Innovative Culture in Ireland’s Higher Education Institutions: An Assessment

In this blog, I provide a summary of the working paper we have done on assessing the innovativeness of organisational culture in Ireland’s higher education institutions (HEIs). The full paper is available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2604196

The roles universities play in socio-economic development have been notably redefined during the last few decades as a response to the environment. Universities are no longer only isolated islands of knowledge, as they used to be, but become closely engaged in a wide range of activities with their external partners.

Whilst there is a large body of literature examining the innovation linkages between universities and firms from an external perspective, much less attention has been paid to the internal factors within universities which drive those linkages. This paper seeks to assess the innovativeness of organisational culture in Ireland’s HEIs.

Studies have attempted to describe what is called an innovative culture or an innovation-supportive culture. For Jassawalla and Sashittal (2002), an innovation-supportive culture is a firm’s ‘social and cognitive environment, the shared view of reality, and the collective belief and value systems reflected in a consistent pattern of behaviour among participants’. Sarros et al. (2008) view an innovative culture is a culture where all its members are engaged in creating new products, services or processes. More specifically, the organisational culture may be labelled as an innovative culture if it ‘elicits people’s innovation capacity, tolerates risk, and supports personal growth and development’ (Menzel et al. 2007).

This paper employs the ‘Six Building Blocks of an Innovative Culture’ introduced by Rao and Weintraub (2013), which argues that an innovative culture rests on a foundation of six blocks: resources, processes, values, behaviour, climate and success.

Each of the six building blocks is composed of three factors (18 in all), and each of those factors incorporates three underlying elements (54 in all). In this way, the innovative culture, in the view of Rao and Weintraub (2013), becomes more measurable and manageable. To analyse the results for an organisation, one calculates an average for each question (element), an average for each factor (average of the three questions related to each factor) and finally the average for each building block (the average for the three factors related to the building block). Rao and Weintraub (2013) termed the final average of the six building blocks – the company’s overall score – as the ‘Innovation Quotient’.

In Table 1, we show the ‘Innovation Quotient’ – the overall average innovation score of the organisation – for each of the 19 Irish HEIs, which measures the general perception of the innovativeness of their organisational culture by all staff.

Table 1: Innovation quotients of Irish HEIs

Institution Innovation quotient
DCU 3.03
Waterford IoT 2.89
UL 2.71
Cork IoT 2.68
Universities 2.66
IoT Tralee 2.65
UCD 2.62
UCC 2.59
TCD 2.59
MU 2.58
All HEIs 2.55
IoT Carlow 2.53
NUIG 2.52
Athlone IoT 2.45
Dundalk IoT 2.43
IoTs 2.42
Letterkenny IoT 2.37
IoT Sligo 2.35
IoT Tallaght, Dublin 2.3
Limerick IoT 2.23
Galway-Mayo IoT 2.06
Dublin IoT 2.04

The ranking is led by Dublin City University (3.03) and Waterford Institute of Technology (2.89), while Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (2.06) and Dublin Institute of Technology (2.04) falling at the bottom of the table.

At the sectoral level, organisational cultures in universities were perceived to be more innovative than those in IoTs. In particular, the innovation quotient of universities was 2.66, closely followed by that of all HEIs as a whole (2.55), while IoTs had the lowest score of 2.42. This finding may contrast to the conventional view that IoTs, which were originally established to provide the requisite array of skills demanded by industries, are closer to business and the community. It is the university sector that seems to be better equipped with innovative culture. More strikingly, while six out of seven universities showed higher scores than the national average, only three out of 12 IoTs were perceived to be above the national average.

Table 2 compares the innovation scores of the two sectors in more details. In both sectors, academic staff considered their culture to be less innovative than support staff.

Table 2: Innovation quotients of universities and IoTs by position and faculty

All staff Position Faculty
Academic staff Support staff STEM AHSS Other
Universities 2.66 2.63 2.72 2.64 2.64 2.78
IoTs 2.42 2.30 2.62 2.29 2.41 2.67
All HEIs 2.55 2.50 2.64 2.52 2.55 2.63

Although further investigation is needed to understand why this is the case, one could argue that HEIs should strength the areas where their academics perceive to be less supportive. Presumably, when one academic does not consider the overall institutional environment could well nurture her/his innovative ideas, she/he would be less likely to engage with external stakeholders.

Both academic staff and support staff in the university sector scored higher than their counterparts in the IoTs, though the gap between academic staff was wider than that between support staff. Support staff in the IoT sector seemed to have a similar score to academic staff in the university sector. An implication from these results is that academics working at IoTs tended to have the lowest level of recognition of the innovativeness of their organisational culture.

Table 2 also compares the innovation scores of academics in STEM and AHSS subjects. An interesting fact is that AHSS faculty and staff were more likely to perceive their organisational culture to be innovative than STEM staff, supporting the argument that the importance of AHSS subjects has been largely overlooked.

Table 3 breaks down the overall innovation quotient of each HEI into six components, and compares the score of each component between the university sector and IoT sector.

Table 3: Innovation quotients of universities and IoTs by block

Block Universities IoTs All HEIs
Values 2.94 2.57 2.75
Behaviours 2.55 2.23 2.39
Climate 2.61 2.46 2.53
Resources 2.68 2.46 2.57
Processes 2.47 2.26 2.37
Success 2.73 2.50 2.62

As Table 3 shows, universities scored higher than IoTs in all of the six blocks, indicating all-round advantages of the sector.

For the university sector, values were put the highest score of 2.94 by its staff, followed by success (2.73) and resources (2.68). University staff tended to have a general acknowledgement of the value of its organisational culture, and believed that their organisations have invested a significant amount of resources into the development of innovative activities. By comparison, universities were less innovative in processes, which had a score of 2.47. It seems to suggest that, there is plenty of room for improvement in universities in handling innovative ideas from their staff.

The IoT sector had relatively high score in the blocks of value (2.57) and success (2.50), while behaviours were ranked lowest with a score of 2.23. The main difference between the two sectors lies in the fact that it was less likely for an IoT staff than a university staff to actually put an innovation plan into action. At this stage, it is hard to tell what the explanations are, although one may speculate that it is likely to be resulted by a combination of several factors.

Overall, in this paper, we use an assessment tool to examine how innovative university and IoT staff in Ireland perceive their own organisational cultures to be. The main contribution of the study is that it undertakes the analysis from an internal perspective, different from many previous studies which look at similar issues mainly from an external perspective.

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