March 12, 2019 marked my first anniversary of working at a university. Firmly planted in a “grow fast or die slow” commercial world, I had never considered a university as a possible workplace. While pursuing my passion for thinking ahead and putting trend-setting ideas into action, I was dubious about a career path at an academic institution, which is often equated with old-fashioned notions of stability. Obviously, it is a misconception that universities are reluctant to transform, as there are always many innovation options to address the key problems at education institutions. Yet, why is the transformation of education so slow and, sometimes, ambiguous?
As in other organisations, innovation at a university is like sitting in a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but if you do not have a genuine sense of urgency, ownership and authentic passion, nothing much will happen. Since innovation is a complex, institution-wide endeavour, it requires a human-centric approach to formulate the practices that cut across the divisions to encourage innovation. This is called internal collaboration.
The true crux of the problem? Silos. Too often, collaboration is an overused buzzword across an organisation, including universities. One of the biggest obstacles to internal collaboration is that many teams are made up of people who do not communicate with each other. Many strategies
are still being designed with the assumption that humans are talking to each other. But, in reality, we do not. That is, if we do not count social media as real communication. So, here are the three ways to blast through the silo mentality at universities and create a culture of collaboration:
- Building a collaborative workplace. The precursor of innovation, being creative, is simple. One would need some quality time away from one’s desk and to communicate one’s ideas to another person, who may or may not have a similar background or experience. On one hand, universities may encourage creative time off among staff members and, on another hand, they may look at establishing an open collaborative platform that allows the flow of ideas and information exchange. These may help staff identify where the synergies lie, what are the strengths that can be leveraged on and what are the weaknesses that need to be compensated for. Therefore, co-creation must be a core mission of a university.
- Beginning with an end in mind drives collaboration. Universities have multiple platforms that encourage interaction and information exchange. However, these formal initiatives provide no guarantee of successful collaboration. Attendance of these platforms is made compulsory for staff members, but there are no clear and measurable goals. Therefore, to begin these sessions with an end in mind — preparing mindsets that envision outcomes before any action is taken — would help drive innovation and collaboration through these platforms.
- Success is about hard work; failure is about bad luck. As a university, we toast and cheer loudly for the success stories. However, just like businesses, we choose to talk less about failures. Secondly, when making hiring and promotion decisions, leaders and human resources departments often emphasise past achievements but not the competency to grow. This explains why people with impressive CVs are not necessarily the high flyers and go-getters. This also leads to more staff members having fixed mindsets instead of growth mindsets. Therefore, in order to promote internal collaboration, universities could consider making clear to staff members that they will be evaluated not only on their ability to meet the deliverables, but also on how they achieve them. Universities could reward staff members who exemplify the characteristics of a strong collaborator, and consider additional bonuses for cross-disciplinary teams that excel in solving problems rather than rewarding only the exceptional individual.
Collaborating to learn or learning to collaborate? Which comes first? There is no right or wrong answer. Today, we face an entirely new environment for innovation, with ever-increasing demands on universities to do more with less — all we need to do is to be a collaboration rock star. After all, Charles Darwin once said, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
At Sunway University, we believe in building a synergistic ecosystem that brings together mutual support and captures values that cannot be attained alone. Sunway iLabs at Sunway University serves as a platform to bridge institutional and disciplinary boundaries in order to better embrace societal and technological innovation. In addition, through Sunway iLabs, staff members and students have access to Sunway Group’s 12 business divisions for potential test beds to validate their ideas, as well as to co-develop innovative solutions that address tomorrow’s market needs, which will hopefully become a case study for educational transformation.
Senior Manager, Technology Transfer
Sunway Innovation Labs (iLabs)
Originally published in The Edge, April 2019