Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Innovation and how to do it

Every now and then (and not very often) I read something and think 'this is really getting to the heart of it'. That is what I thought when I started to read the research from Becta entitled 'Harnessing Technology: business practices which support risk-taking and innovation in schools and colleges'. If I were a wiser man I'd just end this by pointing you at the paper (here).

My advice is best read it for yourself. It's only 27 pages. For those who haven't the time my observations follow.

Firstly I was frustrated by a few things. The authors don't give much away about the sources of their research. Whilst I know they won't list the names of schools and colleges involved it would be useful to know how many they spoke to; how many primaries, secondaries and colleges, who they spoke to; ICT Coordinators, Senior Leaders, Middle Managers, ordinary teachers, where in the country they were, how they were selected and what they asked them. If I knew the answers to these questions I'd have a much better idea about how much faith to put in the findings.

My other gripe is that the paper doesn't seem to have been copy-edited. In the footnotes on page 8, it says 'Harvard ManageMentor: innovation implementation, provided by NCSL (Could we check this title, please?)'. On page 7, 'If there is an cost to being risk-averse, the importance of creating an environment where risk-taking is encouraged is even greater.' It may seem nitpicking, but these little errors do actually make it much harder to read.

(I hope this doesn't lead to someone going back through all my blog entries and listing all the typos)

Having made those criticisms I should make very clear that this is a fascinating piece. For everyone trying to help schools to use technology to enhance learning, the things that help innovation happen are very important to understand. So hats off to Neil McLean (if it was him) for commissioning this work.

It comes in two parts. Firstly the authors, Helena Renfrew Knight (Senior Associate, The Innovation Unit), Dr Scott Bryan and Dr Gilly Filsner, (both Consultants at Kable), describe other research around what makes innovation happen (and what gets in the way). Enablers include a good deal of material around risk management. Apparently the 'right kind of manager can make the difference in fomenting a culture of innovation' (page 9). The report makes clear that previous research into innovation highlights a blame culture, or fear of failure being a big barrier. There's a pleasing little table on page 11 that summarises the barriers and incentives to innovation uncovered by the NAO/PWC.

The second part is the meat. Here are outlined the 'conditions for innovation and risk taking' (page 12). These are categorised into three types; institutional, systemwide and process related.
Institutionally they identify eight 'practices that successful leaders have implemented.. to create a culture of innovation' (page 12). It doesn't say how 'successful' is defined, or more importantly how they decided which institutions exhibited a 'culture of innovation'. The eight 'practices' are; leadership, shared ownership, a no-blame culture (trust), monitoring of risks, motivation (those working in schools suffer from a 'moral purpose' that can 'inspire innovative behaviour' page 16), money, time, promotion of innovation, team work/collaboration, sharing and groovy (not their word) physical spaces. To illustrate here are some quotes.

'“You’ve got to make people feel as though they can make mistakes. Making mistakes is key. For example, we spent £18k on a behaviour monitoring and registration system. We learned the hard way that technology companies will say what they need to in order to make a sale and the system won’t necessarily do what we need. It puts you in a position to know what you need, how to manage these companies and what it is likely to cost.” (Academy)' (page 14) This is from the bit about no-blame. If the only failure is making a mistake and not learning from it then you'll have very few.

In relation to funding the report says 'Obtaining funding to cover a new approach can be key to innovation happening. Our research indicates that recognition of the funding implications for pursuing innovation is essential. It is not surprising that our findings confirm that NAO’s assessment that lack of resources, financial and otherwise, acts as a barrier to innovation.' (Page 16) I hope someone with the key to the public coffers has read that one.

The final section of the research looks at the process of innovating. There was less in this that struck me. But at the end of the paper this and the preceeding ideas about 'practices' are neatly summarised in a diagram. I might just print that one out and pin it to my wall.

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