Innovation Through Collaboration: Better Together

by Ross Miller
Institute for Innovation Through Collaboration

A new institute at Bradley University provides opportunities for businesses and students of different disciplines to work together.

Businesses struggle to stay relevant to their customers. New technologies are replacing older products and processes, and companies must innovate to stay competitive. This requires new skills such as agile development and design thinking, along with the development of innovation processes to know what resonates with customers.

The Institute for Innovation Through Collaboration is a new institute housed at Bradley University within the Foster College of Business and the Caterpillar College of Engineering & Technology. It works with manufacturers on projects to develop new products, as well as the business case for those products. The goal is to provide opportunities for students to learn these new skills to be better prepared for work in product development. The Institute also provides an opportunity for business and engineering students to work together—helping them develop a common language and a better understanding of what each discipline views as important, which helps them understand the value of the other discipline.

Building Innovation
Innovation is the bedrock of our product-driven society. Thriving companies must be in constant pursuit of new products and services that will differentiate themselves from the competition. We live in a disposable culture, and we see this trend in most product categories, including cell phones, personal vehicles, furniture and appliances. Innovation is how companies maintain their place in this competitive market.

The first step is learning to find the right problems to solve. In most classroom experiences, problems are presented to students, who are then taught how to solve those problems. Using design thinking techniques, students learn how to ask pertinent questions to discover the problems people experience. By getting to the right problem to solve, they learn how to develop solutions that customers are willing to buy—creating value for both the customer and the company. This is when agile development and iteration begins. After we identify the pain, it is time to work on the solution. We quickly ideate multiple options to test whether any of them would be a good solution for the target market. Next, we create low-fidelity prototypes with pencil sketches on paper illustrating the concept; then we take these sketches back to the customer to ask more questions and understand any shortcomings or confusion about the idea. This discovers the defects of the proposed solution, revealing a deep understanding of the problem, which helps to develop a better solution.

We explore the entire innovation process, including customer acquisition processes, distribution and the costs to produce a product. Students learn the latest concepts in developing an innovation process that will allow companies to explore multiple ideas and make small investments in order to evaluate which ideas are the best opportunities.

How to Collaborate
Innovation is a team sport. Stories from the past of a lone inventor going into a workshop and creating an amazing new invention is not usually the best scenario. The diversity of a team, in both experience and expertise, is important in developing new products because it helps create better questions, an expanded knowledge set and a wider understanding of what is possible. This diversity drives new ideas and innovations for clients in a variety of industries.

But collaboration is sometimes difficult. By nature, we humans like to surround ourselves with people who are like us. Bringing together a team with different skillsets can cause communication breakdowns at times. Our classes help students understand each other a little better—understanding the value of different disciplines and thought processes.

Experiential Learning
The Institute instills the essential practices of innovation and collaboration. Through classes that focus on product development and innovation processes, students from different disciplines practice working together. Engineering and business students look at problems from different points of view. By understanding each other’s perspective, they can modify their solution to be a more comprehensive approach.

For the past five years, we have conducted projects that involved students from an engineering senior design project and a business senior consulting project. With the engineering students focused on product design and functionality, the business students focus on the business case and how to market the product. This combination provides a complete picture to the sponsoring company of how the product functions and how it fits into their current portfolio.

Learning new skills is best done through repetition. By practicing these skills, students are better prepared for the workplace they will enter after graduation.

The Institute also brings in Bradley alumni to share their experience and demonstrate innovation in practice—to see how an engineering graduate founded multiple web security companies, or a communications graduate became the founder of a product development consulting company. These connections offer students a greater understanding of how their education can lead to many great opportunities.

Bradley University has won national recognition for experiential learning activities in the classroom. These student projects are a great way for companies to connect to students, see them work in a team and understand their talents. Even without offering an internship, a company can see multiple students in one semester working on a project for their company—which can improve their ability to prospect for new employees.

Collaboration is hard. Innovation is hard. Actually putting them into practice is very difficult. Through multiple opportunities to practice these skills, students learn the best ways to innovate by collaborating. Area businesses can benefit from these experiences as well. iBi

Ross Miller is director of the Institute for Innovation Through Collaboration at Bradley University. To learn how your company can be involved in student projects, call (309) 677-4432 or email rmiller@bradley.edu.

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