Business and academic leaders can foster breakthrough ideas and growth among teams by providing a place for collaboration, a diverse ecosystem of partners, and a culture of co-creation.
In the digital era, the nature of work — and the way it gets done — is increasingly networked, mobile, real-time, and collaborative. For many workers, critical thinking and agile problem-solving skills are as important as any specific training or university degree — if not more so.
Against this backdrop, many universities and corporations are rethinking the ways they develop leaders, encourage collaboration, and drive innovation. How can they prepare their students and workers to prosper in a dynamic business world? How does technology help — or hinder — people as they interact? What is the role of a corporate or academic campus? What partnerships can help enrich student and employee experiences? What kind of environment fosters the development of original ideas?
These are among the questions Dan Gruber, associate dean of innovation and new ventures at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business, frequently considers. The university, which recently announced a new strategic direction that highlights innovation, is also committed to creating spaces in which people can collaborate and explore new opportunities. Gruber joined the University of Cincinnati last year after serving as a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Kellogg School of Management. In his current role, he is responsible for teaching excellence and innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, and building relationships with Cincinnati organizations. He also is tasked with reinventing the educational experience in the new Carl H. Lindner College of Business building, a 225,000-square-foot, $120 million facility scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.
The Importance of Place
How can business and academic leaders bring people together to more effectively learn, connect, solve problems, and, perhaps most important, create opportunities for face-to-face interactions? Gruber is an advocate of online learning and the use of technology to improve student experience — at Northwestern, he led a pilot of a social learning platform and co-created a learning analytics visualization tool — but he still favors in-person interactions. “Time spent in the classroom and working together in physical presence is as important as ever,” he says. “Technology can enhance and amplify those interactions, but it can’t replace them.”
The new Lindner College building’s classrooms will incorporate active learning design and technologies to encourage peer learning and group discussions. Even planning for the use of the new building has been an exercise in collaboration, with Gruber hosting interactive “jam sessions” to facilitate brainstorming about ways to enhance teaching and learning. Attendees generate ideas on their own, pair up with others to build on those ideas, and then merge into still larger groups. The setting is casual — with jazz music playing in the background — but the atmosphere quickly becomes energized. “In traditional meetings, people often end up saying things they could have said over email,” he says. “They might as well not meet.”
Having dedicated physical spaces where people can gather can be critical to fostering innovation, which is a key element of UC’s strategic vision. In addition to the new Lindner College of Business building, the university is developing the 1819 Innovation Hub. Business school students, as well as students across the campus, will have many opportunities to collaborate in the space. For example, the Live Well Collaborative, a partnership between UC and Procter & Gamble that brings together multidisciplinary design project teams, will be housed in 1819, says Gruber, who sits on the Live Well board of directors.
Whether they are standalone buildings or dedicated rooms, leadership and innovation spaces can allow people to step away from their regular work surroundings — a change of scenery that can provide a fresh perspective. “The idea is to provide a setting where people can be inspired, energized, and challenged,” says Diana O’Brien, global CMO of Deloitte, who led the groundbreaking and 2011 opening of Deloitte University, a 700,000-square-foot, $300 million leadership center. “When there are rows of cubicles, people sit down and stare at their computers. When there are open, flexible spaces, people begin to ask questions of each other, reframe their assumptions, and tap into more creative thinking.”
Convening an Ecosystem of Partners
Yet a physical space alone does not typically create a culture of learning and innovation. Bringing together a diverse mix of voices from within an organization and beyond can also be fundamental. Organizations can learn a significant amount by pairing with seemingly dissimilar entities — a point business and academic leaders can keep in mind when considering potential partnerships, or simply when looking for inspiration. For example, Gruber is in the process of creating an ecosystem of partners that can leverage strengths and opportunities that are unique to Cincinnati. He is looking to team up with established companies, startups from local accelerators, city government, and even cultural organizations such as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
“Though it might not be obvious, business students can gain several insights from an orchestra by observing how the different musicians rehearse and collaborate, and how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he says. “Stepping outside of our daily experiences enables us to view problems and theories through a different lens.”
Gruber and O’Brien encourage business and academic leaders to embrace the concepts of co-creation and giving all stakeholders a voice. “With today’s pace of change, the transfer of knowledge and expertise no longer flows exclusively in one direction from experienced leaders to younger professionals or from large, established companies to their smaller counterparts,” O’Brien says, noting that the classrooms at Deloitte University were designed to be flexible and don’t have a preconfigured front. “The idea that changes everything could come from the unlikeliest person in the room,” she adds.
Being open to those viewpoints is critical to making any class, brainstorm, or interactive session productive. “Listening is one of the most important but most underrated leadership qualities,” Gruber says.
—By Mary E. Morrison, senior writer, Deloitte Insights for CMOs
Dan Gruber’s participation in this article is solely for educational purposes based on his knowledge of the subject, and the views expressed by him are solely his own.