Digest No. 04 - June 2018

Understanding Innovation in Higher Education

Cai, Y. 2017. “From an Analytical Framework for Understanding the Innovation Process in Higher Education to an Emerging Research Field of Innovations in Higher Education.” The Review of Higher Education 40 (4): 585–616.



With many innovations occurring on CIC campuses (see Hearn and Warshaw 2015), it is important to frame these initiatives in ways institutional stakeholders understand and ultimately implement. This article by Yuzhuo Cai provides such a framework. Conceptual in nature, the article synthesizes the research on innovation and provides a compelling analytic rubric for examining the efficacy of innovations in addressing many of the issues that college and university leaders face.

The author draws from and expands Baregheh, Rowley, and Sambrook’s (2009) work, which defines innovation as “the multi-stage process, whereby organisations transform ideas into new/improved products, services, or processes, in order to advance, complete, and differentiate themselves successfully in the marketplace.” (p. 1334). Cai uses this definition to advance the idea of innovation within the context of higher education practice.


As a conceptual piece, the author provides questions to consider regarding the successful implementation of innovative practices. The author offers a framework for questions CIC presidents and other leaders might ask about practice innovations initiated on campus:

  • What is the nature of the innovation? Is it intended to do something new or do something better?
  • What type of innovation is being designed? Is it a process (e.g., organizational shift) or product (e.g., good or service) innovation?
  • What are the specific problems that will be resolved by the particular innovation?
  • What is the specific goal or goals of the particular innovation? (Here it is important to note the author’s contention that most innovations in higher education are designed as responsive––transformative initiatives designed to respond to the roles of the university in a shifting economy.)
  • What is the context for the innovation? How does the location of the innovation (e.g., within a college, within a functional area, between a college and its local community) play a role in its successful execution?
  • What are the stages to enacting the innovation? How is the innovation strategically executed, from idea to rollout?
  • What are the resources needed to implement the innovation? These could be technical, creative, or financial.
  • Who are the people involved in the innovation process, both at the conceptual and implementation phases? What are their strengths relative to executing different phases of the project?



Use of this framework may help CIC leaders design and execute plans to institute a new practice or improve an existing one. This article offers an empirically-grounded roadmap for considering—and perhaps recasting—the many innovations CIC presidents are implementing to respond to external and internal pressures facing their particular institutions.

The key takeaway is that innovation requires careful planning. Campus leaders should use these questions to guide initiating new institutional practices or improving upon current ones. Of course, planning not only involves conceptualization and implementation but a thoughtful assessment strategy designed to evaluate the efficacy of the planned innovation.

About the Author

Yuzhuo Cai is a university lecturer in the school of management at the University of Tampere, Finland.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Baregheh, A., J. Rowley, and S. Sambrook. 2009. “Towards a Multidisciplinary Definition of Innovation.” Management Decision 47(8): 1323–1339.

Council of Independent Colleges. 2018. Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges.

Hearn, J. C., J. B. Warshaw, and E. B. Ciarimboli. 2016. Strategic Change and Innovation in Independent Colleges: Nine Mission-Driven Campuses. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges.

Hearn, J. C., and J. B. Warshaw. 2015. Mission-Driven Innovation: An Empirical Study of Adaptation and Change among Independent Colleges. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges.

Lee, T.W., T.R. Mitchell, C.J. Sablynski, J.P. Burton and B.C. Holtom. 2004. “The Effects of Job Embeddedness on Organizational Citizenship, Job Performance, Volitional Absences, and Voluntary Turnover.” Academy of Management Journal, 47 (5), 711–722.