Innovation in Higher Education During the Time of Crisis

A Couple of years back I was invited to attend an International Conference in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), India hosted jointly by two very prestigious Indian Institutions on the theme “Innovative Business Practices in a VUCA world.” I was excited and felt a deep sense of joy to accept this invitation to attend as a keynote speaker for two reasons: The theme of the conference was very close to my heart as I always felt that uncertainties are the father of innovation, understanding dynamics of business uncertainties is the core to success. Secondly, the city of Kolkata. A fascinating & bustling city. The City of Joy. Famous for its culture, character, foodies (puchka, rosogolla, mistis, biryanis etc.) and intellect. Nobel laureate Gunter Grass staunchly stated in 1975 “If Calcutta is dying, then every city is dying.” This is true. People in Calcutta are always alive with various problems and challenges they face every day, but they dislike grievance about their agony. I like the city very much and is one of my most favourite cities in the world as it is where I can get my optimal happiness and become oblivious of the other things of the universe, roaming around the dusty roads, bypassing small roadside tea stalls and hearing more Bengali sounds, you feel walking through the grungy layers of time.

The current world is overly complex, unpredictable, and hostile to all of us unless we find a unique harmony to live in and adapt so to the situation. The current outbreak COVID-19 brought that reality to all of us. This is one of the greatest crises of humanity and we are experiencing it first-hand. Individuals, communities, and nation states are struggling to cope with this unknown, unpredictable, and invisible enemy that is causing serious human fatalities and miseries worldwide. While this is true that lights will come after these dark times, and we all will overcome this crisis, it certainly will change the behavioural patterns of everything for the foreseeable future. This crisis will enable people to feel different with better integration. Different in that sense that people will have high confidence, better skills sets, become more capable and more understanding on how to deal with a complex situation; and better integration in that sense that people will be more focused, their emotions, feelings, rationality, attitudes, empathy, cooperation will become more integrated to achieve something for better. I am confident that post-COIVID-19 environment we will all be able to answer one of the most fundamental questions “how this VUCA world is shaping our lives, societies, nations and the world? And how Institutions must respond to the challenges we are facing?

It is a situation of a new ‘normal’ that we are living in a VUCA world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and of course ambiguous. The unprecedented changes we have seen since the second world war is highly significant, but the current outbreaks of this generations of unbelievable and idiosyncratic. Today’s business context is very turbulent and uncertain, sometimes very hostile & complex and it is important that business needs to evolve, learn, and innovate to survive. Organisations that do not embrace changes are doomed. Change is paramount for today’s dynamic situation. We have seen various models, tools, theories, and techniques to address various challenges we have been facing or to respond business dynamics. In some cases, we are successful, but many cases we are not. Be there anything else we can apply to understand this dynamic nature of business and respond adequately? I strongly feel, one of the many alternatives to understand the social changes are the concept of evolution.

Evolutionary theory provides a generic framework for understanding social change. However, in this article, I am not going to discuss the potential contribution of the evolutionary approaches to dynamic business strategy and how strategic dynamism can be addressed, but rather my discussion will focus on some main challenges all Higher Education Institutions are facing in VUCA world particular in reference to COVID-19 and the responses we need. Institutions must adapt and change according to the context and its new conditionality to survive & prosper in a complex world. I advocate that Institutions should not change their ultimate goals or vision rather they should accept new paths to achieve them, institutions must embrace new situation with appropriate responses. Innovation is the ultimate solution for overcoming any crisis or uncertainties.

Walking around great cities around the world like London at any time, if you look up, we will often spot sign of great thinkers of the past & people who have contributed to the advancement of mankind. Two years back, while I was walking through central London, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Blue plaque marking the fact that Mahatma Gandhi had lived a few times in London. Just think about this. Mahatma Gandhi, a great figure of India and the world, living in London 42 years before the Indian Independence. What brought him there? What did he learn from it? Who did he meet? How he was influenced later in his outlook, having then visited the most capitalist city on planet earth!

It surely must have legacy. Just as he left the legacy on the world. We cannot forget the past that shaped the nation, equally we must look forward with the key reference point in the background. They are surely there in the outlook and in the totality in mankind knowledge. He brought the simplicity, he dreamed with clarity, a visionary and finally brought the freedom for the millions. He taught us that to live, survive and prosper, innovative practices are vital whether it is in politics, corporations or in any aspects of life. He talked about the changes means innovation.

With this reference, I felt that I should recall another classical thinker who talked about innovation and simplicity. I am sure, you may guess who this person is. A great thinker- Ernst Friedrich Schumacher a German statistician & Economist who is best known for his book “Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered” published in 1973. This is one of the most influential books in the world. The book focused on the Western/capitalist economic structure in a revolutionary way. He was against the creation of giant corporations. He challenged the doctrine of economic, Technological, and scientific specialisation and proposed a system of intermediate technology, based on smaller working units, ownership should be communal with regional workplaces that utilises local resources and labour forces. He realised the danger of big corporations and the future hegemonic world order. The so-called globalisation is one of the strongest ideologies after the disintegration of Soviet Union started to emerge in all aspects of our lives and civil society members, intellectuals, state actors, corporations accepted the idea as one of the most important stimulus for nation’s growth & development.

The key message of “Small is Beautiful” is relevant to my discussion and that is smallness, simplicity, and innovation. When he talked about education, he realised Education is one of the most vital of all resources. He blamed the educational system when a civilisation is in constant of crisis. He found a salient truth in Gandhi’s observation that ” Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.” The concept of smallness brought a revolutionary threat to the contemporary world of economic order what he referred as “gigantism.” What Schumacher wanted was a people-centred economics. In the educational system we want a sustainable and innovative student-centred system.

Gandhi brought innovative practices in politics through his non-violence movement-a powerful tool for social protest and revolutionary social and political change. E. F Schumacher challenged the old Western Capitalist doctrine with his innovative doctrine small is beautiful which becomes a bold idealism for the world. The same mantra uttered by another great visionary Austrian Economist Schumpeter. He talked about the changes and creative destruction. Creativity comes through destruction. Creativity is essential to stay in the race. Creativity is imperative to overcome complex situation, fight with unknown, unpredictability and a mega crisis like the crisis we are facing now.

All these above, three great world thinkers have something common in them: Change. It is vital and change means innovation.

Global challenges

If we question ourselves to find the most important challenges, we are facing in this contemporary world what we will see? We can find out easily several challenges from various credible sources. Instead of looking at various sources, my research organisation sent out a questionnaire to over 400 academics and business leaders to find the 5 most important challenges. However, in our surprise, based on response from 250 of them, Education is found as most important challenge for the world. It reminds me again to recall Gandhi’s Buniady Shksha (Fundamental Education)- Education is that which liberates. He saw carefully that right education is fundamental not the knowledge of facts to make democracy function.

Need VUCA leader for VUCA world

According to the Research conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (2011), organisations that are adaptive and agile are more likely to thrive during turbulent times. To lead and thrive in a VUCA context, leaders must be more adept than in the past at complex and adaptive thinking abilities, such as rapid learning and problem-solving, self-awareness, comfort with ambiguity, and strategic thinking. Indeed, even the most experienced higher education leaders may be taxed in addressing the challenges of an ever-changing (VUCA) environment.

Bob Johansen (2014), distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and the author of the book “Leaders make the future” (2012) proposed an antidote, coined as “VUCA Prime”. A VUCA leader must have clear vision, an understanding, clarity, and agility Prof. Vijay Govindarajan-A Harvard Prof. described innovation as mountain climbing. In mountain climbing people are facing many challenges on getting to the top of the mountain. Once you are there you have achieved it and that is rewarding and exciting. However, the real challenge starts as you are coming down from the top because of there are more challenges and dangers. The new situation is unknown for you and you are not prepared for it. We focus on innovation too much on one side and that is to bring an idea/creativity, but real challenge ought to be on other side which is how do you make it happen.

Both individuals and organisations must focus on Innovative approaches. However, to bring innovation we need to have an innovative mindset. We must have clear aspirations and desires to bring changes. It is important to understand that innovation is the commercialisation of creativity. Therefore, It is not an individual approach, rather it is an organizational collective effort. Innovation within the institutions can bring many positive outcomes for sustainability. While advantages are clear but it is not always easy to bring new ideas and innovative ways of doing things as there are many blockages of implementing innovation including poor institutional aspiration, support and funding, resistance to change, complex regulatory framework at both local, national and regional level among others. Therefore, it is important that institutions must have a clear vision and are ready to adapt agile technologies that enable innovation throughout the organisation. Technology can drive the institutions to become more customer-oriented vision of education. Such innovative practices can stimulate collaboration and partnerships with other institutions. This is the only mantra for all of us during crisis and beyond: Innovate, Innovate & Innovate, and change the ways to achieve our ultimate goals without changing our destination.


Bob Johansen (2014), leaders make the future, ten new leadership skills for an uncertain world, Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, Vol. 8, Number 1

Boston Consulting Group (2011), Research report on High performance organisation, September

E. F Schumacher (1973). Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered. Blond & Briggs: London