TEACHING INNOVATION: DISCOVERING WHO ARE THE EXPLORERS OR DEVELOPERS
Author: Farrokh K. Langdana, Ph.D.
Director of the Executive MBA program,
Rutgers Business School
We in this country have our backs against the wall, and it’s a drive for innovation among our students that will keep us going, that will keep us alive. Obama’s macroeconomic plan is a cul-de-sac, a dead end and not going anywhere – more government spending is not going to help. You can’t lower the interest rates anymore, so we are essentially maxed out. The whole Keynesian model is tired, and we not about to cut taxes and deregulate. From a macroeconomic perspective, once again it comes back to innovation.
We do a lot of teaching in China and Singapore, and many of our students in the Executive MBA program are Europeans--expats, Germans, and French. Often they ask me, “Farrokh, when are you Americans going to come up with the next big thing? Every time the planet is in trouble, every time that we have a global recession, you Americans come through.”
But what I’m also hearing now is, “What’s going on back there in the United States? You guys are not coming up with the next far reaching idea.” Anyone who knows their history recognizes how important innovation has been to us. It brought us the Netscape browser, and with it, the whole planet had the Internet and the decades-long dot.com phenomenon that ensued.
When the USA lost its automobile market to the Japanese, it was sports-utes/minivans that came to the rescue. When we lost semiconductors to the Taiwanese and the Japanese, we invented micro-processors. And when we lost computers to the competition, we came up with the internet. We’ve always come up with the next big thing. Similarly, in times of great crisis – the Great Depression, World War 2, Vietnam and 9/11 – every time, we have managed to emerge, we’ve pulled it off.
Uncle Sam is not going to get us out of this mess – and that much is clear – we do, indeed, need to come up with the next big strategy through innovation, but where and how does that occur? Is it biotech, nanotech or alternative fuels? But more importantly, what is the force, what is the driver?
Increasingly, people are looking to business schools – the primary source of corporate leadership – for an answer, and business schools have certainly responded. Enrollment materials and course catalogues are rife with the word “innovation” along with its cousins: revolution, transformation, breakthrough, creativity, originality, ingenuity, and inventiveness. Innovation also gets a major workout in the business media where just about any month one can find articles on “Best Practices in Innovation,” “The Secrets of the World’s Most Successful Innovators”, “10 Steps to Unleashing Innovation in Your Company.”
The problem is – despite their best efforts – business schools don’t come to grips with the fact that innovation, as a subject, is not readily taught to our students. You can teach about poetry, about poetic technique, but you really cannot teach someone to become a poet. It’s my belief that this is also pretty much true of innovation. You can teach about it, set up all kinds of incubators for it, but at the end of the day it’s nurturing you are doing and not teaching.
As a business school, we are, of course, well aware that this is a high stakes game in technology, in the sciences and in innovation. If I were asked to address the state of innovation at Rutgers, I would say that we are always pursuing innovation, but it’s not taught, it’s built into the curriculum.
The business school has volunteered and striven to bring many ideas to market, to find venture capitalists, and to find money to fund ventures. Now these initiatives have gotten so big that Rutgers University itself has stepped in and is playing a role. We are actually trying to commercialize several of our innovations. This is happening with professors coming up with ideas to be developed, and also with ideas from local entrepreneurs from the surrounding community that c