Insights Blog

Look, Listen, Analyse and Think

Look, Listen, Analyse and Think

8 June 2017, by Suzanne Crew

Using innovation business models as part the quality cycle to identify opportunities for change

I drew the short straw at my university in 2013 and was responsible for coordinating the 2014-16 Mission-based Compact. Whilst I was grumbling internally wondering what past sins I had committed for which I was now paying, one section of the policy setting section of the Compact started me on a thought path that I am still pursuing professionally and which motivated me to work with LHMI on organising the Service Improvement and Innovation In Universities Conference. The Compact noted that the Government recognised that universities are autonomous institutions with a ‘distinctive mission’ and that the Compact would recognise differentiation between universities. While there are some differences in mission between universities, I knew from a review of university strategic plans I’d undertaken earlier in that year that we all had more in common in terms of mission and strategy than we had differences.

This set me thinking about how universities can foster real innovation and difference. Could we better use the output of the quality cycle to encourage business model innovation within our universities, with a focus on quality improvement rather than the realisation of new revenue which is the primary purpose of business model innovation? What might a potential union between quality and innovation provide to universities in term of resilience, growth, rankings, productivity and research performance? How might it result in competitive advantage or market differentiation – both of which are of growing importance as domestic and international competition for the student and research dollar is increasing? How might it help us navigate uncertainty? Ultimately, could it provide an opportunity to transform University planning on one hand and provide a catalyst for truly embedding a quality culture of continuous improvement on the other?

Quality assurance and improvement is a core focus of the Higher Education Standards 2015 and is largely a mature practice within tertiary education, with the application of a formal quality cycle, benchmarking, and external review wide-spread in the sector. On the other hand, innovation as a management concept is in its infancy in tertiary education. It’s the new catch-phrase for the sector as a panacea for survival and prosperity in a time of turbulent change, a sentiment shared across industries, with a study from Accenture conducted in 2015 noting that 96% of senior executives surveyed stated that innovation was critical to their organisation’s long term success. However, in my experience the two are rarely considered as compatible functions, much to the detriment of the sector, for quality and innovation should be a match made in heaven as they can both lead to positive change.

Quality processes aim for improvement to the status quo while innovation seeks to use new knowledge and understanding to experiment with different approaches to product, service and delivery. Both should force us to ask questions about how we can rejuvenate, recombine or reengineer existing approaches to tertiary education and encourage novel thinking on old problems to provide improved outcomes and value for our students. Also, as with quality, innovation is a discipline or process with which we can all become acquainted. Seventy nine percent of the most innovative companies in a PWC Global Innovation Survey had a well-defined innovation strategy, compared with only 47% of the least innovative companies, with the most successful organisations treating innovation as a management process that can be taught.
Thus, one of my professional goals became to investigate how I could start to embed the discipline of innovation within my own work in quality assurance. While I’m not in a position to make decisions in relation to investment and implementation, I could, I thought, use the principles to inform how I structured quality review and improvement reports and the resultant recommendations (or in innovation-ese inform the ideation or insight-seeing opportunity phase of innovation).

Armed with the knowledge from Drucker’s well-known 1985 paper, The Discipline of Innovation, that ‘purposeful, systematic innovation begins with the analysis of the sources of new opportunities’, I tentatively attempted to use business innovation models to frame my quality reporting. To this end I developed a personal mantra to apply across reporting cycles - to identify opportunities: Look, Listen, Analyse and Think! In terms of academic quality improvement, it is really about asking a series of questions which may help to identify not only an improvement strategy but in the longer term create a point of organisational differentiation and contribute to positive brand equity.

1. What is the quantitative data telling us?
2. What specific themes are emerging from student feedback that may inform the quantitative outcomes and identify barriers to improvement?
3. Are these themes different for diverse demographics, for different study modes and study load or for different Schools, disciplines or courses?
4. Can these themes be triangulated through internal sources or from external research (i.e. are there similar issues emerging across the sector and/or outside tertiary education?)
5. Is the issue likely to be driven by internal policy, procedures, practice or systems or is it being driven by changes in student expectations and perceptions or demographic changes?

The answers from these five questions inform the sixth.

6. In what aspects of our organisation do we need to innovate to engender change (value model, structure, process, product, service, engagement, channel of delivery etc.) and what strategies are available to us in the short and long-term to maximise opportunities for business improvement and to add value for the student?

This method has resulted in a more nuanced and all-of-institution approach to identifying and articulating improvement strategies, and where applied consistently across quality reporting, is beginning to build not only a bank of strategies that may be deployed, but is beginning to identify which aspects of our business model may require the most investment.

While my small attempt to marry innovation and quality within my own sphere is unable to provide answers to some of the big questions posed at the beginning of this article, it has spurred me to explore further how business model innovation in particular can be further embedded with university quality frameworks and how we can learn from each other in this regard – something I hope to be able to pursue at the forthcoming conference.

Suzanne Crew is Head, Academic Quality and Analytics at University of New England (AU) and a member of the steering Committee of the 2017 Service Improvement and Innovation in Universities Conference.

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