IT Trends | Feature

Crowdsourcing Innovation on Campus

By combining innovation management with crowdsourcing, Davenport University has found a potent formula for achieving continual improvement and encouraging organizational change.

Davenport University Innovation Station
Davenport University's Innovation Station allows ideas to be vetted by the campus community.

Generating a thousand ideas is the best way to eventually find the one that will change an organization, says Gary Hamel, a big idea management consultant who gave an Educause talk a few years ago about innovation in the work environment. The key is to set up a "pipeline of innovation," to allow those ideas to surface.

It's a concept that Davenport University Network Manager Pete Hoffswell and CIO Brian Miller--who attended Hamel's keynote--have taken to heart. For the last decade, Davenport has pursued a "quality journey" to increase its academic standards. Vision 2015, its five-year strategic plan, calls for continuous quality improvement measured by how well students do in the classroom, how timely they are in completing their degrees, and how effective its alumni are in finding jobs in their chosen career paths. And the Grand Rapids, MI-based institution wants to be known as an innovative school.

"We're not there yet," Hoffswell acknowledges. "We need to have an agile organization that allows us to come up with new ways to get to those admittedly lofty goals."

Looking for a way to get innovation into the IT department, Hoffswell and Miller held an all-staff meeting to do some brainstorming. A few of the participants began to put together a scheme to build an online social network that would let people contribute their ideas and allow everyone to discuss and vote on them so that the best ideas would rise to the top.

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Rather than doing the development themselves, however, the group discovered a web-based service from IdeaScale that fit the need. "It matched very closely with what our concept was, so we didn't have to develop it in house," recalls Hoffswell. "We worked with IdeaScale to do some tweaking to their system, like single sign-on."

The IT Services organization ran the application for about a month, when Miller happened to mention it in a meeting with the institution's executive vice president for quality and effectiveness. The VP asked whether it could be "packaged up" to help generate ideas for the whole university. Immediately, ITS put together a project to roll out the service, dubbed "Innovation Station," across the entire school.

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According to Web Developer Elanor Riley, the project was sold to university administrators as "a bucket online where anybody on our staff can submit ideas." What got their attention, though, was the interactive nature of the service. "It's not just a suggestion box. People get to vet the ideas." That includes being able to add commentary, background, and feedback, and to change votes as more information comes in about the idea.

"Our hope was that the system would give people the ability to discuss and figure out challenges, risks, and benefits, so that the whole idea as a possible project could be evaluated," she adds.

Ultimately, Innovation Station is attempting to change Davenport's culture from a traditionally siloed organization to one that's more collaborative across departments and divisions. "If somebody in finance has a great idea on how to do something better using information systems, they may not know if it's possible. What's nice about Innovation Station is that it lays [ideas] out on the table. Then the IT people may be able to join in and say, 'Oh, that is awesome. We could easily do that,' or 'That's impossible,'" says Hoffswell. "Our hope is that with crowdsourcing, we'll be able to cross those operational silos within the organization and open it up."

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Before opening Innovation Station for business, Davenport imposed some restrictions. For example, currently, only staff and faculty are allowed to participate directly in the service, not adjuncts or students.

Also, administrators decided that Innovation Station would only be open for limited periods. Currently, that's about 30 days at a time. The fear was that too many submissions would make the program unmanageable. As Hoffswell explains, "We're trying to match it up with the work environment [in a way that] allows us to get something out of it instead of it becoming this muddy mess."

By putting constraints on program, administrators can also direct participants' attention to specific "campaigns" that solicit ideas in particular areas that need improvement. However, people are allowed to submit ideas on any aspect of the university's operations. "There's a value in both--the little incremental changes and the big innovative ideas," says Hoffswell.

Initially, users balked at the limitations, so those running the program had to do some explaining. "We talk to them and say, 'Hey, if we submitted a ton of things and never acted on any of them, that wouldn't be very exciting. It wouldn't keep people interested in the system," Riley says.

What really sparks participation, she adds, is when the project leaders can point to success and report, "We took five ideas last time. We've got three ideas in process. Here's what has come of those...."

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Once an idea has been submitted to Innovation Station, it goes through four steps. In the first stage, people vote on it and discuss it. When the very first submission and voting round ended earlier this year, administration chose the five ideas that received the most votes. In the latest round, to encourage more participation, they set a threshold: Only those ideas that generated over a hundred votes were specifically promoted to the next level.

The ideas selected go into a research phase, in which a committee works through the pros and cons and sorts out the budget concerns. The person who originally made the submission is part of that group to act as a champion for the idea.

Once an idea passes through the financial gauntlet (not all of them do), the champion puts together a grant application to receive funding from a university innovation fund that has been set aside for this purpose. By going that route, innovations stay "budget neutral" and don't require pilfering from an existing budget.

When the idea is funded, it moves into the project phase for execution, though, as Riley points out, even then it can fail, as projects often do.

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Sometimes, however, ideas are just so appealing to participants that the formal steps are ignored and they just get implemented. That's what happened when the institutional research group submitted an idea requesting that the teacher evaluation process be improved. Students evaluate their teachers on paper, "which involves a lot of cost and time," Riley says. A big problem was that instructors weren't getting timely results. The answer was to take an evaluation program already in use by online students--which never got a very good response from them--and apply it to in-class students too. Along the way, the university also put together a marketing campaign to improve the online response rate. "We figured out a completely budget-neutral solution, using tools we were already using in house and saved the university about $20,000," she reports.

Although work with Innovation Station is still ramping up, Riley and Hoffswell already have enough experience with it to offer advice to other institutions. Says Riley: Err on the side of being too open. "Too many ideas is better than too few, because then you have the ability to choose the ones that are the best fit for your organization."

Hoffswell encourages schools to experiment, even if it leads to failure. "In order for innovation to work, you need to have an environment that lets you try out new things. Innovation Station is a great example of this. Let's put it out there, let's try it, and see what happens."

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