Education for Innovation


Are we creating the type of innovators that suit the digital economy? That respond to any opportunity, not just the ones that we plan for? There’s a lot of thinking out there that suggests we’re not.

I recently read an article on considerations around how to train for innovation in the December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review. When most people speak of innovation, it seems as if they do with an idea that there are some key steps or tricks to being an innovator and that is about it. But what Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Andrew Corbett, and Ron Pierantozzi argue is that there are three types of innovators that all have three stages that build on each other depending on where they are in their career. This is an important and interesting idea and a shift from the traditional mindset.

The authors state:

Companies must first understand that breakthrough innovation consists of three phases:

Discovery: Creating or identifying high-impact market opportunities.

Incubation: Experimenting with technology and business concepts to design a viable model for a new business.

Acceleration: Developing a business until it can stand on its own.

To address this, they suggest training people to match these distinct stages and phases:

Each phase lends itself to distinct career paths, as well. The bench scientist, for instance, may eventually want to be involved in policy discussions about emerging technologies and how they may influence the company’s future. The incubator may want to pursue a technical path – managing larger, longer-term projects – or to manage a portfolio of emerging businesses. And the accelerating manager may want to stay with the business as it grows, take on a leadership role.
They go on to add:
Rather than develop those paths, however, many firms assume that an individual will be promoted along with a project as it grows from discovery through to acceleration. In reality, individuals with that breadth of skill sets are extremely rare. In other words, companies have essentially been setting their innovators up to fail.
And fail is what we seem to be doing. It’s an intriguing idea and one that begs the question of whether our schools and training programs are doing the right thing by training people to be just “innovators”.
Certainly in the realm of digital technology and using it to adapt to the changing climate and accelerating innovation the view is pessimistic. Some, such as David Johnson, President of the University of Waterloo, believe that we don’t train people in a mindset that allows them innovate. Johnson, told the CBC:

Johnston said the country’s university system must shoulder part of the blame for the lag in Canada’s technological mindset. The schools haven’t done enough to train students to work smarter, he said, which means that few Canadian companies succeed based on innovation. Of Canada’s biggest companies, most are banks, while only BlackBerry maker Research In Motion — also based in Waterloo — has succeeded internationally, mainly because it has focused on innovation.

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Perhaps the problem is that we use the term innovation so loosely that graduates fail to recognize where innovations are or how to move them along. Or, as Colarelli O’Connor and colleagues point out, they are trained for the wrong set of skills for the right kind of innovation stage.

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