Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Phil Ventimiglia
Title: Chief Innovation Officer
Company: Georgia State University
Experience: NCR, Dell
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 10+ years
LinkedIn: Phil Ventimiglia

Enterprises aren’t the only organizations investing heavily in digital transformation; many universities are spearheading novel initiatives to improve student experiences and maximize graduation rates. Phil Ventimiglia is the Chief Innovation Officer at Georgia State University, ranked the  No. 4 Most Innovative University in the country by US News & World Report.

Phil brings insight from former roles at NCR and Dell to the public world, and this enterprise innovation veteran recently explored innovation priorities in academia, the challenges of what he refers to as the “idea gap,” and how Georgia State is using automated and predictive feedback to track student success.

Tell us a little bit about your career path. How did you end up in corporate innovation?

My DNA is as a “builder.” I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to build many great new products, businesses and organizations throughout my career, including starting Dell Inspiron notebooks and creating NCR’s Emerging Market Innovation Center in Hyderabad, India. So, leading innovation – first in corporations and then in academia – has been a natural evolution of my career.

I also get asked why I left the private sector for academia. The opportunity to help build the next paradigm for higher education and research is a chance to build something that truly has an impact. Even better, is the chance to do this in the city of Atlanta. Georgia State has already demonstrated an incredible ability to innovate and grow, as evidenced by a phenomenal increase in graduation rates of 22 percentage points over the past 10 years. Georgia State is also fundamentally intertwined with downtown Atlanta, allowing a unique opportunity to help redefine an urban university and to be a part of the ongoing growth of an iconic southern city.

Your experience in corporate innovation spans a thriving global enterprise (NCR) and a burgeoning public university (Georgia State University). What, if any, parallels do you see between the two in terms of how innovation is prioritized by stakeholders?

In today’s technology-driven, ultra-competitive, and rapidly changing world, innovation is required by any organization to succeed and thrive. This is as true in academia as it is in the corporate sector. In fact, my role of Chief Innovation Officer at Georgia State was created specifically because the university saw how technology was quickly beginning to disrupt the education market. Recognizing this, the university realized the need for a senior-level role to help it get in front of this disruption and drive the strategy and execution for what the digital university of the future looks like.

There are lots of challenges facing corporate innovators, such as time, budget, culture etc. Do you face any of these challenges at the university, and if so, how have you worked to overcome them?

Resource constraints (time, budget, people etc.) are the classic issue in driving innovation in any organization. These constraints lead to the “idea gap” conundrum. Theidea gap” is perpetuated by the typical investment decision process most organizations apply to innovation. All organizations are resource-constrained and thus have a limited set of projects they can fund and support. The challenge is how to decide which new projects to invest in. Unfortunately, it is always easier to invest in incremental innovation, where the feasibility and likelihood of success – and return on investment – seems more certain, than it is to invest in a disruptive idea, which is unproven and where the return on investment is unknown. As a result, many organizations are leapfrogged by start-ups or more nimble competitors because they were not able to solve the “idea gap” and invest in the next new significant innovation.

The strategy to overcome the “idea gap” is no different in a university or a corporation. The key is rapid prototyping, proof of concepts, pilots and testing to determine which ideas work, which ones need tweaking, and which ones just need to be discontinued. In this way, new ideas can be tested in days and weeks rather than months and years, with an investment of thousands of dollars rather than millions of dollars. This process then de-risks the decision. The best ideas begin to show a return at scale and justify additional investment.

How much budget and resources are universities, on average, allocating to corporate innovation initiatives? Is Georgia State a trendsetter or simply keeping up with what’s become the industry standard?

Truly innovative organizations have it in their DNA. The entire organization is single-mindedly focused on it. At Georgia State, we are completely focused on driving student success in terms of graduating students from all backgrounds and our innovation initiatives are all focused on this goal. We constantly test new ideas as described previously and then quickly scale the best ones. Innovation cannot be the sole responsibility of one individual or unit. Our role is to support and foster innovation. We are the kindling, but the organization is the fuel.

This is always easier said than done. Very few organizations have an innovative culture and DNA. However, at Georgia State University, we do have it and it has been recognized. Georgia State was recently ranked the #4 Most Innovative University in the country by US News & World Report.

What are some of your current innovation priorities at Georgia State? Do they span students, faculty and alumni? If possible, describe one of the biggest innovation achievements under your belt?

My current priority is to build the “Digital University.” There are many elements of a fully digitally-enabled university, but two key factors are how and what we teach.

The how we teach is focused on leveraging technology to enable new methods of instruction that extend and enhance learning moments. For example, a traditional college class only meets 3 hours a week. It’s important to make good use of this time. Through the use of digital learning materials – digital texts, videos and multimedia – we can replace traditional textbooks and lectures with a much more interactive and personalized experience. Additionally, one-to-many content (i.e. lectures) can be delivered and consumed outside of the classroom, so that precious classroom time can become much more collaborative and experiential as faculty and students engage with one another more in class.

An important tool related to how we teach that we are piloting is Adaptive Learning Courseware, which we are implementing to support student learning success. Adaptive materials use automated and predictive feedback to track how students are doing in real-time. These materials enable students to learn in a “choose your own adventure” format, discovering individual learning paths as the software recommends personalized content based on how each student interacts with it and presents materials at each student’s own learning pace.

Related to reexamining what we teach is a focus on incorporating digital literacy throughout the curriculum. We are experiencing a technological revolution that is completely transforming our world and impacting every area of society – from banking to retail to education. It is critical to help students increase their digital literacy so they can be prepared. True digital literacy requires that students solve problems digitally, encourages students to become self-directed learners and creates opportunities for students to demonstrate professional know-how. To ensure our students achieve this, we are supporting integration of digital literacy curriculum throughout the university’s courses, ranging from math to science to English.

We are also reshaping our classrooms, labs and other learning environments into technology-enabled collaborative and active learning spaces that give students tools for digital experimentation, creation and building. Offering opportunities like hackathons and making sessions outside of class provides students ways to expand these skills to be ready to succeed in the digital 21st century.

Our pilot as we began this process was a very successful innovation achievement. We worked with faculty across disciplines to reexamine and create core courses that encourage students to solve real-world problems using technologies available in each field. For example, in an English composition course, students learn how to write and format a blog using web scripting or, in history class, students learn to create visualizations of the impact of demographics on an event.

A study of the pilot showed improvements to teaching and learning outcomes. Instructors reported that they saw a difference in student engagement and the quality of student work. Students reported that the initiative was timely, preferred the courses to their more traditional classes, and understood how the digital skills would help them academically and professionally. The program has provided a basis for a growing community of digitally experimental faculty and an expanding array of digitally-enabled courses.

Any advice or lessons learned to share with other corporate innovators?

My advice is to focus on rapid prototyping and quick proof-of-concept tests to solve the “idea gap.” Too much of innovation theory is focused on prioritizing and “scoring” to determine the best ideas and innovations. But innovation is messy. Trying to determine a scoring methodology for innovation is like the “Understanding Poetry” scene in Dead Poets Society. In the scene, Robin Williams’ students are encouraged by their textbook to rate poetry using an X-Y scale.

“How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? ‘Oh, I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it.’ Now, I want you to rip out that page,” Robin Williams’ character says.

Innovators need to rip out that page by quickly testing new ideas. Testing 40-50 new ideas a year will deliver much better results that trying to develop a process to effectively rank and prioritize those ideas.


Robert Berris is EVP and Managing Director of Three Five Two where he leads company strategy and day-to-day operations.