University professional and continuing education units often innovate faster and better than other campus divisions. What can they teach us about how to innovate?

When large corporations need an especially innovative solution to a particular challenge, they often task that work to small, rogue units that work off to the side, outside normal bureaucratic constraints. These “skunkworks,” as they are sometimes known, often produce breakthrough innovations in record time.

In some respects, professional and continuing education (PCE) units sometimes act like the skunkworks of higher education. More than other units on campus, PCE units have the capacity to move quickly and creatively in response to changing market opportunities. Innovations by PCE units include scaling online education, partnering with the private sector to meet workforce needs, developing new forms of academic credentials, and, especially, designing programs to serve adult learners.

Innovation in PCE units doesn’t happen of its own accord. The units that are most successful at orchestrating creative change are driven by leaders who have the vision and the skills to nurture a culture that has a predisposition to innovate—even in the context of a university that might be change-averse. We asked several experts to share insights in this regard. What factors, qualities, and strategies help PCE units to innovate? What specific steps do leaders of PCE units take to, in essence, operationalize a culture of innovation?

Inside the Skunkworks

During World War II, when Lockheed Martin needed to fast-track development of a new fighter plane, it tasked that responsibility to a small, separate unit that worked in a tent outside a company building. Dubbed the “skunk works” because it was near a stinky manufacturing plant, the unit worked outside normal bureaucratic rules and norms. It designed and prototyped the XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter in record time.

The Lockheed Martin group pioneered a model for streamlining and speeding the pace of innovation in a large organization. Other companies would follow suit. IBM used a skunkworks model to develop the personal computer. Skunkworks-equivalents jump-started countless businesses in the Silicon Valley. Today, companies like Oracle, Facebook, and Google all have skunkworks-style units. Countless other companies—from DuPont to Nordstrom to Walmart—also have skunkworks.

Given all the talk today about disruption in the higher education industry—and the concomitant need for innovation in colleges and universities to meet emerging challenges—we might expect to see a plethora of skunkworks across academe. But in practice only relatively few such entities exist. One example is the Sandbox ColLABorative, an arm of Southern New Hampshire University that is devoted to innovation in higher education. Another is the EdPlus unit at Arizona State University, which works toward “reimagining the higher education landscape.” The Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan is charged with “creating a culture of innovation in learning.” Georgetown University’s Red House, a building near campus once described as “part design lab, part conference room, and part coffee house,” houses the university’s Designing the Future(s) initiative, an incubator for curricular reform.

A recent report on the rise of the chief innovation officer in higher education from the consultancy Entangled Solutions named the skunkworks approach as one of three pathways by which universities are pursuing innovation today. The other two were using a consultant to drive change, and pursuit of an integrated strategy for innovation across units or even entire institutions, typically led by a provost’s office. For the purposes of this article, one could argue that a fourth channel also needs to be recognized:  innovation being undertaken in divisions of continuing and professional education.

Writing recently in EdSurge, consultant Michael B. Horn argued that PCE units “are an ideal place to not only test new ideas, but also launch new programs.” Summarizing the mechanics of how PCE units innovate, Horn noted that PCE units “are less regulated, more responsive to industry and consumer needs, have less restrictive budget policies and procurement systems, operate under lower political pressure, and are often infused with the “startup mentality” that is critical for responding to and pioneering disruptive innovations.” Working in this environment, PCE units are able to invent and execute innovations in ways that other campus units cannot. As such, they both introduce new ideas to the university and model strategies for how other campus divisions might foment change.

The PCE units that distinguish themselves by regularly developing and executing creative solutions to challenges at the edge of higher education are innovative not by happenstance but by intent and design. That is to say that someone is leading that innovation. PCE units that are purposeful and successful in being innovative typically have leaders who make innovation a priority and who have the skills needed to lead meaningful reform.

Before discussing some of the tools that leaders of PCE units to accomplish innovation, it behooves us to talk briefly about what innovation is. One way to think about innovation in higher education is in the sense of effecting broad, significant change. But innovation as a term may not fully define the scope or type of change that a PCE unit undertakes. Noting that his unit is involved in changing the way it operates as well as in seeking to expand its impact globally, Wayne Smutz, dean of continuing education and UCLA Extension at the University of California Los Angeles, says “I’m not sure we use the word innovation per se a lot.” Smutz prefers to think in terms of continuous change. “That’s the mode, the environment, that we’re in now, that we have to constantly change,” he says.

Another perspective comes from Dennis Di Lorenzo, dean of the New York University School of Professional Studies. “I like to talk about adaptability, which is change in real time,” he says. “Innovation is all about a culture of change. It’s about thinking about something new, putting it out there, and then adapting quickly to market response, and student response, and changing the culture.”

To intentionally state the obvious, changing a culture is no small feat. “The leader or the institution can’t just wave a magic wand and say, “Oh, we want to be innovative now,” whatever that means,” says Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. Leaders need first to define what they mean by innovation or change, he says. Beyond that, though, Gallagher says leaders need to take active steps to infuse their vision for how their unit should execute change “throughout your mission and your vision and your goals, people’s own individual goals, and what kinds of behaviors you reward.” In other words, there are specific steps leaders should and do take to operationalize innovation.

Operationalizing Innovation

Huntington D. Lambert, dean of the Division of Continuing Education and University Extension at Harvard University, says that driving innovation in PCE units takes a strategic combination of vision along with the right people, policies, organizational structures and systems, financing, and metrics. To create a culture of innovation in a given university, Lambert suggests that it’s imperative to first understand the culture of that institution. How a PCE unit undertakes innovation “is highly dependent on the [university] environment you’re actually in,” he says.

Budgeting is another tool that can help drive innovation. To help grow a culture of innovation in the PCE unit at Harvard, Lambert says he “made the finance organization accountable each year to report back to me and demonstrate that we spent five percent of the prior year’s net revenue on innovation activities.” That was an investment of $5 million at the time, a not insubstantial portion of Lambert’s overall budget. “I told my line managers that they had access to that $5 million to go try to do things,” Lambert says. “That was me encouraging people to take risks. We were trying to do something we hadn’t done before, trying to do something in a different way.” Lambert also set a benchmark metric that measures total revenue from new products and entrees to new markets, which he says has to add up to between 20 and 30 percent of total revenues. One measure of overall success is that in his first four years at the helm, Lambert’s unit booked nearly $50 million of new revenue.

In some cases, advice from experts can spark innovative ideas. Insights from consultants can help an organization that does not have the budget or temperament for innovation. Innovation theorists might also play a role. When Gallagher headed strategy and R&D for a unit at Northeastern that was developing new markets and programs, he and colleagues read The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Among other insights, Gallagher says, the book helped bridge the group’s thinking between innovation in the abstract and ways to execute change in ways that can affect not just the unit but its parent organization as well.

Lambert says another imperative is to have the right staffing. After separating administrative responsibilities for course delivery technology from his unit’s internal management information systems, for example, he named a popular dean who had been instrumental in scaling online education to be chief innovation officer, and gave him both the budget and authority to continue to innovate course delivery. “I would argue that it is almost impossible to create a continuously innovating organization unless you have people who innovate,” he observes.

Lambert believes that leaders of PCE units who wish to be innovative “have to take stock of whether you have the right people to have an innovative environment.” With that assessment in hand, leaders can determine what steps they need to take to attract and retain staff with the right skills for innovation. Recruiting and retaining staff has its own challenges, of course. Apart from the reality that not everyone is hardwired to be innovative, Lambert notes that “many people who reside in higher ed are not innovators.” Moreover, he says, “there are very few places in a university where it hires people expressly to innovate.” That means that leaders of PCE units may have to dig a little deeper to find people who are adept at innovation.

Acknowledging another challenge in creating a culture of innovation, Di Lorenzo says “my greatest challenge wasn’t restructuring. It was sunsetting old talent” and bringing in new staff who were more disposed to work in a culture of innovation. “That was a hard transition for us,” he recalls. Noting that “a lot of people talk about innovation and being entrepreneurial,” Di Lorenzo notes that “it’s one thing to have an idea, but you have to [be able to] take that idea and actually implement it into something new and good.”

One possible roadblock in staffing, Gallagher says, “is if you just take your people who have day jobs and you’re not able to free them up to have space to innovate or to work on the new projects.” He says it’s important to create a dedicated team that offers some balance between managing ongoing operations and executing innovation. “Innovation is really a partnership, versus just the idea that there’s an innovation team and that the innovation team gets the sexy, exciting work. If you set it up in a way that’s too separate, it can potentially upset the culture of the operating organization,” Gallagher says.

Peter Smith, the Orkand Chair and professor of innovative practices in higher education at the University of Maryland University College goes a step further, suggesting that innovative staff need a future-oriented mindset. “Where the marketplace is going in terms of innovation and change is an entirely new business model,” Smith says. “The customer’s user experience is very different. The use of technology is very different. The role of faculty is very different.” Accordingly, he says, “the first thing to be very wary of is that you can’t get where you want to go simply as an extension of what you’re already doing. I’ve never seen a successful innovation inside an existing institution where you just design something wholesale and implement it. People are busy doing the job they were hired to do. When you come in with something else, it’s so disruptive to them that they don’t know what to do.” Suggesting that education in the future will look more like Amazon than Big State U—with a focus on “outcomes‑based assessment, technologically‑enhanced user experiences, things that link the curriculum to career in outcomes and data‑driven ways using artificial intelligence”—Smith says “you have to hire people that respect the fact that you’re involved in a very, very different kind of operation.” (Smith is one of a growing number of academics who have “innovation” in their title. The Entangled Solutions report found that more than 200 institutions now have senior roles define by words like “innovation” or “digital.”)

Lambert makes a point of giving staff plenty of positive feedback, celebrating incremental victories, and rewarding risk takers on staff “when they failed and we learned something,” At a recent employee appreciation party, for example, leaves on a symbolic tree represented the unit’s successes over the past year. At the same time, brown leaves set intentionally under the tree listed projects that didn’t fare well. “Visibly, in front of everybody, we celebrated what we tried, failed, and learned from, as opposed to sweeping it into the closet and denying it,” Lambert says.

Embracing Risk

Those fallen leaves at Harvard represent risk, another critical element in innovation. Risk is top of mind for Di Lorenzo, who says that creating a culture of change raises important questions: “How do we promote a culture that does not fear failure?” he asks. “How do you get your team comfortable with taking risks and understanding that failure is a part of innovation?”

As an example of the challenges inherent in trying to innovate, Di Lorenzo describes how NYU has been shifting the focus of a long-standing certificate program. “The school had been entrenched in [offering] broad‑based, enrollment-driven certificates that met a 20th-century need,” he says. Over the last three years, the dean and his staff have been reinventing the program to link it more closely with employer needs for workforce skills. “We got a very positive response from our external partners, our industry partners,” Di Lorenzo reports, “but the organization itself struggled, because they did not know how to adapt, and they were so afraid of failure they almost paralyzed themselves.”

Experiences like those underscore an ongoing question that Di Lorenzo wrestles with: “Because innovation requires change and adaptability, how do you build an organization with tolerance for change?” A related concern, he says, is building a culture that can sustain change as rapidly as it needs to be introduced without creating too much distracting “noise” from those who might find the change disrupting. Di Lorenzo engages regularly with students, faculty, staff, and administrators in freeform conversations that focus on the changing landscape in higher education. Through such discussions, he says, “people start to see why change is necessary” rather than viewing the need for change as merely a mandate from their supervisors.

Di Lorenzo says he has to keep reminding staff that “yes, of course we’re accountable as a whole to the bottom line, but there is room for investment for failure.” Di Lorenzo believes that for every idea that does work, there’s another idea behind it that didn’t work. “The question is, what is failure? This is something that I work on with my team,” he says. “When we say failure, it doesn’t necessarily mean something is not necessarily working. It just means how are we going to adapt?” When NYU first transitioned in its approach to workforce certificates, for example, enrollment initially went down. “Some people saw that as failure,” Di Lorenzo says. “I said, ‘yes, we may have failed our old model but now we’re doing something new.’ How do we now adapt and change to meet where we failed?”

Support from the Top

Yet another key element that is critical for successful innovation in PCE units is support from supervisors. Peter Smith says that for a given initiative in innovation in higher education to be successful, “You have to find a champion at the top. You have to have the president of the institution and at least one other major academic administrator, if that’s not who you are, be committed” to the effort. Further, he says, supervisors have to be committed to the effort for a long term—“at least to the point of saying, ‘I’ll give you three years to be successful.”

Lambert acknowledges both the “visible, active support” he has had from Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, and “solid, quiet support” from Harvard President Drew Faust. Last year, when Faust wrote in Harvard magazine about the importance of “learning opportunities that exist outside of traditional degree programs” in Harvard’s aspirations to support lifelong learning, Lambert tweeted that there was “lots of alignment between President Faust’s letter and @HarvardExt’s mission.”

“The key to my success in this space and in this school is a very close partnership with my president and provost,” Di Lorenzo says. “The reason that I am able to be as flexible as I am, across my institution, is because I spent the first year getting buy‑in from my president and provost about our core mission, what we do, and why we need to innovate.” Noting that innovation in his unit at NYU has included staff changes and faculty consolidations, he says “I would not have survived that if both my president and provost didn’t step up behind me. If you don’t have that level of support, innovating at a university is almost impossible.”

Start with the Mission

For institutions that may be just embarking on a path toward innovation, Gallagher suggests looking first at the basics. “Start with a foundational analysis” of the unit’s mission, values, and goals, he suggests, in the context of understanding the drivers that motivate the unit to change. Such an exercise will help the unit stay true to itself and not fall prey to simply copying what another institution is doing or chasing the latest fad. “I’ve seen a lot of wasted time on what I’ll call innovations that don’t make sense for a given institution or unit because it was simply the shiny new object,” Gallagher says.

With all its potential pitfalls, and even if it takes institutions outside their comfort zones, innovation has become nothing short of imperative. “This is no longer optional,” Lambert says. “America has already left 30 million members of its workforce behind with the transition from industrial to knowledge work. Over the next decade, we’re going to leave another 30 million behind. We cannot be globally competitive in this country unless we bring those people back in and educate them.” Because the existing infrastructure in higher education cannot begin to absorb demand on that scale, he says, serving students well through continuing and professional education is nothing short of “a matter of national importance.”

Moreover, he says, the sheer opportunities inherent in student markets yet untapped cannot be overlooked. “It’s a nearly infinite market if we can crack the equality cost knot. I’d say in my unit, we’re halfway there. If Harvard can do that, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Harvard’s cost structure, anybody can and everybody should.”


Stephen G. Pelletier ([email protected]) is an independent writer and editor who writes frequently about higher education. Prior to starting his full-time freelance practice in 2006, he served for many years as vice president for communications at the Council of Independent Colleges, directed the publications program at NASFA: Association of International Educators, and edited the magazine at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.