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Int. J. Human Resources Development and Management, Vol. 13, Nos.

2/3, 2013 107

Teaching and learning innovation practice: a case

study from Finland

Tero Montonen* and Pivi Eriksson

Department of Business,
Kuopio Campus,
University of Eastern Finland,
P.O. Box 1627,
70211 Kuopio, Finland
*Corresponding author

Abstract: The article explores the question of how to teach and learn
innovation in higher education institutions. A case study from Finland, a world
leader in innovation rankings, shows how a practice-oriented model for
learning innovation practice was developed and implemented at the business
school of the University of Eastern Finland. The case study shows how
university-level business degree teaching can be attuned to learning innovation
through experiential learning and real-life projects with companies and
other organisations. The results are encouraging. The understanding of
innovation has accelerated when measured by course feedback. Also, business
students interest in entrepreneurial action has increased within and outside

Keywords: innovation; innovation practice; teaching; experiential learning;

higher education; business education; case study; action research; Finland.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Montonen, T. and

Eriksson, P. (2013) Teaching and learning innovation practice: a case study
from Finland, Int. J. Human Resources Development and Management,
Vol. 13, Nos. 2/3, pp.107118.

Biographical notes: Tero Montonen is a researcher and PhD candidate at the

Department of Business, University of Eastern Finland. His research interests
include research-based spin off companies and identities of managers with a
background in academic research.

Pivi Eriksson is a Professor at the Department of Business, University of

Eastern Finland. She has authored a book, Qualitative Methods in Business
Research. Her research interests include: innovation management, gender
studies, discourse analysis, strategic management and ethnography.

This paper is a revised and expanded version of a paper entitled Open

innovation space, presented at the International Conference on Management
Cases, Delhi, India, 2930 December 2012.

Copyright 2013 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.

108 T. Montonen and P. Eriksson

1 Introduction

Providing new answers to the question of how to teach and learn innovation enables
higher education institutions to effectively pursue their third task, i.e., to contribute to
social and economic renewal (Youtie and Shapira, 2008). According to critics, however,
not many higher education institutions pay due attention, or succeed well in performing
their societal duties, including their roles in industrial, regional and national innovation
systems. While higher education institutions are central actors of the national and
regional innovation systems (Doloreux and Parto, 2005), it is considered as part of their
job to be involved in teaching innovation.
As Hampden-Turner (2009) notes there are good reasons to be sceptical about
teaching innovation and a closely related activity, entrepreneurship. The main problem
is that both of these are actually indefinable. The challenge is that innovation
(and entrepreneurship), by definition, deviates from what existed earlier because the
objective is to generate novel combinations, which outperform the previous ones.
Because of these challenges, novel approaches to teaching and learning innovation are
also needed.
This article introduces a novel approach to teaching and learning innovation, which
conceptualises innovation as practice. The practice-oriented view to innovation refers to
an understanding according to which innovation is performed by innovation practitioners
in a web of actors, activities, knowledge, and material artefacts. From this perspective the
main task of teaching and learning innovation is to provide practical competence, which
is based on an understanding about how and with whom innovation practitioners work;
what kind of activities, tasks and routines do they perform; what are the bodily
movements, emotions, knowledge, competence, norms and values embedded in these;
and what are the artefacts needed to be able to perform the job.
In this article, we explore how a practice-oriented model of teaching and learning
innovation has been designed and implemented at one Finnish higher education
institution, the University of Eastern Finland (UEF). Finland provides an interesting
context for our case study because the country is consistently promoted as an example for
other innovation aspiring countries.
Kao (2009) has named Finland as an innovation hot spot, which outperforms larger
countries in many international innovation and competitiveness rankings. To give an
explanation for this, Kristensen and Lilja (2011) have provided a detailed description of
the Finnish version of welfare capitalism. Referring to Castells and Himanen (2002),
Miles et al. (2007) further emphasise that the social investments that have been
done in the Finnish society during the last five decades have paid off in increased
A key focus of the social investments made in Finland has been on education at all
levels. When comparing the similar size Finnish and Albertan (Canada) innovation
systems, Woiceshyn and Eriksson (2013) conclude that the Finnish education reforms are
among the central issues making a distinction between these two regions, and giving
Finland an upper hand compared to Alberta.
Despite the success of the Finns in national level innovativeness, there has been a lot
of recent effort to re-focus innovation teaching and learning in Finnish higher education
institutions. This article tells one story of such developments. Even though the case study
presented in this article tells about one university and its business school, we argue that
Teaching and learning innovation practice 109

the practice-oriented model that we present has a wider relevance and can be adjusted for
the needs of other universities, also in other countries.
The article proceeds in the following way. Section 2 of the article presents the
theoretical foundations for the innovation practice concept. Section 3 describes
the qualitative research approach, data and methods that have been used in our study.
Section 4 outlines that Finnish higher education context and examines the process
through which the new practice-oriented model for teaching and learning innovation was
designed and implemented at one university. Section 5 offers a discussion of the lessons
learnt and our recommendations. Section 6 summarises the contribution and the relevance
of the study and suggests ideas for future research.

2 Theoretical foundations: what is innovation practice?

This section outlines the theoretical background for understanding innovation as a

concrete real-life practice. Accordingly, we explain what innovation practice means
theoretically and how it can be approached in the context of higher education teaching
and learning.
Focusing on the current problems of business education, the relevance vs. rigour
debate (Gulati, 2007; Tushman et al., 2007; Vermeulen, 2005) has encouraged business
academics to become more interested in what business practitioners do in everyday life,
i.e., how they perform, how they work, how they achieve something?. Simultaneously,
there has been a growing interest for the concept of practice in organisation,
management and strategic management studies (Golsorkhi et al., 2011; Nicolini, 2013;
Tengblad, 2012).
In order to explicate the specifics of the practice perspective, Sandberg and Tsoukas
(2011) elaborated on the differences between practical rationality (based on emergent
and immanent bodily performance and doing) and science rationality (based on causal
and linear thinking and cognitive problem solving). While science rationality has been
dominant in higher education teaching and learning across different disciplines for a long
time, practice rationality offers an alternative way to understand the world and how
people act on it. Overall, the interest in practice has encouraged business scholars to
question some of the basic assumptions of business-related teaching, learning and
Connected to the practice-theoretical ideas discussed above, Yuan and Woodman
(2010) suggest that innovation academics have had a strong tendency to rely on the
efficiency perspective, which assumes that innovators make rational decisions. They also
point out, however, that current innovation research has started to pay some attention to
how innovation is actually carried out rather than how it should be done [Yuan and
Woodman (2010), p.24].
The interest in how innovation is carried out in organisations connects with the
conceptualisation of innovation as something that is accomplished and done in
innovation communities (Fichter, 2009) and in interaction of people, activities, artefacts
and contexts (Nicolini, 2013). Therefore, concept of innovation practice has a
background in the more general practice turn that has taken place in social sciences and
organisation studies (Corradi et al., 2010; Gherardi, 2009).
110 T. Montonen and P. Eriksson

A key argument in current practice-theoretical discussion is that what practitioners do

in practice is hard to understood with theories that are based on scientific rationality only
and do not acknowledge the relevance of practice-rationality (Sandberg and Tsoukas,
2011). A long-term problem has been that the main stream management and
innovation theories do not acknowledge practitioners as experts of their own work
(Salaman and Storey, 2002) nor do they pay attention to work as practice (Dougherty,
When approaching innovation from a practice-theoretical perspective, we need to
focus on the emergent and immanent nature of innovation practitioners work and ask:
how and with whom innovation practitioners work; what kind of activities, tasks and
routines do they perform; what are the bodily movements, emotions, knowledge,
competence, norms and values embedded in these; and what are the artefacts needed to
be able to perform the job. To us, this means that teaching and learning innovation
practice needs an additional focus on emergent, immanent and self-reflective doing
besides linear, causal and pre-determined thinking. While both aspects are needed, we
argue for the urgency of putting more emphasis on the first mentioned aspects.
In this article, we suggest that a practice-theoretical approach provides a
good basis for teaching and learning innovation in higher education and business school
contexts. In our case study, we explore how a practice-oriented model of teaching and
learning has been injected into the business study curriculum of one Finnish business

3 Research strategy

The main research question of our study concerns the development and implementation
of a practice-oriented model for teaching and learning. Both authors of this article were
involved in the model building and implementation process. Good empirical methods for
answering our research questions are based on qualitative data and analysis, which enable
the production of a longitudinal description and interpretation of the action and events
that have taken place. This is why the research strategy of the study draws from a
combination of intensive case study approach and action research (Eriksson and
Kovalainen, 2008).
The intensive case study strategy allows for a longitudinal analysis pertaining to the
interest in understanding one case in its context (teaching and learning innovation at a
higher education institution in Finland) and learning from the unique aspects of the case.
With the intensive case study approach, our aim is to tell a good story worth hearing
(Dyer and Wilkins, 1991) rather than test hypothesis or develop new theoretical
constructs, which would be the goal of an extensive case study based on several cases and
their systematic comparison [Eriksson and Kovalainen, (2008), pp.122125].
The action research strategy refers to the fact that both of the authors of the article
work and teach at the organisation, which has been studied and were involved in
designing and implementing the new model. Therefore, we are partly studying our own
actions and activities which is typical to the action research approach [Eriksson and
Kovalainen, (2008), pp.193197].
The field work for the case study has been conducted over an extended period of six
years. This article offers an analysis of the longitudinal data collected over this period. In
the analysis, we have used various types of materials including documents, minutes of
Teaching and learning innovation practice 111

meetings, feedback reports from teaching as well as our own notes from formal and
informal discussions with the innovation management teaching group at the UEF and the
cooperating partners. The analysis of the material follows the guidelines of qualitative
content analysis and thematic analysis.

4 The case

Teaching and learning innovation is a hot topic in the Finnish university and business
school context. Innovation issues have been traditionally taught at the technical higher
education institutions as part of the engineering degree. Much of the teaching has
addressed research and development (R&D) activities and traditional product
development. The focus has been more on technological innovation and product-based
industries than service and social innovation.
The ongoing discussion concerning the broad-based innovation view among the
Finnish innovation policy actors (Niinikoski, 2011) has changed the innovation landscape
during the past decade. The broad-based innovation view directs attention to service,
design, management, marketing and social innovation, as well as to public and third
sector innovation. In this context, the Finnish universities have also started to re-consider
their roles as active players of the regional and national innovation systems.

4.1 The UEF and its business school

The UEF is an active player in the Eastern Finland regional innovation system, the
functioning of which largely determines how innovation, learning and competitiveness
evolve locally. The UEF is a new university, which was established in 2010 as the
result of the merger of two universities in neighbouring towns: the University of Joensuu
in Northern Carelia and the University of Kuopio in Northern Savo. In its web pages the
UEF describes itself in the following way:
With approximately 15,000 students and 2,800 members of staff, the
University of Eastern Finland is one of the largest universities in Finland. The
universitys campuses are located in Joensuu, Kuopio and Savonlinna. The
University of Eastern Finland is a multidisciplinary university, which offers
teaching in more than 100 major subjects. The university comprises four
faculties: the Philosophical Faculty, the Faculty of Science and Forestry, the
Faculty of Health Sciences, and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business
Studies. The well-being of students is among the primary concerns of the
university and, in addition to the high standard of teaching, the university offers
its students a modern study environment, which is under constant development.
With its extensive networks, this multidisciplinary and international university
constitutes a significant competence cluster, which promotes the well-being and
positive development of eastern Finland.
When the UEF was established, it formulated its main strategic goal as being among the
best 200 universities in the world by 2015. In the 2011, QS World University Rankings
of the worlds top 500 universities, the UEF was ranked 305th. In 2012, the same
organisation ranked the UEF among the 100 best universities in medicine; among the
150 best in English language and literature; and among the 200 best in geography and
112 T. Montonen and P. Eriksson

While the UEF has clearly advanced on its way to become a world class university, at
least when measured by the number of research publications and the quality of teaching,
there are still many challenges ahead. One of the big challenges concerns the third task
or the third role of higher education institutions, referring to the wider benefits that the
university produces for the society. As Srinivas and Viljamaa (2005) note, the media and
policy discussions in Finland, Europe, and elsewhere refer to the pressures that are put on
higher education institutions to take on economic development mandates in addition to
the more traditional teaching and research activities.
In the Finnish higher education context, universities located in the periphery,
i.e., outside the southern Finland economic centres, have experienced an increased
pressure to perform the third task even better than the universities located in the
prosperous south. The ability of the predecessors of the UEF (Kuopio and
Joensuu universities) to perform their third role has been evaluated several times
(see e.g., Goddard et al., 2003). Every time, there have been a number of
recommendations on how to improve the situation.
At the UEF, innovation issues are currently taught at the business school, which
belongs to the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies and confers business
degrees at the Bachelor, Master and Doctor levels. The business school has more than
900 students and around 50 employees, working in four different substance based
teaching and research areas: accounting and finance; business and law; innovation
management; and service management.
The innovation management theme area focuses on teaching innovation to business
students as well as to any other students at UEF who are interested in the subject. When
establishing the innovation management theme area as a new field of expertise in
2008/2009, we had to ask ourselves questions such as: How is it possible to teach
innovation and innovativeness to university and business school students? How teaching
can inspire young business students in particular to become entrepreneurs? Starting with
these types of questions, we started to discuss and develop a practice-oriented model for
teaching and learning innovation in the business school context.
In 2008, the UEF was requested by the Ministry of Education to renew its business
education and research as a precondition for further funding and the legitimation for
conferring business degrees. The solution suggested by the business school
was to integrate the traditional business disciplines (accounting, finance, marketing,
management and entrepreneurship) into four wider theme areas: accounting and finance,
business and law, innovation management, and service management. The theme areas
would then be the basis for most of the teaching in the business school. This solution was
accepted by the ministry and the legitimation for conferring business degrees was

4.2 Foundations for the new model

The innovation management (INNO) theme area represented a somewhat more radical
change from the past compared to other theme areas in the business school. The INNO
theme area combined specific elements of management, marketing, entrepreneurship and
international business to form a clearer focus on innovativeness, renewal and change in
business contexts. In addition, there was an extended emphasis on considering innovation
as a practical accomplishment (Ellstrm, 2010), which could be taught and learned
through the involvement of students in practical doing. Accordingly, the pedagogy of
Teaching and learning innovation practice 113

experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) and reflection-in-action (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009)
became central in all teaching.
The establishment of the INNO theme area at UEF in 2009 was based on the
extensive analysis of the future needs of Finnish small and medium-sized companies.
Furthermore, the analysis covered the benefits of the new model for the university. The
main points of the analysis were outlined through three inter-related issues:
1 the current problems of the Finnish university education in the area of innovation and
the closely related issue of entrepreneurship
2 new practice-oriented solutions to every problem
3 key benefits of each solution for the university (see Table 1).
Table 1 Analysis of the problems, solutions and benefits of teaching innovation at the

Problem Solution Benefit

Competence produced at the Teaching and learning Intensifies the relationship
university does not focus on practice in addition to between the university and
practice traditional academic topics the society (third task)
Academic knowledge does Broad-based innovation view: All university students and
not contribute to the not only products, services researchers are considered as
development of new products, and businesses, but also prospective innovators
services and businesses social innovation
The traditional idea of More emphasis on the Provides opportunities for
technology transfer is development of services, innovating in other than
product-oriented and service businesses and traditional science disciplines
demands resources, results service-related social (e.g., sociology, education)
are highly uncertain innovation
Traditional ways of Multidisciplinary Innovation practice becomes
enhancing innovation and cooperation, customer familiar to a wide range of
academic entrepreneurship orientation, practice-oriented university students
have failed learning-by-doing
Innovation is difficult to learn Practical projects, cooperative Innovation practice becomes
and understand, it can only be team work involving students, a way of life in the university
done by qualified experts teachers and stakeholders context

Based on the analysis presented in Table 1, the leading professor of the INNO theme area
started to develop the new model on paper already in 2008. Simultaneously, the whole
innovation management teaching group, about 15 teachers and researchers, started to
design the new curriculum for the Bachelor, Master and Doctoral studies in innovation
The two professors working in the INNO theme area had a keen interest in
practice-theoretical issues and they had already used the theoretical ideas in their
research. Other teachers had pedagogical training, but were not thoroughly familiar with
the practice-theoretical approaches. Therefore, practice theoretical issues were introduced
as a joint learning goal for all teachers.
In order to reach this goal, we have had a training course for our teachers and
researchers on practice-theory, introduced practice-theory into our doctoral degree and
the doctoral theses, and started an extensive research project on innovation practice. The
university has been very supportive towards our goal. In 2011, the UEF granted us a large
114 T. Montonen and P. Eriksson

amount of strategic research money for the innovation practice research project. The
combining of teaching and research under the same theoretical umbrella has been a key to
success in formulating the new practice-oriented model in teaching.

4.3 The new business degree curriculum

The design of the new model has taken place incrementally during the past six years at
the same time as we have designed and implemented the business degree curriculum
focusing in innovation. Our work with the business degree curriculum started in 2008,
and it still continues with incremental changes taking place every year. The
basic pillars of the curriculum, however, have remained the same. At the bachelor and
doctoral levels, the INNO courses have been integrated into the more general business
degree programmes. At the master level, we have had a specialist Masters degree
programme in innovation management from the start. In 2013, we have extended the
teaching of innovation into a new multidisciplinary masters degree on health and
At the bachelor level, the basic issues of innovation practice (e.g., the need for
continuous change and renewal at all levels of the organisation, the role of creativity, the
skills required for working as a change agent) have been integrated into the management,
marketing and entrepreneurship courses. This means that these courses emphasise the
importance of broad-based innovativeness in all businesses as well as in the public and
third sector organisations. All courses include practical assignments, which are mostly
based on real-life projects and cooperation with local companies. The courses are most
often based on team work combined with some individual assignments.
In addition to the integrative courses, the bachelor degree includes two specialist
courses on innovation management. The first course, the basics of business
and entrepreneurship, focuses on exploring the logic of business models, and the
students will familiarise themselves with the variety of business models used in various
industries. The course work includes a real-life project in which the students analyse the
business models of specific companies and give recommendations about how to make
them even more innovative. The second specialist course, innovation management,
focuses on the development of customer-oriented innovation. The whole course is an
extended hands-on exercise in which the students invent and develop new products and
services for cooperating companies and other organisations (public and third sector
At the master level, the curriculum includes three compulsory courses, two selective
courses, research seminar and masters thesis, methodology courses and a minor area of
study. The first of the three compulsory courses, innovation cultures, focuses on
organisational innovation and learning as well as solutions, processes and practices
resulting from human cooperation within organisations. The course work deals with the
diagnosis of the innovation culture of a chosen company.
The second compulsory course, commercialisation of knowledge, develops the
students understanding about how knowledge and competence can be commercialised
and new businesses developed, particularly in customer-centred ways drawing on the
ideas of design thinking and design doing. The course work includes intensive
cooperation with the companies whose knowledge and competence the students aim to
Teaching and learning innovation practice 115

Two of the selective courses focus on extending knowledge and skills in the areas in
innovation cultures and commercialisation of knowledge. The others address the issues of
leading and managing change and developing the business in specific industries. The
student can also include a course on practical training in companies into her
Masters degree. The most innovative of the selective courses has been living lab, which
allows the students to develop their own real life projects (individually or in a group).
This course is student-led and the teacher acts as a personal or team coach. The most
popular self-selected project in the Living Lab course is the students own start-up
In addition to the courses described above, the Masters degree programme in
innovation management includes a masters thesis and a related research course and
thesis seminar. The research course is a reading seminar in which the students analyse
scientific innovation management articles and present their findings to the class. The
masters theses are typically done as part of the research projects led by the faculty and in
close cooperation with business companies and other organisations. It is also possible for
the student to do action research in her thesis: for instance, to study and develop her own
(or somebody elses) start up company in her masters thesis.

4.4 The practice-oriented model

The actual development of the practice-oriented model has been an incremental
process which started in 2008. The development of the model has required continuous
analysis of teaching activities and results, reflection on the development of course
contents, as well as student, teacher and company feedback. As a result of all this work,
the practice-oriented model that we implement in our teaching includes six guiding
1 Innovators as key actors
Teaching and learning innovation is directed to initiate intensive cooperation
between students, teachers and practitioners. During the studies, these actors become
innovators who are interested in using academic knowledge and competence for the
purpose of solving practical problems and providing new solutions.
2 Innovating through practice
Besides reading academic texts on innovation, the students will be offered the chance
to do concrete real-life projects. The projects are as open as possible and the new
knowledge will be shared among the participants. The main goal is to inspire the
participants to become more innovative. Teaching and learning is based on a
methodology and pedagogy that forces the combination of analytic and creative
3 Real-life projects
Working in real-life projects which are initiated by students or cooperating business
companies accelerates the learning process. The projects can last for some hours or
for several months. Fast and concrete results inspire to learn more.
116 T. Montonen and P. Eriksson

4 Customer orientation
The students learn to know the needs of the users and the customers of the new
products, services and businesses that are initiated and developed. Meeting with the
users and customers personally or virtually, or through stories, drama and other
creative methods increases the understanding of their problems and needs.
5 Cooperation without limits
The teaching of innovation utilises the expertise of a multitude of actors
(teachers, supervisors, students, practitioners) in various creative ways. Opening up
the innovation process within the team and the course emphasises the value of
diversity of people and ideas, different points of views, and creativity.
6 Management and reflection
The teachers, students and other cooperating partners learn how to work in diverse
teams, how to lead cooperative processes and how to reflect upon the innovation
process. The main goal is to become more knowledgeable about the strategies that
the participants can use for guiding the innovation process into a desirable direction.

5 Discussion

After five years of operation, the results of the practice-based model have been
encouraging. The students interest and understanding in innovation practice has clearly
accelerated when measured by formal and informal course feedback. The increasing
capability in the area of innovation practice has a clear link to increased entrepreneurial
action. Furthermore, students excitement towards establishing their own companies has
accelerated. The highly practical course work has lowered the threshold to start a
company during university studies or right after graduation. Traditionally, Finnish
business school students interest towards entrepreneurship has been very low.
We have been working with the practice-oriented model and the new curriculum
based on this for about five years now. During this time, we have learned three main
lessons that we want to share. Based on our experiences, we strongly recommend that the
teaching of innovation is rooted in the pedagogy of experiential learning (Kolb, 1984)
and learning-by-doing. Accordingly, teaching and learning starts with practical doing and
then proceeds to reflection and conceptualisation. This means that a course starts with a
real-life project implemented in cooperation with companies and other organisations, and
the theoretical issues at hand are discussed thereafter. Learning practice first and theory
second makes students much more interested and receptive to new issues, even they are
complex and difficult to understand.
The second lesson that we have learned concerns the involvement of companies and
other organisations as course cooperators. Involving companies and other organisations
in university teaching is demanding and requires a lot of extra effort, but the results
pay-off for both parties. It can be challenging at first to get business companies interested
because of the stereotypes concerning dry lecture-based university teaching and
professors in ivory towers. However, all the companies that we have worked with have
been positively surprised about the pedagogical solutions used in our courses, which
encourage students to take lead of their learning processes.
Teaching and learning innovation practice 117

Another advantage is that involving companies and other organisations as customers

of the course, or as supervisors, coaches and other active cooperators opens up the
otherwise invisible side of innovation practice. Not all aspects of innovation practice are
easily identifiable, but being intensively involved increases the possibility to get a grasp
of some of the invisible aspects, too. In addition, intensive cooperation usually brings out
the diversity of the innovation processes and gives better chances to discuss and reflect
upon them together with all parties.
The third lesson is to be ready to experiment with different course designs and
to be open with continuous development of the curriculum. Furthermore, we have
found it crucial to let students to be involved in course design and course management.
This means that the teacher is not the central figure or the ultimate experts of what should
be learnt and how. Many of our courses give students a lot of freedom and responsibility
to make choices, lead classes, and present their practical accomplishments in the way
they have figured out themselves. We argue that becoming the master of your own
studies paves way to the increased interest in innovative and entrepreneurial modes of

6 Conclusions

In this article we have explored the case of teaching and learning innovation at the UEF
business school. Although the lessons learnt are based on one case only, we suggest that
they have wider relevance. The practice-oriented model that we have presented is both
general and flexible enough to be adjusted to different national and regional contexts. The
fact that the case is from a leading innovation country, which has maintained its position
as such for a long time, should provide increased credibility for the recommendations we
have given.
When analysing the case, we have concentrated more on how the new model has been
developed than the actual learning that takes place when teaching based on the model is
performed. Therefore, further research should be focused on the specific learning
processes that take place among students, teachers and other cooperators when becoming
immersed in innovation practice.

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