the people about whom you are thinking now: “If I wanted to create this, this is the group of people who will come.” And that’s great. That center will be successful, but the true success will be when you get that second wave to fall.

So, how do you get to that second wave? When you’re building this and you’re thinking of the connectors, it's building it with a strategic plan that gets you to the second wave. You have to think about how you get that second wave. Because once the second wave falls, that's when the tipping point occurs, and then there's campus and community buy-in.

Learn More from Stephen Whitehead

Learn from Dr. Stephen Whitehead and a full panel of other experts at our upcoming workshop "Developing a Center for Innovation on Campus." Learn how you can develop a successful center for innovation on your campus that serve as both an academic hub and gateway to the surrounding economic and entrepreneurial environment.