Building an Innovation Ecosystem Part 3: Education

By Jason M. Brown and Ian Eishen

While “innovation” means many things to many people these days, we believe innovation happens when any member of an organization leads 1) capability development, 2) organizational problem-solving, or 3) policy/process change. The key word is lead. Allowing your team, employees, or troops to simply consult or suggest in those three areas won’t result in innovation. If they aren’t leading — at least informally — they aren’t innovating.

Like leading, innovating is all about influence. When managers and supervisors are willing and humble enough to be influenced — and members of all ranks have the ability to influence — innovation can happen organically and at scale. Influencing within an organization starts with trust, which flows from shared understanding and demonstrated competence. Educating to accelerate understanding and competency within your ranks can create an ecosystem that bolsters employees’ ability to influence, innovate, and lead.

Part 1 of this series discussed the culture and framework an organization needs to generate ideas internally and move them forward. Part 2 focused on the resources an organization must dedicate to innovation. For this post, we’ll dive into our lessons related to educational resources. We also added links below to some of the resources we leveraged. As we’ll discuss below, the pace of change means educating for innovation does not take a traditional path. We found navigating the innovation education space required empowering grassroots education efforts, embracing the right education platforms, and developing partnerships that led to education opportunities.

One of our challenges was determining what education we should conduct in-house, versus what we should pursue externally. We didn’t want to waste time and money trying to develop courses that already exist outside the military for a fraction of the cost. In our case, we wanted Airmen to focus on developing training in which they were the subject matter experts.

Generally speaking, the courses we wanted to standardize across our enterprise emphasized how-to-think over what-to-think regarding innovation. We found courses in Design Thinking, project management, and computer science had broad applicability for our organization to attack a wide variety of problem sets. We also provided structured “pathways” (outlined below) for our Airmen to pursue. We provided educational grants to those Airmen who showed the drive and potential to lead innovation efforts. Ultimately, we found allowing individuals and small teams to define both their education requirements and solutions ensured a high return-on-investment. As Valerie Rivera, one of our senior non-commissioned officers, put it:

One of the benefits of having Airmen identify learning opportunities on the outside is that they expand not just their network, but the group’s network in a way that’s hard to replicate if we do things in-house. Additionally, meeting others outside our bubble allows us to do analogous exploration, where we gain insight from those who have tackled similar problems and use them to solve our own challenges. Plus, the Airmen are probably really into whatever they’re learning, so the whole experience feels special and rewarding.

That is not to say common certifications and courseware aren’t valuable, but the idea that one-size-fits-all ignores local needs and challenges. The buffet of educational options is constantly growing, and we must find a way to address the delta between the baseline education levels and changing requirements. Airmen showed the ability to navigate through the education landscape to find opportunities that had value to our organization.

For an enterprise-wide innovation education course, we adopted the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps (or Innovation Corps) program, which is being embraced by the Intelligence Community. This course gave our Airmen a shared language around innovation and a framework to move out with their ideas. I-Corps provided Airmen with a different way of operating — a way that’s customer-centric and data-driven, based on ensuring we increase the value of what we produce by getting feedback from customers early and often.

That said, we also needed an innovation education platform that addressed our organization’s specific mission requirements. Today, every profession seems to have a movement to integrate technology and data into its core tradecraft; Smart Policing, EdTech, and Business Intelligence are examples of how the movements themselves can become platforms for innovation. In our profession, activity-based intelligence (ABI) represents the methodology analysts now use to discover correlations in massive data sets and build cohesive arguments based on what is known and unknown across data sources.

Two passionate Airmen entrepreneurs designed a course to apply ABI concepts directly to our mission. They pitched us on the need to provide the course to our entire organization. Nothing like it existed, so it was an easy sell. They built a cadre of instructors and eventually a community around the ABI concept. ABI, like I-Corps, proved the best innovation education resources are those that inspire a community. The courses, and the communities around them, gave our Airmen the problem-solving skills they need to innovate in our current operating environment.

Some of our best innovation education resources, however, didn’t involve a traditional approach to courseware or classrooms. We found developing relationships and partnering with outside organizations can be a vital educational experience for innovators of all ranks. Building relationships with academic institutions helped us see how the innovation landscape is changing. Sending Airmen “pathfinders” to industry-led conferences, academic events, and company tours provided great insights toward solutions to problems that were holding us back.

By capitalizing on our proximity to universities, we were able to develop relationships that helped point our team towards upcoming educational opportunities. These eventually grew into a mentor/mentee relationship that helped us develop strategies to overcome local organizational and cultural barriers. Our relationship with instructors at Stanford, for example, led to a Design Thinking workshop for Airmen across the base ensuring a higher return-on-investment for the relationship we built.

We also took part in a program called Hacking4Defense, that enabled us to partner our Airmen with students at Stanford and Georgetown for an entire semester. Our Airmen helped students dissect a military problem, while benefiting from exposure to the schools problem-solving methodology. It helped our Airmen engage with professionals who are not engulfed with our own form of group-think.

The great benefit of the time we live in is the elimination of barriers to information. Anyone with time and discipline can pursue PhD-level knowledge on any topic for free. Consequently, the innovation landscape is moving fast. Every organization today requires a flexible foundation of educational platforms, relationships, and experiential learning that allows for changes as mission and people evolve. As we’ve seen, the many informal leaders within our ranks had the greatest influence on establishing that foundation. They showed us education is as much of a cause and a purpose for innovating as anything an organization aspires to do.