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Skunkworks was the term given to a secret, small team of R&D engineers at Lockheed Corp in 1943 tasked with finding breakthrough innovations in jet fighter technology, in the heat of battle. They generated a new design in a month and built a new fighter in 143 days.

More contemporary approaches to digital innovation are organised in different ways. Sometimes these are whole organisation strategies seeking new products or markets. In others they are new start-ups where the focus is creating new business models. The skunkworks model is like the online arms of many universities. But which of these scenarios is how we might best innovate in both research and learning, in universities in the future?

In all the scenarios described above, the creation of an innovation culture is critical. And preferably aligned with a strongly shared sense of purpose. A sense of the purpose of universities, as existing to serve the public good, is common among leaders and practitioners. It is one part of what makes them great places to work. Another is the flexibility they provide to many that work in them to pursue their own ideas and interests and do things in their own ways. Many academics would like to think of themselves as their own skunkworks or start up. Indeed Clark Kerr, president of the University of California in the 1960s famously said “the university is a series of individual entrepreneurs held together
by a common grievance about parking.”

But how can creating individual entrepreneurial culture and opportunity be reconciled at a strategic level to create broad innovative activity to meet the wider organisational needs at our own times of battling global phenomena? In an era of the great resignation and quiet quitting it is even harder to get large groups of people in all organisations, including universities, aligned behind change and strategy when some are currently scarred by and weighed down with coping with business as usual.

The purpose of a university includes to research and teach. The identification of what, how and with whom to do research is typically left to individuals in their tribes and disciplines in the academic heartlands which we variously organise and give focus to in centres and institutes. There are coordinated ways of governing ethics, practice, and infrastructure. Some of the joined up and coordinated work happens in translation and commercialisation. Building a culture of innovation in commercialisation requires staff empowerment, and a licence to explore and experiment with a high tolerance for mistakes or unsuccessful outcomes in psychologically safe environments.

Some of the most advanced examples of this in Australia are open to engagement of all disciplines. They are typically activity not only for staff, but a focal point for engagement of alumni and industry partners. They often embrace multiple centres and institutes. They thrive on cultures that encourage experimentation and pursuing uncertain outcomes.

In teaching and learning there is an interesting difference. Academics and disciplines strive for freedom and space to apply their own ideas and pedagogies and share their own interpretations of scholarly knowledge. But they do so within the constraints of an increasingly regulated, organised, and controlled environment. Making mistakes or failing with experiments in an environment of continuous and heightened student needs and expectations, as well as ubiquitous student evaluations, is a situation where few staff feel empowered and encouraged to take uncertain chances on their own.

The University of Melbourne was bold in breaking with sector-wide conventions in applying a common new framework across all disciplines with the Melbourne model that became the Melbourne curriculum. This venture largely overcame initial fears of some academics and disciplines during its implementation and has proven to be attractive to students and successful in outcomes. It was an initiative and innovation of its time as a response to an opportunity to be distinct as Australia’s leading university. The venture by Victoria University to innovate with a block teaching model has also been a differentiating
university-wide entrepreneurial pedagogic venture with successful outcomes.

One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic over the last 3 years has been the need for all in our universities to adhere to tighter centralised constraints on modes of delivery, campus access and delivery of student experience. There have also been greatly changed demands, expectations and preferences for students which also widely impacts what we do and how.

But pedagogic practice and the mode of engaging academics and partners also differs between disciplines. For some such as medicine, education, engineering and a business school it is practiced in close partnership with external communities. There is a strong argument to say that not one size fits all in how to innovate in learning practices. And yet while it is crucial for the wider university to strategically plan for a future size and shape, as Melbourne currently is, one could argue that it is also crucial to plan for its future nature.

Planning for teaching and learning innovation across a university can be through a federal model of allowing each component organisational unit and discipline group to experiment individually. But drawing on institutional expertise in higher education policy and practice, can also allow it to be adopted and extended in the wider organisation wisely by an organisation and leadership sensitive to academic culture and innovative practice and with a strong sense of strategy and a goal of a culture of innovation.

We will probably see growth in commercialisation and translation of research by universities as a ‘nice to have’. We will need a culture and support to allow it to flourish. And as we look to plan the future size and shape of our universities more closely, we will need to innovate in the nature of what they do in teaching as a ‘must have’. This may continue to see groups and disciplines actively exploring new products, markets, and business models in their organisational areas and in partnership with their external communities.

The trick will be to find ways of adopting and sharing success and learnings more broadly across the wider range of fields, diverse staff and the size and shape of a future university for it to excel and thrive as a whole. This was the focus of a conversation on university strategy and leadership with Duncan Maskell the VC of Melbourne University on HEDx last week which you can access here.

First published in Campus Review on 12th October 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx