Further Education Colleges and Innovation

30 May 2023 Daniel Sandford-Smith

Gatsby supported Edinburgh College and Boutique Innovation to deliver training for SMEs to help them better understand what innovation is; how they can design better products and services; and create a more innovative organisation.

In 2020, Gatsby funded Boutique Innovation to undertake research with FE colleges to better understand the role that colleges could play in supporting innovation at their partner employers. The report Further Education Colleges and Innovation suggests that activities coordinated by colleges which are of benefit to businesses can in parallel grow a culture of innovation at the college. Further work published by the Innovation Caucus provided a more theoretical description of the role that colleges can play in their local innovation ecosystem.

Both reports indicate that whilst some colleges are playing a significant role in innovation this activity is not systematic and suffers from not having an explicit funding stream. To explore how we might support a circle of innovation between colleges and smaller employers, Gatsby agreed to fund a pilot program of research and training at Edinburgh College, again led by Innovation Boutique. The work at Edinburgh College started with a research project to better understand what businesses wanted in terms of innovation capability building, which ultimately found that whilst most employers were aware of ‘innovation’ in some form, it was not a significant focus for them.

As a result, Edinburgh College funded the creation of three bespoke training modules, specifically aimed at SMEs and designed to help them better understand what innovation is; design better products and services; and create a more innovative organisation. Gatsby funded the roll-out of 6 pilot sessions which saw 16 different employers attend from a variety of sectors including finance, digital, design, law, tourism and hospitality. The feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive with 89% saying they would recommend the pilot workshops to other SMEs and 89% saying they would attend further training. 

It was fantastic to be a part of this ground-breaking project which saw industry and delegates from the public, private and third sectors come together to explore the innovation ecosystem. It’s clear colleges such as ours can play a vital role in the innovation process by providing the tools and training required to support the growth and development of participating organisations and their workforce.
Shona Pettigrew, Director of Enterprise and Knowledge Exchange at Edinburgh College

The increased understanding of innovation and how it could improve their productivity has led to a great interest from the employers in making their organisation more innovation intensive. This suggests that through this sort of training colleges could play a significant role in increasing the innovation undertaken by SMEs and hence helping to improve their productivity.