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How to become an IT Innovator

7 steps to taking on a leadership role in your company's innovation efforts

By Mary Brandel, Network World
June 18, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Network World - Innovation has become a top concern for companies seeking a competitive edge in today's business world, especially as more organizations face new competitors that are using technology as a business disruptor.

In The Conference Board’s “CEO Challenge 2013” report, innovation was third on the list of top CEO challenges, after “human capital” and “operational excellence.”

Ideally, companies would formalize their innovation processes, governance and incentives to support a continuous program, says Chip Gliedman, an analyst at Forrester.  But of course, not everyone is at that stage. In some cases, IT professionals themselves need to take a page from Ghandi and “be the innovation they want to see in the world.”

This is the position that Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at Western Governors University, found himself in when the university wanted to improve graduation rates by helping students who were at risk of failing their coursework.

Nickolaisen had been in the job less than a year when he started up a skunkworks operation to begin experimenting on an analytics-based solution – and began changing the university’s tolerance for experimentation as a result. Nickolaisen provided advice on what others could do to ease their organizations into a culture of innovation.

The roots of innovation

First, a little background on the situation Nickolaisen faced at Western Governors. Founded by the governors of 19 states, the fully accredited, nonprofit online university serves about 40,000  students throughout the U.S. Degrees are competency-based, and coursework is self-paced, meaning there is no tracking of “seat time” or credit hours; instead, competency is demonstrated only when students pass the course exam.

This approach works well for the university’s target audience: adult learners who need a flexible approach to earning a degree. But it also created an information gap; for instance, there was no way to assess how students were doing until they passed or failed the exam or whether certain behaviors -- like a prolonged period of inactivity – indicated a potential problem. “They could be in danger of dropping out or on vacation,” Nickolaisen says.

That’s where the need for technology innovation came in. A small team in IT, led by Nickolaisen, began working on a way to analyze and profile student behaviors in order to advise at-risk students on how to stay on-track in their studies. And they had to do this in a way that did not invade student privacy, such as extending the browser, using cookies or requiring students to download an app that tracked their activities.

The ultimate solution involves two steps. First, when a student enrolls for a course, they complete a pre-assessment of their competencies, which turns into a profile of that student. Meanwhile, the competency information is also generalized to develop an overall profile of the strengths and weaknesses of the typical student who enrolls in a particular degree program, whether it’s nursing, teaching or IT. This gives the university a macro-level idea of which courses the student will likely need extra help in. “The general stereotypes hold true,” Nickolaisen says. For instance, the failure rate in writing and communication in the IT degree program is 70%.  

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