Let the bright sparks fly

July 06, 2017
Global
There’s a lot of talk about innovation, but in some policy areas more action is needed to allow it to flourish.

Let’s try a quick survey – do you think innovation is important? Does it make a difference to the future of your organisation? Do you think innovation should drive new products and services? As Eddie Obeng, professor of innovation at Henley Business School, points out, people think it’s obvious: “They say, of course innovation is important, yet the level of innovation in most organisations is low.”

The problem is not a shortage of ideas, but the means and, crucially, the sense of permission to act on ideas that create value. Some sectors have a better track record in enabling innovation, and digital technology is commonly cited. Companies like Apple and Google have built their reputations on the ability of their workers to innovate, and their products and services have made digitally-enabled workers in some places much less dependent on traditional work structures.

Research by McKinsey’s Global Institute suggests that “20 to 30% of the working age population in the US and the European Union is engaged in independent work.” However, this does not guarantee that they’re busy being innovators, nor that businesses get the skills and services they need. “Policymakers and innovators will need to grapple with solutions to these challenges,” McKinsey’s report asserts.

Call the VET

Are policymakers even talking to innovators? Vocational education and training (VET) is a case in point. It’s a sector that tends to be tightly controlled by government, yet the people with the brightest ideas are usually furthest away from the policymaking process. Policymakers like to think of the sector as a lever to pull when the supply side of the skills equation is seen as deficient in some way. Often, they’re reacting to complaints from the demand side. But a triangulation of demand, policy and supply that prioritises deficiencies over innovation is not fit for today’s economies.

Nevertheless, VET is beginning to emerge as a leader in innovation. There are a growing number of enterprising learners and practitioners, often working in new kinds of partnerships involving local communities, training providers, local authorities, and employers. And there are also more entrepreneurial graduates coming out of VET schools. The European Training Foundation (ETF), an agency of the EU, uses its connections with policy makers in the countries neighbouring the EU, as well as EU member states and institutions, to create spaces where innovators and policy makers can meet and build a productive dialogue.

For instance, the ETF’s biennial Torino Process helps governments to assess progress in VET system reform across a range of indicators, and this year’s reports identify innovation as a strategic theme in many neighbouring countries. Whilst one speaker at the recent Torino Process Conference claimed too many ministries still demand outcomes that inhibit innovation, another highlighted the role of government in empowering innovation in VET.

Power to the people

A possible answer to this apparent conundrum came from Georgian education and science minister Aleksandre Jejelava, who said, “Public policy has to follow life, not the other way around”. In the life of VET providers, innovation is being supported by increasing use of experiential learning, participation in smart cities and regions, and following the logic of an entrepreneurial continuum that stretches from individuals and institutions to whole systems.

The vital role of skills in economic development makes bridging the gap between those in government, who can effect large-scale change, and entrepreneurs and innovators on the ground, who are creating and testing new ideas, an urgent priority. Markku Markkula, president of the EU Committee of the Regions, summed it up in his challenge to Torino Process Conference delegates: “Instead of planning, planning, planning, why not experimenting, testing, and learning?”

 

 

Alastair Macphail
Contributor

Alastair Macphail is head of communications at the European Training Foundation (ETF), an EU agency helping countries neighbouring the European Union reform their education and training systems as part of the EU’s external relations policies. A linguist by training, Alastair has played a variety of roles in the EU institutions, notably in language technology, education and training policy and management, over 25 years.

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