In a few of my posts on innovation, I’ve talked about the role that teaching and learning centres have in supporting an institutional innovation agenda, and where they can run into trouble. In my last post, I argued that without proper prioritization, innovation can become an add-on watered down initiative that the centre is tasked with.
I also wrote in one of my earlier posts about finding the innovators in the institution, who are likely scattered across programs and the importance of recognizing and building on what they are doing. I’m essentially advocating for a bottom up and top down approach to innovation with a goal of healthy and meaningful convergence.
What if you don’t have a centre and function more as a decentralized structure? Can’t you just collect all the innovators and connect them with a community of practice and provide some funding? Yes and no. In my opinion, it depends on the level of institutional ambition for innovation. Decentralized structures can work when projects are small in scale, don’t required specialized expertise, and economies of scale aren’t important to the institution. They may provide Deans with more flexible resourcing and prioritization. But they also introduce a certain amount of risk to the institution, and if innovation goals are ambitious, or if e-learning is being scaled up, there is a inevitable chain of events that follow.
First, as things scale up, Deans are tasked with finding more resources for people to bring on to support the activity. This almost always introduces a new silo structure within the institution and there is a limit to the roles and expertise you can bring on with the resources within a project, school or faculty. The positions usually end up being the jack of all trades type, which can be quite efficient if your e-learning is of the bread and butter vanilla variety. If the innovation agenda is looking for a significant shift beyond status quo, this type of structure becomes unrealistic to maintain since it is limited by the amount of resources and skills that can be obtained with those resources to meet the objectives. Sometimes this gap is met with short term contractors (where collective agreements permit). This can work if you have a long term relationship with the contractors, but again it introduces some risk and disadvantages. First, contractors aren’t always available when you need them. Secondly, reliance on contractors means you may be paying more and aren’t developing and retaining any long term, skilled capacity.
Eventually you may end up with 3 or 4 different mini and silo-ed centres scattered across the institution. So what’s the problem? First, you end up with a have and have not situation that begins to feel competitive over time. Faculty or School A has more resources than Faculty or School B, so Faculty A can do more and scale up. Importantly, the silo centres, due to the minimal resourcing, are usually heads down in the day to day activities they support for the School or Faculty. The innovation agenda of the institution (provided it’s been clearly defined) is no longer a priority.
It comes down to whose innovation agenda is it? If it’s institutional, then you need a horizontal structure that works with Schools/Faculties towards that agenda. If it’s a School or Faculty agenda, then the ambition will likely be smaller in scale unless it has the resources to scale it up. And if it’s a small institution with limited resources, it is very difficult to achieve economies of scale in a decentralized structure.