The demand for innovation (the myriads of definitions thereof) is certainly out there more so than ever before, judging by the magazines and media. I am talking about business innovation here – that is new ways to design, run and “be” a business.

I predict that increasingly many colleges and universities will start offering degree programmes and qualifications in "Innovation". It will be interesting to see the different approaches.

Notable is the collaboration between the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business Management and Design Continuum on the designworks™ programme.

Can innovation be taught?

Or more specifically can it be taught in the traditional narrow focus and immediate bottom-line applicability environment that is much of our training institutions?



The big challenge is that innovation doesn’t work in a "narrow specialisation focus" and "immediate bottom-line applicability" way – the exact way that conventional recruitment and training is carried out!


Innovation requires curiosity, thinking, observation, synthesis, questioning… across as wide a set of industries/fields/cultures/subcultures/trends/memes etc. as you can possibly get a sniff at. People who actively do this - the "deliberate non-specialists" or "deep generalists" don’t typically sit well with recruiters (I know!)

A real innovation degree programme will expose students to different ways of thinking and looking at the world. It is less about rote learning a pile of facts.

Departments and specialisations = Siloed Thinking

Most educational institutions however are divided clearly into Schools and Departments of study. It is incredibly hard to attempt to blur these long established boundaries, to get people to think and collaborate across Schools (I know, I have tried!). The ongoing funding issue, compartmentalised into departmental budgets does not help matters.

Inter-Departmental = Innovative Thinking

A real innovation degree programme will expose students to working across many different Schools of studies. In doing so, such a programme will probably indirectly foster a more innovative culture within the very educational institutions! Now this will scare the powers that be.

Innovation comes from the humanisation of business. Conventional business practice does not have a history of valuing people.

Innovation requires working with our very humanity and with people. Ideas can only flourish in an environment/culture of trust, acceptance, respect, togetherness and transparency. Unsurprisingly, many will immediately classify these words as namby-pamby, idealistic, and useless "soft stuff".

Many businesses are riddled with fiefdoms, secrecy, and fear. Strict hierarchy and the fact that some job positions somehow demand more respect than others, create barriers in collaboration and cross pollination. The different perspective women (or other minority groups) can bring is still undervalued. Changing these established frameworks will take time and hard work.

A real innovation degree programme will have a strong focus on the soft skills. It will produce not only great thinkers but also well-integrated "good" whole people.

In this BusinessWeek article Design Visionary, Patrick Whitney, director of the "largest graduate school of design in the U.S.", talks about marrying "the [soft] tools of empathy to understand what consumers" with the hard technologies of manufacturing.

Fear is still enemy number one.

The blurring of long-established and fiercely-protected boundaries is terrifying to those in power. Boundaries between departments in universities, between universities and other teaching institutions, between departments of corporations, and between the little empires within teams and groups.

There is also the fear of not having a specialisation and not knowing a bunch of facts; the fear of teaching thinking and not fact (teaching facts is easier to "measure"); the fear of greater self-awareness (ignorance is bliss); the fear of transparency and truth-telling (the denial of pretending all is well all the time).

The challenge is at once fascinating, full of potential, and hopelessly idealistic.

Let's see what happens.