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“There is a ‘curse’ that you’ve probably heard at some point: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ “

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This quote kicked off Gary Alan Miller and Katherine Nobles’ Innovating in Times of Change series for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) publication, Spotlight. My curiosity was piqued instantly; today, I hope to do the same for you. Miller and Nobles, both at UNC Chapel Hill, took a close look at the state of innovation among higher education career centers in the U.S. through their 2012 Study on Career Center Innovation. Recently, I sat down with these “investigators of innovation” to learn more, on behalf of Social @ Edu readers. I hope our discussion below inspires you to consider the state of innovation in your own department.
Take me back to the beginning of your research, what was your motivation?

Katherine Nobles (KN): Gary and I started talking this past summer about media trends. There was a lot of attention devoted to the return on investing in a college education by students and their parents, with the rising cost of tuition and questioning the higher education bubble. The pressure on career services was mounting to stay innovative. We wanted to conduct a pulse check to gauge where we, career centers, stood and what we were, and are, doing to stay current.

Why innovation? Why is this concept important to career centers, even the higher education field in general?

Gary Alan Miller (GM): The strength and weakness of higher education, as a field, is that it persists. By this I mean, campuses have been around for hundreds of years.  Institutions and their departments have cycles and rhythms that keep them moving forward.  But, those cycles don’t always result in progression.  Sometimes they reinforce repeition.   The rest of the world was changing faster than our field.

We recognized a need to look at how Career Services, as one department within an institution, was responding to these changes. Career Services used to be THE resource for students when it came to professional development and plans for post-graduation.  This has shifted. There are more competitors today, third parties outside of higher education, that help students and recent graduates today. If we focus on past successes, where we didn’t have competition, we lose sight of our relevancy and ability to serve students and alumni effectively.

How does innovation relate to social media?

KN: We were surprised by several findings. One that caught our attention, in particular, was related to social media.  Social media was one of the least cited influences of innovation.
GM: One of the foundational assumptions of our study was that innovation is the implementation of creative solutions.  It does not have to be related to technology, like social media.

Why do you think innovation does not have to be related to use of technology or social media?

KN:  Innovation has a broad definition. Our research was based on PwC’s three criteria to define the innovation readiness of an organization: process, climate and leadership.  Respondents defined innovation in many ways related to their process, i.e. how to capture ideas and implement innovative programs. These were not all related to technology.
GM:  But, it is an easy trap to fall into.  For example, most schools reported they offered new, innovative programs or services over the past two years, and actually more so than new technologies.  But, when we asked them to name specific innovations, they tended to tell us about technology-based innovations.  So, part of what we want to emphasize with our study is that innovation IS more than just technology.  Much more!

What were other important findings? What else did you not expect?

KN: In all three categories, process, climate and leadership, the highest obstacles to innovation were budget and time.  This was not shocking, of course.  These are obstacles for everyone.  The question becomes, what are centers that self-identified as more innovative doing that others aren’t? That is an important lesson to remember.  We have common obstacles, so what can you do to overcome them?
GM:  The third most prevalent obstacle was boundaries established outside of the office, meaning views of what people think you should and should not be doing.  This was surprising.  Staff and centers as a whole are looking around their schools and think they can’t do something because another department/center is already or it’s not part of their mission.
KN:   The lowest ranked obstacle was fear of failure, which we did not expect.  This ranking made us think that career services practitioners are willing to take risks to become more innovative, but we saw a disconnect here between directors and staff.  Directors believe that people in their offices can take bold action with unclear outcomes more so than actual staff members do.  This presents a great opportunity for directors to clearly communicate their comfort with uncertainty and risk to unleash innovative practices from their staff.

What lesson can be applied to any department in higher education?

GM: The impact we hope to have is to generate a lot of conversations among career services professionals.  To become an innovative department or to foster innovation, you need to raise certain questions and create a space for self-analysis and dialogue.  Do we have a vision? Do we have a strategic plan? What are we doing that could be done better?  What do we simply need to stop doing?
KN:  Exactly, there were a lot of insights that came out of the study. The idea of climate, leadership, and process really applies to any organization and we hope that higher education professionals will use the insights from the study to reflect on their own department.  Keeping in mind that innovation is the implementation of creative solutions, the universal lesson is that an organization can have an innovative climate and leadership, but you’ve got to have process and tools in place to capture and act on ideas.

Creativity and dialogue are at the heart of innovation in career services, higher education, or any industry for that matter.  How do you define innovation? What innovative programs have you, or  your department, implemented?  We would love to hear from you and continue the discussion here at Social @ Edu.

If you’re interested in learning more about Miller and Nobles, visit the Career Center Innovation website. They have an upcoming webinar through NACE on March 14th, 2013, as well as two more installments to their Innovating in Times of Change series.

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