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A word with Gordon Jones of Boise State’s College of Innovation and Design

Gordon Jones croppedGordon Jones is the dean of Boise State University’s new College of Innovation and Design, a college created to help graduates stay professionally agile in a changing economy.

Jones founded the Harvard Innovation Lab, an entrepreneurship and innovation college at the Boston-area university that encourages collaboration between many different departments. Boise State President Bob Kustra has hired Jones to create a Boise equivalent.

Jones, who is 46, has taken an innovative path through his own education and professional life.

He graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island, taking time off between semesters to play semi-pro ice hockey in British Columbia. He also took a semester off college to work in a high school in rural Arizona, and later earned an MBA at Stanford Business School.

Jones’ career has been similarly diverse, with many different accounting, marketing, and leadership stints in different areas of the corporate world, including a Boston mosquito control startup, American Biophysics. He ran Proctor and Gamble’s international professional oral care business from 2005-2007. He taught marketing at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. while at another pest control startup. He joined Harvard Business School in 2010, and started the iLab in 2011.

Idaho Business Review spent some time learning about Jones and about the College of Innovation and Design. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have a lot of experience in launching and commercializing new products. Where does education come in?

I’ve always had an affection for education. While in business, I was always going to return to education in one shape or form.

I also knew some of the skills that came from my business experiences and education experiences would be transferable and leverageable. For example, I worked in marketing at an education tech startup, Family Education Network, that was acquired by Pierson for $180 million in 2000. It was a short stint, meaningful for me.

What have you been hired to do at Boise State?

I am going to ensure that Boise State is relevant for the next 20 years. There is a massive amount of disruption coming on in business. The college is based on the idea that you have to have a very high degree of agility if you’re going to work successfully in the business environment.

The college will be a portfolio of offerings that range from for-credit career majors to co-curricular skill acquisition experiences. We’re identifying new pathways of learning that may or may not carry traditional degrees. Some will be for credit, some will not be. Venture College will be restaged this fall where it runs from explicit business commercialization to being a place where any student can find skills and expertise they can take with them.

The point of hands-on immersive learning is to bridge the gap between the classroom and what really happens. Learning, how do I work as a team? What does it look like to be held accountable? How do you prioritize? In a project with multiple roles and people, how do you hit a timeline and deliverable that allows others to meet their goals? How do you communicate professionally? How do you have a difficult conversation with a friend who is a co-worker? I am passionate about those attributes.

The college will help students find spaces for learning that cut across the university, that might not be self-evident. You have the poet next to the scientist next to the musician.

For example, you can code, but you don’t know how to create training programs in health care. You need the understanding of human behavior, as well as the pull quoteartistic and narrative abilities, and the technical skill, to create this, but current college programs make that very difficult to do. We’re a vehicle for new pathways of innovation.

We’re activating a faculty across different areas that will be relevant to students to meet emerging workplace needs.

The new model of work requires lifelong learning and engagement. Learning the ins and outs of accounting is great. But these things evolve over time. No field sets you up for a lifetime of success; you have to stay innovative.

How would a student experience this?

Let’s say your son or daughter has a passion for music. That’s a nerve-wracking choice as a parent. You might be thinking, “Go into business, that’s a quicker path toward independent employment that can support you.”

But maybe there are co-curricular experiences, where your son or daughter develops skills or competence that comes along with their passion for violin that they can apply in ways that you and I cannot imagine. You don’t have to kill the passion for violin. That violinist likes to practice with the symphony, but can’t get a symphony together to play with them. But they can find a way on the iPhone to use technology to play with the symphony.

The skills and expertise are made available to them, and now suddenly the student has created a real product, a tool that lets thousands of people practice with the symphony.

I believe there’s grey in a world of black and white, and universities can be vehicles that allow different skills to coexist.

Where do the humanities fit in to all this?

Humanities is the operating system of life. A humanities degree can help you be more agile and flexible.

You can have your skill set in business or engineering, but you need an operating system underneath it that can port over and give you the ability to connect dots regarding what other people want.

If you don’t have the context, you’re going to end up being the seed that floats on the ocean, as opposed to being the motorboat that is moving in the world.

Why at Boise State?

Most universities are starting small, in a department. We’ve created a college because that way allows us to have a transformative impact and gives us the power to create new degrees. Otherwise, it would be happening in a silo.

Most large, established entities miss out because their tendency is to preserve their core product. We all want to be innovative, but they fear innovation threatens the core. Bob Kustra doesn’t have that fear. He’s willing to start a place for what might be disruptive ideas.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.