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Vox Populi: Bright Ideas

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Encouraging employee innovation

By Emanuel "Skip" Sturman, director of Career Services

sturmanEmanuel "Skip" Sturman (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)
Dartmouth encourages and celebrates innovation, of this there can be no doubt.

Opportunities abound for students to launch new organizations, invent new devices, or embrace new causes. In the recent "Ten Year Report (1998-2008)," President James Wright offers multiple examples of Dartmouth faculty and students pursuing trailblazing research and creating new knowledge.

And rightfully so. As President Wright stated in his opening remarks for the Greener Ventures entrepreneurship conference in 2004, "When I think of those qualities that mark Dartmouth students, I think of creativity and independence, the capacity to follow different paths, to take risks, to lead-and a capacity to see that which might be."

Admirable qualities, to be sure, and fitting descriptors for any number of faculty and students at Dartmouth today, as well as many administrative leaders. The record would be incomplete, however, without also acknowledging another constituency in possession of many of these same attributes: staff members at all levels.

Staff members' capacity for innovative thinking can be every bit as great as that of faculty, students, and senior administrators. Recent evidence of this can be found by reviewing the thoughtful and imaginative cost-saving measures submitted to the Forum on the College Budget.

But, herein lies a challenge, as illustrated by the McKinsey Report in its "Improvement Opportunities for Administrative and Support Services" Executive Summary (April 25, 2006): "The culture needs to encourage innovation." Back then, the Working Group on Administrative Communication and Culture noted, "... senior management did not always recognize the talents, expertise and ideas of employees."

Much has now changed. Driven by the budget crisis, significant progress has been made in tapping into the reservoir of ideas and the goodwill of employees who truly desire to participate in what British Poet John Masefield once referred to as "the bond of a lofty purpose shared."

To assure that good ideas from the entire Dartmouth community continue to surface with the potential to be acted upon, mechanisms need to be set in place to encourage innovation-in good times as well as bad.

Toward this end, a fitting tribute to President Wright in the final year of his tenure would be to establish a Social Innovation Award in his name. This award could offer incentives, financial or otherwise, to inspire all employees to continue to put forward suggestions for new initiatives or cost-saving measures that contribute to the greater good at Dartmouth.

In response to the McKinsey Report and in accepting the recommendations of the various administrative working groups, President Wright wrote: "Dartmouth depends so much on the goodwill, professionalism and dedication of its employees ... Dartmouth is by far the better because all its members share in a sense of pride, of belonging, and of personal commitment and responsibility."

Why not capitalize on these shared values and purpose by offering an incentive award to encourage innovation? Many employees truly wish to break out of their silos to be recognized, not only for their longevity, but also for their eagerness to offer creative solutions to vexing problems.


Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 3/30/09