Most of the matter in the known universe is stuff that we have no way of seeing. Dark matter–the incredibly dense, invisible material that exists between stars, planets, and all the other objects that we can see–accounts for over 80 percent of the total matter in the cosmos. What can astrophysics teach us about innovation? In an organization, spaces that exist in the gaps between bureaucratic processes, spaces that all too often go undetected, much like dark matter, are the richest areas of growth. Think of the places that straddle more than one department, that live outside of the normally rigid distinctions we follow, or that combine two or more areas of expertise. We call these spots in a business the whitespaces. Working in whitespaces is about making dark matter visible, lighting up the promise that hides in the shadows. (more…)

How do you teach creativity? I’ve had to work through this issue for over 25 years. In 1990, I returned to being a professor after taking five years off to be a senior executive in what was an entrepreneurial company when I started and multibillion dollar multinational corporation when I left a short time later.

Though I never attended business school, I quickly learned to develop my creative abilities under the tutelage of that most enlightened taskmaster: experience. My education continues to this very day thanks to the companies and organizations around the world that provide me with unique challenges and opportunities to create innovation solutions with their best and brightest leaders. The secret to teaching creativity is that you really can’t teach it. Rather it is something integral to our experiences that is either assimilated or accommodated. You never master creativity. Instead, you have to let creativity master you. (more…)

o-SCHOOL-facebookAccording the Chronicle of Higher Education and National Public Radio, competency based education is the new thing. Actually, it’s the old thing. Vocational education, once the main road to middle class prosperity in America, has returned with a new name and an updated version of the same approach: see one, do one, teach one. Electricians, plumbers and even physicians are all still apprenticed and routinely evaluated to gauge their level of skill and expertise.

John Dewey, the great American philosopher and leading prognosticator of a school of thought we now call pragmatism built schools and universities at the turn the Nineteenth Century that influenced the entire American educational system to become more practical, applicable and measurable. This functional approach to education worked so well that the United States innovated its way past more established nations in less than a century.

So if competency based education is such a great idea, why did we return to the more general and rarified curriculum and pedagogy of a liberal arts approach? Because higher education is not just about the acquisition of skills. It has become the central socializing system in a post-industrial economy and the dynamic exchange where new ideas are created and shared, or bought and sold, depending on your point of view.

The campus has become the breeding grounds for innovators and the cradle for their progeny. Pick any major research university in the western world and observe the prosperous amalgamation of businesses and institutions nicely situated across the street. They vigilantly stand watch for the next new thing. It turns out that knowledge isn’t just power: it’s money as well.

A recent cover story of the Economist, America’s New Aristocracy, points out that our most prestigious universities are getting ever more selective. Anyone who was lucky enough to go to a top tier institution quietly wonders if they would in fact be admitted to their alma mater today. A liberal arts degree from an elite school has come to mean so much more than the development of any number of competencies. It has become a premium brand: something valuable and rare. It suggests status and gives entre to those talented few who can speak the arcane languages of medicine, law, physics and finance. It’s little wonder that studies on social immobilitynicely correlate to the astonishing rise in the cost of a quality college education. It’s among the best of all possible investments if you can afford it. There’s the real rub and reason behind the push for new approach to higher education.

Thomas Edison, arguably the greatest inventor this nation has produced, famously espoused a hands-on experiential approach to education: on the job training. While Edison was the prototype for the journeyman inventor and entrepreneur, the complexity of emerging scientific discoveries quickly outpaced his practical understanding of electromagnetism and the mathematics required to calculate its transmission over distances. His competency based education became his limitations. It left him insolvent for years.

Over a decade ago I created a leading innovation institute and certification program to develop highly practiced innovators. I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of the top companies and organizations celebrated for their innovation prowess. What I have learned firsthand is that contemporary innovators need to understand both theory and practice to be successful. While certifications are a viable means of demonstrating the acquisition of relevant competencies, much in the same way that Girl Scouts earn badges, they do not replace the requirement for deep domain expertise which is developed over time through an integrated curriculum and commensurate pedagogy. Furthermore, competency is merely the price of admission for anyone wishing to truly create anything better or new. That also requires an ongoing understanding of the complex fundamental principles and forces that move our world.

As an outspoken proponent of competency based education for over three decades, what I’ve learned from trial and error on the front lines is that the reason things fail is usually because we confuse why they work with how they work. While new technology and an alternative accreditation system will make higher education better, cheaper and faster, it won’t make it any more valuable. To do that would require changing our perspective on who we value and why we value them. Now that’s a competency worth developing.