UMUC’s Blueprint for Designing a Culture of Constant Innovation

UMUC’s Blueprint for Designing a Culture of Constant Innovation


Change may be hard, but at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) we're embracing it. By embedding project management practices—traditionally geared toward handling temporary change—permanently into our culture, we intend to foster an environment that encourages continuous innovation.

Specifically, UMUC is about to embark on a 36-month transformation that will see its core learning model shift from memorizing knowledge to one that is experiential and competency-based. At the same time, it is re-imagining the digital experience of its 85,000 online students. Our academic and administrative teams already use project management practices to guide academic institutional development, and we believe applying this approach to a significant organizational transformation will lead to short- and long-term successes. It is our goal to embed project management into our culture, training stakeholders in an integrated model that becomes “who” we are.

Major organizational change—pivoting an institution and its policies and practices—is difficult. When you add major innovation to the pivot, it becomes even more so. There are common errors that administrators and faculty driving such organizational change are prone to make, and I want to discuss some of those errors and then describe how having the right kind of “looped evaluation process” can keep people focused on progress toward the desired “end state” as well as on the daily roll out of innovations that need real-time evaluation and testing. Doing these things seamlessly, as part of the daily routine, will provide a focused, ongoing learning experience about what is working, what is not, and how to continuously improve services and outcomes.

Making Room for Interpretation and Problem-Solving

There is a Scylla and Charybdis element here, two opposite dangers that threaten projects designed to usher in major change. On the one hand, the days when such projects were initiated on a “free form” basis are long past. Project managers need to have sufficient control over the activities, and sufficient data on a daily streaming basis, to know what is working and what needs rethinking and tweaking. On the other hand, they need to avoid the tendency to measure everything to death, seeking definitive truth in the data detail and bogging the project and the team down with mind-numbing analysis. There is a significant need for professional and human judgement in this process; it takes experienced people to interpret the data, monitor team dynamics, assess learners' reactions, support students and manage IT issues.

Another critical aspect is to keep initial projects small enough in scope that significant problems, whether revealed by data or professional observation, can be “swarmed” and solved by real people. Especially in the early stages, being able to solve problems with human effort is essential. Why? Because the process of pivoting and innovation is difficult to map out beforehand. Having the end state clearly in focus is important because, when adaptations are made due to experience and data, when project managers and team members learn from “mistakes,” they will be able to understand the impact of the adaptations on the project’s ultimate objectives and adjust as necessary. This is a delicate but important balance to maintain, especially in the early days of organizational change projects when the cultural influence of the “old” ways of doing business continue to exert a very strong influence in the larger organization.

Meeting the Challenges of Real-Time Change

Within this kind of a real-time context for practice, there are several critical elements. You need to have a map, a grand vision that describes what the desired “end state” looks like, and it’s vital to be flexible and adaptable as budgetary and political issues coincide with operational realities when piloting and evaluating new technologies and tools. Why?

First, each organization is different. So, each institution has to decide what learning model will lie at its heart, and what pedagogical and andragogical values it will promote. In our case, the new version of our learning model is based on the principles that lie behind experiential learning and evidence-based competency assessments.

The adaptation of a piloting life-cycle and process has to “fit” the on-the-ground reality of the organizational culture of the college as well as the demands of its learning model. Furthermore, there has to be a practical element to pilots and assessments. Some academic research is done in lab settings where the results need scientific reliability to the nth degree. Institutional innovation at UMUC is more dynamic than that; it’s like riding a bicycle while you are re-designing and testing it. And, while we strive for reliable results, we also incorporate the human dynamic of professional and personal experience into the process, as well as the organization’s culture. It is not a “pure” research environment and we should be aware of that fact and work with it.

Second, the “end-state” for the institution, in this case UMUC, is more than just a new academic model or digital user experience (DUX). The end-state is a dynamic.

Yes, we want to develop a competency-referenced, experiential learning-based program structure that encourages learners to bring in all appropriate learning and have it assessed against certificate, degree, and job requirements. This will reduce time and costs while increasing student persistence. And yes, we want far clearer pathways with great advising to our degrees, saving learners the confusion and pain of determining their own way in a lonely and remote online world. And yes, we want direct relationships between our competencies and the real-time competencies required by professions and employers so that learners and employers are assured of the value of what students are learning. And we want this all to result in a life-long relationship with our learners.

We are also serious about having a world-class, digital user experience that will provide a smooth, user-friendly interface enabling all learners to access the services that they need with minimum friction and drag. Selecting courses, reaching their academic advocate 24/7, using free online learning resources, getting IT and other problems solved quickly and effectively, and countless other services will be the norm in the cloud-based, mobile world.

The key to success in both of these initiatives—revising our program structure and improving online experience—is that they tie neatly together, with the learning model being an integral part of the digital university. And, powered by new technologies and fueled by learning analytics, the digital university will be run on the analytics, able to make adjustments in real-time to improve student persistence and success.

When Change Is the New Normal

The new learning model and the re-designed digital university are the first stage results that we will achieve. But the longer term objective is not a stage, it is a system characterized by change. The longer term objective is an organizational and professional culture which drives continuing innovation and development as a core, ongoing objective for the institution.

UMUC understands that the days of static organizational stances and operational plateaus are over. We have learned how to increasingly use data efficiently to understand how well our learners are doing. And we will learn how to use data and analysis ever more effectively to evaluate our operating and learning processes. But the third component will be our using these first two types of analyses to continually drive innovative thinking and development.

Peter Smith is the Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

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